The Canadian Education Association’s (CEA) national symposium First Nations Schools First! upholds a renewed path in Indigenous education, supported by the will of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous educators from across Canada.
“Many times we have heard it said that it was education – through the Residential School System – that broke the relationships between the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Peoples of Canada,” remarked Governor General David Johnston, via video message to delegates. “But it is also said that education and learning offers us our best chance of finding our way out of this situation,” he added, as he underscored the principle goal of this event: to identify the best ways to keep Indigenous students engaged, in school, and connected to their identities.
Leading change is, by definition, an arduous process. However, with national and international calls to action, mounting determination from within the education community to embed Indigenous Worldviews into the classroom, and continued disparities in educational outcomes, now is the time to seize the day, to take risks, and to ensure the success of all students now and for generations to come.
Following Governor General Johnston’s remarks, presenters and attendees – Indigenous and non-Indigenous educators, administrators, scholars, Elders, parents, and students – shared their stories of success during 12 concurrent sessions over two days, presenting replicable classroom practices for engaging Indigenous learners. Further to these crucial agenda items underlies the following question: how can the education community act now in order to ensure that Canadian education systems will break down cultural stereotypes, provide Indigenous perspectives on history, and inspire the hearts and minds of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students? Presenters focused on education’s potential in being a tool for Reconciliation as well as ways to bring cultural relevance to classroom practices – both of which are recipes for supporting Indigenous school success.
Image: The Right Honourable Paul Martin
The challenge of implementing Indigenous Worldview perspectives into every Canadian classroom is encapsulated in the words of a young Cree student in a remote school near Thunder Bay, Ontario, as told by the Right Honourable Paul Martin. Mr. Martin embarked on the Aboriginal Youth Entrepreneurship Program – a pillar component of the Martin Family Initiative – with the premise that “people approach business in different ways, and there are different ways to enter the business field.” Yet it was not until he began speaking with Indigenous youth that the urgency to develop inclusive classroom practices became clear. “I really like your course, but how come every example we see is from Montréal, Toronto, or Vancouver?” asked the boy, during the early days when the program was still laying its roots. “How come every role model you present to us is a downtown businessman?” A lightbulb had gone off for Mr. Martin, marking the beginning of the challenging endeavour to not only reform current practices, but to create new ones from scratch.
Such a feat includes incorporating Indigenous Peoples in the development of textbooks and curricula across subjects that include history, business, language arts and social studies. Instead of approaching major Canadian school boards, Mr. Martin gathered 13 top Indigenous educators for a year-and-a-half of collaboration, as well as 20 leading Indigenous principals. “The controls of the system have to remain with Indigenous Peoples, but at the same time it isn’t fair to stick someone in a school system without a lot of support.” His professional development course for principals is built with the specifics of Northern and Indigenous schools in mind, where support for school leaders can be scarce and distant, and where social challenges interweave with school success. “You give any Indigenous student in this country the same chances as other students, and they will beat them every time.” The work of Mr. Martin’s foundation draws us into rethinking how educators are trained and how the curriculum they teach is developed.
But curriculum is an easy target amongst a variety of ingredients that could be supplemented in a recipe for Indigenous student success. Cree School Board (CSB) Director General Abraham Jolly and Deputy Director Serge Béliveau shared their experiences in implementing, amongst numerous other initiatives, the Mikw Chiyâm Arts Concentration Program – which matches students with professional working artists. The CSB also offers the Niikaan Project: a 3-year videogame development program that empowers students to integrate their identities and cultures into digital media. “Curriculum is the foundation of what students need in order to acquire knowledge and skills, but curriculum alone will not bring or keep students in school,” says Béliveau. “We make it a point to offer our students real-life learning opportunities that are relevant to them. Instead of asking students to write, we ask them to write-to-publish.” Phrases like this could be heard from numerous other educators at the symposium, and encapsulated in their tried and tested experiences are the limitations of curriculum in inspiring hearts and minds. Indeed, curriculum is but one piece of the puzzle.
Bringing cultural relevance to education is like filling a fruit basket: you have your basket, but the kind of fruit you put inside depends on the place in which you find yourself. The basket is your curriculum, or the foundation of your teaching and learning goals, while the fruit are your students. When a team of educators from B.C. School District #20 (Kootenay-Columbia) told the story of their land-based program, they emphasized that their lesson plans catered to their students: their experiences, environment, and cultures. The H’a H’a Tumxulaux Outdoor Education Program is small but passionately driven. While the school district’s Aboriginal Education Support Worker develops the pedagogical foundation, the instructional team made the crucial decision to integrate local First Nations skills and knowledge into this learning program. This decision, coupled with hands-on cultural training provided to non-Indigenous staff, has created a learning bridge between Indigenous and non-Indigenous staff and students.
But, in this novel program, the most fascinating component goes beyond the inclusion of Indigenous ceremonies and practices. The goals for which ceremonies and practices are used is what makes the H’a H’a Tumxulaux an outlier – that is, the goal to engage Indigenous and non-Indigenous students in an alternative school setting. Outside the walls of the classroom on the mountainous terrain of the Kootenay wilderness, students now flourish in a supportive family-like atmosphere. Hands-on activities like building fires or making birch bark first aid kits foster teamwork. Engaging in traditional song and dance creates friendships. And offering sacred tobacco to nature instils stewardship and teaches the value of reciprocal relationships. This program embodies, through culture and experience, a second chance for students who have tuned out from school.
One need not stray afar to come across other land-based programs that achieve a similar goal. “When you take youth away from the city, the concrete and the noise, this is when learning takes place,” says Gloria Raphael, former District Principal of Aboriginal Education with B.C. School District #36 (Surrey). The Windspeaker program – which brings together inner city youth, special needs learners, and students with suicidal ideation – does just that for Indigenous learners from Grades 8 to 12. If bringing youth outdoors is a key practice in student engagement, no wonder one student at the workshop was so eager to describe her transformation: “Before this program, I didn’t dream a future for myself. I had a lot of anxiety about school and didn’t think about the future. I spent 72 hours alone on the land, which gave me time to step back and reflect. I now come back to lead this program for younger students, and I am thinking about becoming a doctor.” The program’s extended expeditions include 21 days of outdoor wilderness training where students are completely disconnected from their mobile devices. The key goal of these outings is to foster belonging and a sense of identity for Indigenous learners.
But what about urban communities, where finding a peaceful outdoor space is in itself a challenge, or Northern communities where holding class outside is not the most practical of endeavours? Patrick-Gauley Gale, who taught for five years in Inuvik in the Northwest Territories, has a solution. The Arctic School Garden Project is quite literally a full-fledged garden situated north of the Arctic Circle. This garden is hosted in a greenhouse, with harvests including traditional plants for food and medicine. Eventually transformed into a very popular agriculture course, the program propelled a rise in student attendance, including reduced attention-deficit symptoms. In other words, cultural relevance can be integrated into even the most challenging of environments.
Indeed, these programs express a cornerstone theme in Indigenous pedagogy: the importance of cultivating and maintaining healthy relationships. This also implies, however, a challenge for non-Indigenous educators who find themselves without connections to local Indigenous communities. Debbie McPhee, a teacher with B.C. School District #5 (Southeast Kootenay) and a self-described “White settler”, found herself in this very predicament. “My journey started with building relationships,” she began. “My daughter, who is Métis, had just begun learning about Indigenous Peoples in her Grade 4 class. She came home crying because her teacher had said that Louis Riel was a traitor. From that moment, my journey had begun.” Along with a fellow colleague, she created the Indigenous Student Leadership Council. In one of their first meetings, she asked her students, “Who are the Elders in your lives? What do they do and what do they know?” Seeing the students perplexed by the question, she resolved to bring Elders into the school. This mixture of personal experience and valuing the student voice is what gave way to the Continuing the Journey with the Elders program. By reaching out to the local Métis Association, Debbie collaborated to identify Elders who would be interested in sharing their knowledge. Starting with small monthly gatherings, the program has grown into a weekly affair that pairs together an Elder and a student to engage in conversation and hands-on activities. If there is any indication of education’s potential for cultural revival and sustenance, it is through programs that engage Indigenous Peoples in educational planning and delivery.
Image: Jim O’Chiese, Ojibway Chief, scholar and Knowledge Keeper
What about other missing pieces of the puzzle that have been lost through policies and practices of assimilation? “Today, we wonder why our Indigenous students are not at the same level as their White counterparts, stated Ojibway Chief, scholar and Knowledge Keeper Jim O’Chiese. “This is because there is a missing element in understanding who we are.” His session, “Understanding the Balance of Human Side and Spirit-Side in Education”, was a study of symbols and memory. In it, he suggests that disrespect for Treaties – including the outlawing of traditional languages and practices – had led to a cultural gap between 1884 and 1951. But while there is still a lot of work to be done to restore traditional Ways of Learning and Knowing in today’s education systems, elements of tradition can still be found on the land. Take, for instance, the interconnectedness of nature – a value that has persisted throughout generations, and that which shapes contemporary debates surrounding environmental conservation. A symbol of a tree, in other words, can represent cultural values that are evermore imperative in meeting 21st century challenges. Surely, restoring an array of traditional values would prove relevant to today’s students.
In a similar light, Darren Googoo, Director of Education for the Membertou Mi’kmaq First Nation, put forward that the destruction of traditional values – especially at the hands of the Residential School System – had equally led to the destruction of Indigenous Peoples’ willingness to participate in the education system. Darren explained the intergenerational difficulties that residential schools have created, such that a parent carrying the negative experiences of residential school would hold reservations towards their own child’s participation in school. Darren asks the question: “How do we take core Mi’kmaq values of education and make them a reality within today’s education systems?” The four core values are attending, completing, achieving and aspiring – values that have persisted for centuries and that, if restored, would make all the difference for Indigenous students today.
More importantly, though, education is a way of ensuring Indigenous Peoples’ survival in the best way possible. On this note, Grand Chief Edward John of the Tl’azt’en Nation asks the question: “We are talking about reconciliation, but how long is it going to take to heal?” While Chief John does not shy away from what he calls the “dark period of assimilation”, his arguments for renewed education systems are rooted in international norms, notably the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – shedding light on the idea of healing for Indigenous Peoples as being a global phenomenon.
Conversely, elementary school teacher Claire Kreuger of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, builds upon the processes of Reconciliation by bringing to life what is called “Treaty education”, which implies that all Canadians – whether Indigenous or non-Indigenous – are equal parties to an agreement of sharing the land. What this means in a school setting is that both staff and students arrive at an understanding of the history of Treaties, including how they have shaped today’s relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples. As such, students and staff of Palliser Heights School have engaged in a number of traditional ceremonies, including the Round Dance: a hand-in-hand procession to heal the wounds inflicted by the Residential School System. “This was a turning point at which I came to an understanding of White privilege,” remarked one of Claire’s colleagues. “This was the first time that I found myself, as a White person, in the minority.” As Claire suggests, “This is the powerful piece to participating in [traditional] ceremonies: the opportunity to address one’s own biases.”
The power of education to build bridges between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples – indeed a step towards a renewed relationship – is what restoring traditional values is all about. Dr. John Akweniiostha Hodson, Director of the Maamaawisiiwin Education Research Centre, finds that the bridge begins with teacher candidates who are trained, understand the issues, and “who are able to step out of their epistemology and into another.”
Similarly, Dr. Michelle Hogue, Coordinator of the First Nations’ Transition Program and assistant professor at the University of Lethbridge, who has developed creative ways of engaging Indigenous students in the maths and sciences, finds that “the bridge” needs to be built in a way that enables success in Western societies. “We need to bridge Western and Indigenous Ways of Learning and Knowing so that they are complementary, rather than divergent. Indigenous students need to be able to succeed in a Western world, and no one should have to give up a part of their identity to do so,” Dr. Hogue put forward. Sparking greater participation of Indigenous students in a variety of areas – especially where they are underrepresented – is the key to building that bridge.
But if we want to build a bridge that can withstand the elements, a call upon the student voice would be in order. Three students – Cheyenne Longman, Mélanie-Rose Frappier and Greg Francis – presented the Carriers of Youth Wisdom Declaration, which provides four key recommendations for the enhancement of Indigenous education in Canada from the voices of Indigenous youth themselves. “We no longer need permission to practice our culture or to be successful in mainstream society,” the Declaration states. “We need to feel safe and understood in all environments. We need to incorporate culture and language in our everyday lives.” The document is a call to action for Indigenous education to be holistic, supporting of cultural identity, and underscored by a dedication to work towards building knowledge around the issues that continue to affect Indigenous Peoples. “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always done. It’s time to do things differently,” said student Mélanie-Rose Frappier. As one of their main priorities, the youth call for the implementation of a national core curriculum as a means of educating Canadians on Indigenous culture and history and, more largely, to overcome the barriers of misinterpretation, ignorance and stereotypes on the history of colonization, residential schools and Indigenous customs.
Image: Dr. Carlana Lindeman, Education Program Director of the Martin Family Initiative
If incorporating culturally relevant methods of teaching and learning and reinserting traditional Indigenous values represent a renewed path in Indigenous education, then the group of courageous leaders who shared their programs at CEA’s First Nations Schools First! Symposium are on the right track. “Philosophers since the beginning of time have tried to find answers to the following questions: Who are we? Where are we going? And what is this all about?” stated The Right Honourable Paul Martin. In unison with Dr. Carlana Lindeman, Education Program Director of the Martin Family Initiative, Mr. Martin believes that asking these three questions can orient educators towards a new direction in improving educational outcomes.
For Chief Wayne Sparrow of Musqueam First Nation, moving forward means laying the groundwork for Indigenous Peoples to successfully run their own affairs. In light of the diversity of ideas expressed throughout the course of this symposium, one thing is clear: that we need more spaces to come together – with our differences of opinion intact – to work towards a common vision.
So, where do we go from here, and how do we create the changes necessary to ensure school success for all students? Dr. Curtis Brown, Superintendent for the South Slave Divisional Education Council (SSDEC), remarked that, “If we recognize that parents are the first educators of their children, and we can get them collaborating towards their children’s success, then that’s thousands more teachers we have on our team.” Indeed, including all stakeholders in these discussions is the key to putting Indigenous students first, and reaching out to parents would allow for maximum impact.
With this in mind, Dr. Sean Lessard, Associate Professor of Indigenous Education and Teacher Education at the University of Alberta and Co-Founder of the Growing Young Movers program, finds that barriers to change can often be institutional, which can mean long, deliberative processes. But Dr. Lessard, in his latest Education Canada Magazine article “The Red Worn Runners”, suggests we “move beyond rhetoric in student voice, and in particular Indigenous student voice within the institution of school”. This means creating spaces where all students can share their perspectives, engage in genuine conversation and ultimately shape educational programming.
Change is, of course, a difficult process, and one that was never meant to be easy. But if we take to heart the tried and learned practices of those who have achieved that feat – educators, scholars, leaders, and Indigenous Peoples who have innovated against all odds – then there is hope that the rest of us can lead that change into our own schools and communities for the sake of our students.
Current CEA Initiatives
The Canadian Education Association (CEA) will continue to support and showcase success stories of Indigenous and non-Indigenous educators who are leading innovation in the classroom and beyond. We invite you to check out Education Canada, CEA’s bilingual quarterly magazine, as well as CEA’s Professional Learning Program, tailor-made support for facilitating real change in education.
About the Author
André Rebeiz is a Researcher at the Canadian Education Association. He is a Public Policy graduate student at the Institut d’études politiques de Paris (Sciences Po Paris).
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We would like to thank the Musqueam Cultural Centre and our sponsors for making this event possible.