Carrying the Fire, Education Canada Magazine

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Equity, Indigenous Learning

Carrying the Fire

A youth talking circle on truth and reconciliation in our schools

(A discussion moderated by Michelle Hogue and Holly Bennett)

When planning this special edition of Education Canada, one thing we knew for sure is that we did not want to overlook the insights and ideas of the people at the heart of the issue: Indigenous students. On January 19, 2018, four young adults joined us in a phone discussion to share their thoughts about what Truth and Reconciliation means to them and how that should be reflected in our schools…

Meet the Participants

  • Gregory Francis is from Kingsclear First Nation in New Brunswick and is a 4th year student at the University of New Brunswick studying chemical engineering. Currently a member of the Prime Minister’s Youth Council, Greg acts as a positive role model through his actions to support youth. He has been a tutor for First Nation students in his community and has served as a facilitator for First Nation youth engagement.
  • Talia Natowcappo is from Lestock, Saskatchewan and is registered to Fishing Lake First Nations Band. A proud Saulteaux-Anishinaabe woman, she is currently studying at Concordia University majoring in First Peoples Studies. She says, “My spirit name is Migiiziikwe; I am part of the Bear Clan family and I am also a pipe carrier. Discovering my culture saved my life, made me proud of something I was once ashamed of.”
  • Tarene Thomas is from Enoch Cree Nation and the North West Coast of B.C. She is a writer, poet, and activist in the fourth year of her English major at the University of Alberta. Tarene also works with the transition year program at the University of Alberta, and is an Indigenous peer mentor for the faculty of arts.
  • Hunter Martin is from Black Lake Denesuline First Nation in Saskatchewan and is a Grade 12 student at Bethlehem Catholic High School in Saskatoon. He has recently developed an interest in his people’s culture and hopes to contribute to the advancement of Truth and Reconciliation.

We want to know what you, as youth and young adults of today, think needs to happen as we move forward in this TRC era? Where do you think things should go?

I know these are big, open-ended tough questions, but really you are the next generation and are going to be the game changers, and ones who open up doors in a lot of different ways, so we’re very interested in what you have to say.  

HUNTER: Moving into the 21st century, I do believe that we need to take action. Some of the reserves have been taking action. The chief for Whitecap, outside of Saskatoon here, really puts emphasis on supporting the youth in the community. There’s more funding going toward the school, and it’s creating a great environment for the young people of that community. I think we do need to put emphasis on the younger generation in order to move forward. There are other issues, such as domestic violence, sexual abuse, drug addictions and suicide, but if we teach the younger generation that this is not the way, that it doesn’t have to be like this, then they will strive to actually make things better once they graduate and go out into the world. That’s my take on reconciliation and youth.

I go to school in the city now. I transferred down south coming out of Grade 9, for the betterment of my education. My mom really didn’t want me to stay up north in my reserve because the education there is poor, the school system is underfunded.

TARENE: That’s what I think we should talk about a little bit, how Indigenous education systems are funded a lot less than mainstream education. It was the same with me, I grew up on a reserve and I did graduate from the high school on my reserve, but from Grade 1 to 9/10, I went to school in the city. It was for the same reason; I wanted a better education so I registered myself and my siblings in the public school system.

But that’s a huge problem, that we have to outsource ourselves to other places away from our community, where we can be involved in our culture and kinship. Those ties are sort of lost, and we have to make that leap just to have the same level of education that non-Indigenous people are having. That’s something that really needs to be addressed.

TALIA: I moved away from my territory, from the prairies, because it was really hard being there as an Indigenous person, with the negative stereotypes that come along with this heritage. It’s really frustrating. But for the years I’ve been travelling, I’ve always carried this big sense of guilt for leaving home, like I’m leaving my family or my siblings or somebody there that would need me. It was just going back this Christmas that I realized that I no longer have to feel guilty or selfish for leaving home, for wanting to better myself  – and that came with giving up alcohol and trying to be more traditional and smudging more and trying to be more active in any type of discussion that involves Indigenous people. But I’m still contemplating whether, when I’m done with my academia, if I want to go back and try to create a positive space for the Indigenous people there.

HUNTER: I also have stresses from my family, knowing the problems that they are going through. It really hinders me sometimes from concentrating on what needs to be done. Like my cousin commited suicide, just a year and two days ago, and after that I did abuse alcohol for awhile. It was hard, really hard, getting over that. It took about a month before I realized, what can I do so this doesn’t happen again? So that’s when I decided to take an interest and learn about my culture and my people.

We should teach the true history of Canada. I think that if we start to teach those histories and the effects of colonialism, then we’ll start to clear the air a little bit because I feel like that’s where a lot of the racism and ignorance comes from.

TARENEAnother issue is Indigenizing education. We need to be starting in early elementary and right through to Grade 12, because a lot of the gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people come from the ignorance and not knowing the history, not understanding colonialism and the effects it has on Indigenous people. So in social studies in Grades 4-7, you’re learning about settlers coming into Canada, and you have that small little paragraph that says First Nations People wilfully moved so settlers could live there. We should teach the true history of Canada. I think that if we start to teach those histories and the effects of colonialism, then we’ll start to clear the air a little bit because I feel like that’s where a lot of the racism and ignorance comes from.

I also think it’s really important to create spaces for Indigenous students wherever it may be, in communities, in the school system, in the city. And there needs to be relationship building between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students so we can start to break down the barriers that keep people focused on the negativity.

GREG: One thing that I wanted to talk about was creating that dialogue between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. I spent my entire schooling in the public system. There was an elementary school on my reserve, but I was always put into the city school 15 minutes away. But as I transitioned from elementary to middle to high school, I noticed that people’s conceptions about Indigenous people had drastically changed, to the point that going into high school I felt uncomfortable and alienated. I think that trying to promote that dialogue and trying to have those conversations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people will help us understand each other’s differences and find a common place to be able to agree on something that allows us to move forward. Too many times I feel that people focus on each other’s weaknesses when we should really be focused on what makes them strong, and on using those strengths to better our nation as a whole.

TARENE: Those are really good points. There need to be spaces made for those types of conversations, facilitated by people who are comfortable and trained, and they should be happening in school systems in all different levels and age groups. I think when people have these conversations in a… I don’t really want to say safe space, because no one can guarantee a safe space, but in a relatively safe space, I think a lot of times people come through with a better understanding, as opposed to learning something through a book.

HUNTER: I do agree with this. In Native Studies, we were reading about sweat lodges and smudging, but learning about it from a book is very different from actually doing it. You get a deeper understanding, you actually get a connection, when you actually do something that’s related to the topic. That’s true about anything, really, I think it’s one of the major problems with education as a whole. It emphasizes the memory of things and doesn’t really emphasize doing it. That also has to do with getting the students interested. They’ll have a deeper understanding of the subject and in turn will be interested in learning more.

If you could make one big change, what would it be?  

TALIA: I want to help plan curriculum, I want to help change the way we teach our kids. And I think the first thing that needs to be instilled is that sense of cultural pride, getting those little kids into a sweat lodge, teaching them that our identity is valuable. Then they’ll be able to carry the fire, and then they’ll be able to be more prepared for the life we send them off into.

They’ve tried for the last 500 years to assimilate us, and it’s not going to happen. They say it takes two to three generations to lose your culture, but we’ve been fighting for it for the last seven. Yeah, it’s nice to teach it here at the university level, but before we even start sharing it with our European neighbours or our other minorities, who are really beautiful too, we have to instill it in our kids. We have to take it back before we can try to explain to anyone else how beautiful it is.

You know, I look at my friends who come from, I guess, a privileged lifestyle where their parents were successful, they had jobs, health care, health insurance… So they didn’t have to go through Indian Affairs, cause it sucks, you know? There’s such a huge stigma around it, that when people bring it up, I’m actually kind of still ashamed that I need help from Indian Affairs. And my non-Indigenous friends who are younger than me are getting their Masters degrees, while I… I’ve worked amazing jobs, travelled to the most Northern remote places, but I pretty much failed my first semester of university here in Montreal and I was scared – scared to go home, scared to tell anybody. I’m in therapy for this, and it’s help me realize that growing up I pretty much raised my siblings and I developed this sense of “I have to do it on my own, no one can help me.” And that I had to overcome all of the shitty things I went through as a kid and in my teens and what I’ve done to myself because I was really incredibly hurt, from being a residential school survivor survivor. I didn’t have to actually go to residential school to have the exact same effects happen to me – being taken away from my parents, being in foster care, the molestation and abuse. It was all there.

TARENE: If I could change one thing? It would be kind of adding on to what Talia was saying, teaching our youth that we are not vessels for white settler colonial shame. We’ve been talking a lot about barriers, and I think one of the reasons why there are so many barriers in front of our people is because it’s kind of the narrative we’ve been told. That’s what society teaches us – that our families are broken so they can’t teach us anything about who we are. So it’s important for our generation and for us when we have children, to instill that in our kids, to be proud of who we are. And then we need to start peeling back these layers, that colonial narrative that’s all over Canada that kind of fits Indigenous people into one box, you know, like the dumb drunk Indian. To do that we need to start within the school systems.

GREG: I know personally when I was younger I wasn’t really connected to my culture, and I did face a lot of mental health issues and alcohol abuse. I was a lost soul for a while. I was able to rediscover myself when I got more involved in my culture and learned a lot more about my traditions. It gave me a more holistic approach and allowed me to feel a lot more like who I am. I just really want that for every other Indigenous youth out there.

TALIA: I just hope they find it a lot sooner than we did. That’s one of the biggest issues right now that we’re facing as a generation: we are really fighting for who we are. I’m fighting to take back my language. I’m fighting to feel comfortable in my own skin for being brown. I have to fight to learn my name in my language and figure out what Bear Clan actually means, and what Eagle Woman means and Migiiziikwe, to find out where my people come from and why I carry a peace pipe.

I’m incredibly proud and happy now about who I am as an individual and what small accomplishments I’ve actually made. And it’s learning to be humble and to have humility, and to share and to laugh, and to just exude love all the time.

When you picture your kids or your grandchildren, what would you hope their school experience would be like?

TARENE: I would want it to be challenging, but also a space where they feel respected and where people know their histories.

HUNTER: I would like my children or grandchildren to find more fulfilment in life through their schooling. When they enter it, they are still on their journey of finding who they are, and when they leave I want them to have a stronger sense of who they are as a person and go off in the world from that place of knowing who they are. That’s my big thing with school: it’s very hard to find yourself in it.

I want to add, I want all kids to go to school feeling like they are not less human for who they are, their background, their people. I want them to feel fully human. I went to school feeling left out because of the colour of my skin.

TALIA: I just hope that, ten years from now, there’s a school on every fucking reserve! A properly funded school, with running water, that isn’t in trailers, that can give them a place to actually flourish and realize who they are and be proud of who they are – and also give them the life tools to be successful.

And I really want them to have a safe home. That truly depends on me and us as parents to not make the same mistakes.

GREG: Everyone pretty much covered it. I want my grandchildren to have that identity, and not to be at a disadvantage because of their ethnicity or because of who they are. That’s something that a lot of Indigenous people are facing today – we have had more struggles compared to other people. I don’t want our kids having to face those kinds of struggles.

HUNTER: I have just one thing to add I guess. I was told that it’s been seven generations before ours that have had a time of pain and suffering, and that it will take seven generations more until that pain has fully healed. I was told it is our generation, the Millenials, that is the start of that seven-generation healing process. When I was told this, I felt compelled and motivated to start doing things to better myself and my people. It is us who will rekindle the flame of hope. And through that hope, will inspire others to actually go on that journey.

 

 

We want to know what you think. Join the conversation @EdCanPub #EdCan!

First published in Education Canada, May 2018

Meet the Expert

Dr. Michelle Hogue

Associate Professor, Coordinator First Nations’ Transition Program

Michelle M. Hogue is an associate professor and Coordinator of the First Nations’ Transition Program at the University of Lethbridge.

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