No simple answer is adequate to respond to a complex question. However, in my view, a major barrier to Aboriginal students’ success is their resistance, either overt or intuitive, to being absorbed in a world of knowledge and a society that appear to have no place for them or their people. The change I would propose is to Indigenize education in Canada. Indigenizing education means that every subject at every level is examined to consider how and to what extent current content and pedagogy reflect the presence of Indigenous/Aboriginal peoples and the valid contribution of Indigenous knowledge. Such an examination would shift the focus from remediating deficits in Aboriginal students to addressing bias and omissions in the educational system.
The beginning of change does not have to wait for regulations or funding from on high, although curricular standards and appropriate resources will be essential to systemic change. An obvious place to begin is in the teaching of Canadian history. Recent research confirms that students graduating from high school are ignorant that the peaceable character that we like to claim as a nation is fundamentally a legacy of treaties negotiated by First Nations in good faith, shamefully ignored for a century, and now the basis of legitimate claims for reparations.
Public approaches to health and justice are beginning to recognize the insightfulness of Aboriginal understandings of whole health, encompassing body, mind, emotions and spirit, and the effectiveness of restorative justice. Indigenous writers, filmmakers and artists are now represented in national galleries and on the podium for prestigious awards. Yet, despite the evidence that Aboriginal people are participants and contributors to the vitality of community in Canada, the prevailing public perception is that we are problems resistant to solution and impediments to economic development. Content about Indigenous societies, coloured by the perspectives of Indigenous knowledge and woven through the curriculum, could diffuse or dispel the residue of colonialist arrogance that maintains stereotypes and prejudice.
I am heartened by the gains that have been made over the 40 years that I have been involved as a parent, teacher and advocate for Aboriginal education. I am also deeply moved at “the power of one” to rally support for a dream. I watch the annual parade of students on my home territory of Tyendinaga wearing T-shirts and carrying banners proclaiming “Our Dreams Matter Too.” With those words, Shannen Koostachin, a Cree 13-year-old from Attawapiskat, challenged the Minister of Indian Affairs to provide “safe and comfy schools and culturally appropriate education for First Nations children and youth.” She died at the age of 15, but Shannen’s Dream has continued to inspire students, teachers and their federations, and school boards across Canada. The announcement of more equitable funding for education on-reserves, made in the 2014 federal budget, is evidence that students and educators joining their voices with Aboriginal advocates can exercise influence well beyond the walls of their schools.