Curriculum, Engagement, Indigenous Learning, School Community

A Different Kind of Choice

Weighing the pitfalls and profits of education outside the First Nation

Wyatt sat uncomfortably in his chair, squirming as I looked over his transcript and file. Five different grade schools, two middle schools, not back to back. “What happened in the intervening year?” I thought, but deeper down, I understood. I’d seen it all too often before.

For over five years, I worked as a therapist in private practice, leaving my home office to my employees three days each week as I travelled to five separate First Nations. On the days I hadn’t scheduled myself to work in the community health centres, I would arrive at the local school, just as the tired students were filing in for another day of classes.

First, I would speak with the principal or office personnel and lay out the slate of clients I was to see that day. Frequently I would be told, “Oh, she’s not here anymore; they’ve moved to the city. John is back again, though. Things didn’t work out so well down in Toronto.”

The movement of many families from First Nations to the cities and back again is well documented. Some theorists point to the effort to find meaningful employment as the motivation for these transitions, but in my experience, many parents are also seeking to provide a strong education for their children. It’s a different kind of school choice that leads families from First Nations to move to the city in order to enrol in public provincial schools.

After moving from private practice into a public school setting, I continued to see these students. The difference was that I now encountered them as they entered public high school. I looked again at Wyatt’s file. One… two… we were the third high school that he had attended, including the one back in his home community. He had credits at the Grade 9, 10, and 11 levels, but he hadn’t fully completed the core courses in any one of these grades.

“How was it, going to school in the city?” I asked.

“Okay,” he said. He didn’t need to say more. The tone of his voice told it all. Like a fish pulled from the water, First Nations students who arrive in provincial schools from rural communities find themselves surrounded by a culture and educative process that feels unfamiliar, foreign and even threatening. To a lesser extent, but still in a very real sense, those whose families have lived away from their home communities for generations still sense this disconnection. Schools incorporate token nods to Indigenous content, but they seem to be unaware that, to those coming from Indigenous communities, this is very different from the local traditions.

Furthermore, some federally operated schools on reserves may stand decade after decade as counter-cultural institutions, chronically failing to acquire any affinity with the community around them. To be fair to those working in these schools, it should also be noted that, in many communities, acquiring an education from governmental schools is seen as “selling out,” and the pressure not to succeed can be great. At times it is this very dynamic that compels families to make the choice to move to cities and towns, where they sense a greater freedom to achieve.

“I think you’ll find things different here,” I said. Wyatt looked around my office, his eyes fixing briefly on the painting of an eagle soaring over sunlit clouds and then on the traditional cedar bough hanging above the door. His shoulders relaxed, but just a little.

It wasn’t until the bell rang that Wyatt’s eyes began to show a glint, a sparkle of hope. We hadn’t finished crafting his schedule, but one by one First Nations students began to fill my small office. They all knew that they didn’t need to knock – this was their space.

“Hey, are you the new guy from up north?” asked Tyrell.

“That’s my home community where you’re from,” Talia joined in. “But I haven’t been there since I was a baby.”

Wyatt looked at me questioningly. “Can’t keep a secret around here,” I smiled back at him.

“Wyatt, right?” Tyrell continued. “Hey, you want to come with us to the caff? I’ll show you around.”

Wyatt looked again at me. “Go ahead; I’ll be here when you get back.”

Choices weighed in the balance

Parents considering the move from their First Nation are confronted with the dilemma of weighing the benefits and trade-offs of such a move. To stay in the community will ensure a connection to the local culture, to family and to traditional values. In traditional cultures, success is defined in much broader terms than mere economic security and advancement, in that individuals are only considered to be successful when they take their places well in the circles of community and creation.

On the other hand, federal schools are, in most cases, funded far below the per capita allotments seen in off-reserve schools. School facilities are often not as desirable, a large percentage of teachers do not remain for extended periods of time, and most who are parachuted in from elsewhere bring with them an unfamiliarity with the local culture and a promotion of value systems based in non-Indigenous thought.

Those who leave, however, are not just moving away from that which they perceive to be negative; they are also attracted by certain aspects of off-reserve schooling. Students at provincial schools frequently demonstrate stronger academic achievement and better preparation for post-secondary education. Furthermore, school facilities, in many cases, demonstrate state-of-the-art innovations and technology.

In leaving, parents are aware that their children will be losing intimate contact with their home communities. Other costs are not as immediately obvious. The often-hidden realities of education off-reserve include subtle alienation, which is felt by students who don’t see themselves or their Indigenous heritage reflected in the curriculum, in the teaching staff or in the school’s physical environment. This marginalization inevitably creates a sense of isolation and disconnection that is only heightened by instances of overt racism. When families choose to access the benefits of provincial schools by sending their children to be billeted or to live with relatives, while they themselves remain in the home community, an even greater sense of isolation ensues.

Clearly, parents seek the best for their children, but the trade-offs are real, and many of the negative factors are unforeseen. At the same time, it is within the power of provincial educators to mitigate and even eliminate the factors that cause marginalization.

Countering the ghettoization of Indigenous philosophies

In June 2015, the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC) convened a symposium in Yellowknife, NT, inviting delegates from across Canada. The concern being addressed was simple: How do the Indigenous peoples of Canada gain equitable employment as teachers in the classrooms of the nation? In Manitoba, for example, 17 percent of the population identifies as Indigenous,1 while only 10 percent of the teachers in the province do so.2 Furthermore, those teachers who are Indigenous typically gravitate to specific communities, leaving others with an even greater disproportion in representation.

Delegates to the CMEC conference sought to address the central issues, but repeatedly they were confronted with the inescapable fact that education in Canada does not reflect Indigenous values, mores and beliefs.3 Indigenous students feel alienated from the educative process. This more pressing reality underlies the reluctance of Indigenous students to enter careers in education.

Near the close of the conference, working groups were tasked with addressing one of eight key questions focused on bringing more credentialed Indigenous teachers into the system. However, of the eight working groups, fully three returned to report that their primary suggestion would, instead, confront the greater challenge of the ghettoization of Indigenous philosophies and perspectives in the public schools themselves. These three sub-committees each, in turn, made the recommendation that, across all jurisdictions in Canada, a requirement be set in place whereby completion of a minimum of one credit in Indigenous studies would be required for graduation from secondary school, regardless of school or program specializations. Thus, without exception, students graduating from high school in Canada would have some background in Indigenous thought and culture. Thus dual-diploma and technical education programs (i.e. those offering the standard diploma coupled with a second diploma in specialties such as business or the trades), university preparatory programs, and even secondary programs as diverse as those serving Hutterite colonies would all require exposure to Indigenous philosophy and thought.

Informing this recommendation, which was later affirmed by the conference as a whole, is the understanding that Indigenous thought (diverse as it is in its manifestations and nuances) is beneficial to all learners. Moreover, it was noted that simplifying Indigenous philosophical perspectives for sporadic integration into pre-existent course content creates the impression that Indigenous understandings of the world are substandard, crude and unsophisticated – none of which is accurate.

Conference delegates noted that students in the Northwest Territories are already required to complete such a credit before graduating (Northern Studies 10) and those in British Columbia are able to take an English Language Arts course with Indigenous focus at any grade level from 9 through 12. In Manitoba, students are able to select option courses such as The Consequences and Triumphs of Indigenous Philosophy and Current Topics in First Nations, Métis and Inuit Studies.

For the recommendations of the conference to take effect, each jurisdiction would be required to bring forth legislation, changing the graduation requirements. Whether or not this transpires remains to be seen, but the underlying concern should not be dismissed: Indigenous perspectives are, at best, marginalized in public schools and are often absent entirely from the curricula of specialized, secondary schooling. This leaves non-Indigenous students uninformed and intellectually impoverished and Indigenous students feeling alienated from the educative process.

What’s wrong with the status quo?

“Not again.” The teacher in the corner of the staff room was looking over the agenda for our upcoming professional development day and obviously did not notice that I had entered the room. “Why do we always have to talk about Aboriginal education, as if they are the only special interest group? Why not Dutch education or Filipino education?”

That question is not uncommon, though perhaps it is not commonly voiced so insensitively. Furthermore, it can and ought to be answered on a number of levels. First, it should be noted that the treaties of Canada provide for the education of First Nations students, and this has implications for the educative process wherever Indigenous students attend for schooling. The graduation rate for Indigenous students is significantly lower than that of others, often hovering just above 50 percent. One of the most significant reasons for this is the alienation and marginalization Indigenous students feel in Canadian schools. As long ago as 2003, Schissel and Wortherspoon conducted groundbreaking research that found that Indigenous students perform best when immersed in curricular programming that thoroughly reflects Indigenous thought and worldviews. Perhaps counterintuitively, the second-best performance for Indigenous students was found when no attempt at all was made to integrate Indigenous perspectives into the curriculum. The least conducive environment for Indigenous students was that where a sprinkling approach was taken with regard to the inclusion of Indigenous perspectives. Although there may be numerous factors that bring about this dynamic, one of the most plausible explanations would be that students in this third group are experiencing Indigenous content as that which is the other, or worse yet, that which is inferior.4 As a result, they are estranged from the institutions that are ostensibly attempting to promote their success.

A second response to the question of why Canadian educators should feel compelled to incorporate and value Indigenous worldviews in curricula has to do with an ethical obligation. This can best be stated in light of history. The displacement of Indigenous peoples in Canada transpired through the dynamics of interaction between sovereign entities. As such, the sovereign rights of Indigenous people were not extinguished by military subjugation. By contrast, immigrants to Canada come to our shores knowing that, among the many changes that they will encounter, is the need to accommodate Canadian forms of pedagogy. This is a choice that they willingly make; whereas Indigenous peoples never were given that option. Instead, the current pedagogical system has been forcibly imposed over the course of history with devastating consequences.

The third reply to questions concerning the need for Indigenous education in Canadian schools is simply the enrichment that exists when Indigenous thought and worldviews are embraced. While Indigenous philosophy around the world does manifest unique aspects from one location to another, there is a striking commonality to Indigenous thought whether it is in Northeast India, Japan, Zambia or Western Canada. Although anthropologists have been baffled by these undeniable commonalities of thought in populations around the globe that had little if any contact with one another, Indigenous people can easily provide the answer. Regardless of where one may live, common teachers among the four-footed, the finned and the winged races can teach us about the world, what exists, how things work and how we should be in the world. These lessons inform all Indigenous wisdom and understanding. Therefore, an education that includes the perspectives of, for example, the Cree of Saskatchewan will, to some degree or another, also reflect the wisdom of the Ainu of Japan, the Nenets of Russia and other Indigenous people of the world. 

At present, the Canadian educational landscape demonstrates an all-too-frequent marginalization of Indigenous worldviews. Students opting into specialized schools through “schools of choice” policies quite often leave any vestige of Indigenous philosophy behind. At the same time, students from Inuit, First Nations and Métis territories who relocate in order to attend provincial and territorial schools also frequently encounter a dearth of authentic Indigenous content.

Only when a conscious effort is made to embrace and value Indigenous thought on an equal footing with those worldviews and perspectives that have their genesis in Europe do Indigenous students perform at rates on par with others. In speaking of the Waadookodaading School in Hayward, Wisconsin, Dr. Anton Treuer points out that this Anishinaabemowin immersion school consistently outperforms other schools on state standards exams, which are taken in English. Waadookodaading School has a student population that is over 95 percent Ojibwe, employs Indigenous teachers and incorporates traditional Anishinaabe understandings of the world in the educative process.

The challenge for educators in Canada is to bring this degree of success into both the mainstream of our educational institutions and the disparate corners created by schools of choice policies. This will occur only when we incorporate and thoroughly value Indigenous philosophy and perspectives. I would like to say that Wyatt found this inclusive curricula in the school where I was on staff. Perhaps he did, on some days and in some classes. The reality, however, is that this school was struggling to adjust its pedagogical practice in the same way that most are across the nation. For Wyatt, it was the support of caring instructors and the friendship of fellow students that helped him to navigate his three years with us and to graduate with honours.


En Bref : Chaque année, un grand nombre de familles autochtones optent de quitter leurs collectivités pour profiter des avantages des écoles publiques provinciales établies dans des villes et villages. Bien que les nouvelles écoles choisies par ces élèves transplantés puissent comporter des avantages d’ordre scolaire, il y a aussi lieu de tenir compte des compromis qui sont faits. La richesse de la philosophie et de la pensée autochtones est, dans une large mesure, marginalisée dans les écoles publiques, de sorte que les élèves autochtones se sentent souvent déconnectés de l’école et les autres élèves sont privés de perspectives élargies qui pourraient enrichir leur expérience éducative. D’ores et déjà, il revient aux établissements d’enseignement canadiens d’apporter les importants correctifs nécessaires pour corriger cette dynamique et établir ainsi l’équilibre que méritent tous les élèves canadiens.



Original Photo: courtesy National Reading Campaign

First published in Education Canada, June 2016

1 “National Aboriginal Populations,” Employment and Social Development Canada. http://well-being.esdc.gc.ca/misme-iowb/.3ndic.1t.4r@-eng.jsp?iid=36 

2 Aboriginal Education Directorate, “Aboriginal Teachers Questionnaire Report, 2009” (Winnipeg, MB: Manitoba Education, Citizenship and Youth).www.edu.gov.mb.ca/aed/publications/pdf/teachers_questionnaire09.pdf. 

3 J. Tim Goddard and Rosemary Y. Foster, “Adapting to Diversity: Where cultures collide – Education issues in Northern Alberta,” Canadian Journal of Education 27 (2002): 9.

4 Bernard Schissel and Terry Wotherspoon, The Legacy of School for Aboriginal People: Education, oppression and emancipation (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2003), 92-95.

Meet the Expert(s)

ken mccorkle

Ken McCorkle


Ken McCorkle is a recognized authority in the field of Indigenous education and is a facilitator/moderator for the Coalition for the Advancement of Indigenous, Land-Based Education. Over the course of...

Read More

1/5 Free Articles Left

LOGIN Join The Network