Equity, Indigenous Learning, Teaching

Leaning In/Leaning Out with Spirit Bear

A framework for place-based Truth and Reconciliation education

As Truth and Reconciliation educators, we recognize that one of our key tasks is to root the abundance of quality classroom resources in the places where we teach and learn. Papaschase Cree scholar Dwayne Donald characterizes North American societies and systems of education as “forgetful.” He traces how they are founded on the dual practice of forgetting that Western curriculum is “placed” – telling of a particular time, place, and ideal human transplanted from elsewhere – as well as omitting the ancient wisdoms and placed teachings that exist to instruct humans how to live well in our respective here-nows.

In response, we have developed a critical questioning framework that guides a place-based reconciliatory journey through children’s literature. It invites students to pivot between “leaning in” questions that consider the conditions of a text and related “leaning out” questions that focus on readers’ particular geographical location and the priorities articulated by local Indigenous Nations and collectives. We italicize the terms leaning in and leaning out throughout to emphasize the process of activating this framework within a teaching context. In this article, we model our leaning in/leaning out framework using the book Spirit Bear: Fishing for knowledge, catching dreams (see “Recommended Resources”). This text follows Spirit Bear as he learns about the history of First Nations children’s education and the activism that challenges ongoing underfunding of First Nations education by the Canadian government. We address five interconnected components of truth and reconciliation education (TRE): positionality, Indigenous land-based traditions, Canada’s Indian Residential School system, injustice that acts as a barrier to reconciliation, and counterstories.


nēhiyaw Elder and scholar Willie Ermine teaches that to enter into – or reconcile – any relationship in a good way, we need to know who we are. He explains that positionality is the act of identifying ourselves within all our relations. It involves knowing about our ancestors’ land, language, kinships, and knowledge systems. These parts of identity tell about our attachment to the universe.

Teachers can draw on Spirit Bear: Fishing for knowledge, catching dreams to scaffold relational positioning. Leaning in facilitates connections between one’s identity and actions: What does Spirit Bear learn about his family, land, language, and culture? How does he learn about these parts of his identity? How do these discoveries help Spirit Bear understand who he is and his responsibilities?

The book opens with Spirit Bear sharing his positionality with readers. Spirit Bear states that he is a “membear” of the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council who currently spends most of his time on the lands of the Algonquin People in Ottawa. Spirit Bear links his work as a “Bearrister” to a teaching received from his mother, Mary the Bear; he has a responsibility to learn about injustices and help make things better. Through spending time with Uncle Huckleberry on their traditional Carrier Sekani territory, located near what is known today as Prince George, British Columbia, Spirit Bear gains a deeper understanding of his family history, culture, and knowledge systems. Specifically, Spirit Bear learns about traditional fishing methods utilized by the Carrier Sekani, and about pollution to the water of Lake Bearbine and disruption to the land caused by silver and gold miners on Carrier Sekani territory. When Spirit Bear asks about ways to help, Uncle Huckleberry offers some specific actions, such as supporting fish hatcheries, preventing forest fires, and learning how to care for plants and animals. Spirit Bear listens closely with the intention of passing this knowledge on to young cubs in his family, confirming responsibility to the relational teachings beyond the time and place of the exchange.

Leaning out invites students to draw on their communities to develop their own positionality: Where does my family come from? What are some of the teachings that teach us how to live well on our traditional land and in traditional kinship? What is the language of these relationships? (Where applicable) How did we come to call the place we now live “home”?

Indigenous land-based traditions

The goal of TRE is to establish respectful relationships characterized by concurrent and comparable valuing of both Western and Indigenous knowledge systems. Therefore, teachers must hold classroom space for Indigenous land-based traditions used to maintain good relations, restore harmony, heal conflict and harm, and practice justice.

Spirit Bear learns about traditional education from Uncle Huckleberry. Leaning in questions illuminate traditional education as a practice of maintaining good relations: What did education used to look like for First Nations kids? How was knowledge shared? Where did learning take place? What do you think the purpose of traditional education is?

Uncle Huckleberry teaches Spirit Bear that traditional education took place on the land, with Elders teaching children “all kinds of important things, like how to care for the animals, themselves, and others with kindness and respect.” In this traditional educational model where “the world was their school,” relationships and responsibility to kin were central to purpose, alongside the learning of skills and knowledge for survival and living a good life in that particular place. Uncle Huckleberry explains that Elders taught through storytelling, cooking, and other hands-on activities in their language that made learning so fun that recess was unnecessary.

Leaning out questions embed learning in students’ geographical context: Who are the local Indigenous Peoples and Nations? What does their traditional education look like? How is our schooling today similar to and different from the local Indigenous ways of teaching and learning? What are some examples from my own life where Elders were teachers? Where the world was my school?

Canada’s Indian Residential School system

Following the recommendation of The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), a central component of TRE is comprehensive education about the history and legacy of Canada’s Indian Residential School system.

Leaning in to Spirit Bear, teachers can facilitate a critical analysis of the logics that undergird settler colonialism and paved the way for the creation of residential schools: How did the Canadian government feel about Indigenous Peoples’ traditional education in the story? Why did they create residential schools? What do the government’s actions tell us about their beliefs about Indigenous Peoples and Nations?

Spirit Bear learns from Uncle Huckleberry’s friend, Lak‘insxw, that the government created residential schools because “they wanted First Nations children to be like them, like non-Indigenous peoples.” With the intent to disrupt relationships, which are embedded in land and foundational to passing on knowledge, “people in the government decided they should take First Nations children away from their families.” Residential schools mandated the separation of families, inhibiting the transfer of knowledge and culture, and prohibiting the speaking of Indigenous languages. Inherent in the government’s actions is the belief that the government’s way of educating – learning in schools, instruction by priests and nuns, and reading English books that centre European stories – was more sophisticated than the traditional education Indigenous children were receiving from their Elders. The government’s belief in their cultural and spiritual superiority over Indigenous Peoples and Nations, along with disdain for difference and the desire to assimilate, were driving factors behind the Canadian government’s Indian Residential School system.

Leaning out connects Canada’s Indian Residential School system to local and contemporary contexts: Where was the closest residential school to my home located? When was it closed? What have authors, including the TRC, written about this school? How do residential school logics persist in schools today?

Injustice that acts as a barrier to reconciliation

Part of TRE is investigating ongoing injustice that acts as a barrier to reconciliation. This component is essential because it can reveal how colonial relations of power are an underlying network that shape all systems and actions, including those deemed reconciliatory. Reconciliation is always multifaceted, complex, and ongoing.

Leaning in reveals how the Government of Canada continues to generate a gap in funding between First Nations schools and provincial schools in the era of reconciliation: What challenges were the students from Attawapiskat First Nation facing? How did these challenges impact students’ education and how they felt about themselves? What was the Government’s response? What work remains?

In the book, Spirit Bear learns that students in Attawapiskat First Nation were facing threats to their health because of a pipeline leaking diesel fuel underneath their school. The school closed in 2000, and the government set up trailers as a “temporary” fix, with the promise to build a new school. However, the government “didn’t keep their promise and the trailers started falling apart.” The students at Attawapiskat First Nation school faced intolerable conditions, such as ice on the inside of their classroom, mice eating kids’ lunches, and not enough books and gym and science equipment. These material realities impacted their ability to learn and desire to be at school, as well as shaped their sense of self; “it is hard for kids to… feel proud of who they are when their school is falling apart.” Shannen Koostachin, a student in Attawapiskat, recognized this injustice and started a campaign for a new school. As a result of Shannen’s activism, the government finally opened a new elementary school in Attawapiskat in 2014, but there are still many other Indigenous communities without safe and comfortable schools. Further, Indigenous students living on reserve still receive 30-50 percent less education funding than other students.1  On average, this works out to $4,000 less per student on reserve, compared to those who attend provincially funded schools – inequity that remains unaddressed.

Leaning out invites students to question and challenge injustice that acts as a barrier to reconciliation in the place they call home: What injustices generally and/or Indigenous education injustices specifically continue to exist in the place we call home? How do they endanger reconciliation? What actions are local Indigenous Peoples and groups calling on the government to take?


Truth telling in the form of survivors’ testimony of being abused by priests, nuns, residential school staff, and/or other students is an integral aspect of TRE. Counter-storytelling2 also plays an important role in moving beyond a single story of Indigenous victimhood. Counter-stories demonstrate how Indigenous individuals and collectives draw on strength from community and traditional teachings to resist settler colonialism and demand recognition of human, Indigenous, and treaty rights.

Leaning in examines Shannen’s activism as an extension of community resilience: What strategies did Shannen and her friends use to shine light on injustice in their community? Shannen said, “School is a time for dreams, and every kid deserves this!” What action was Shannon urging the government to take? How is Shannen’s advocacy connected to her ancestors’ vision of good schools where students could be proud of their cultures and speak their languages?

Shannen and her friends began by creating a video to illuminate the injustice in their community. In May 2008, Shannen met with government officials in Ottawa to appeal for a new school. She used her voice to not only advocate for a safe and comfortable school within Attawapiskat, but asserted that this should be the right of every First Nation community. This activism is connected to her ancestors’ vision for Indigenous education following the closure of the residential schools. The Elders knew it was finally time for official learning that centred traditional teachings that had been carefully protected by communities for decades. They visioned self-determined land- and place-based education where students could be proud of their cultures and speak their languages. Shannen demonstrated resilience by drawing on the strength and strategies of her community to extend this vision.

Leaning out inspires relational and creative action in place: What are important local Indigenous counter-stories? What do they teach us about the challenges the First Peoples of this place face? What unique strategies do they use to confront settler colonialism? Where do they draw strength and support from?

We have offered educators an approach for tailoring the education for reconciliation curricula they design to their specific geographical, historical, cultural, and political Indigenous education context. We encourage educators to learn from our curriculum development that braids the leaning in/leaning out framework, the children’s book Spirit Bear: Fishing for Knowledge, Catching Dreams, and five central components of TRE. This approach can be adapted or extended according to the education level, discipline, and the unique gifts and experiences of teachers and students in relation. Beyond contributing to an emerging conversation about what school-based truth and reconciliation education might look like in practice, we suggest that the timeliness and necessity of teaching about Shannen’s Dream and the struggle for equitable education funding for First Nations children cannot be overstated.

Image credit: First Nations Child & Family Caring Society

First published in Education Canada, August 2020


1  End the Gap: Fair funding for First Nations schools (2015). www.endthegap.org

2  B. Madden, “Indigenous Counter-stories in Truth and Reconciliation Education: Moving beyond the single story of victimhood,” Education Canada 59, vol. 1: 40-44.

Recommended Resources

Spirit Bear: Fishing for knowledge, catching dreams, by Cindy Blackstock (First Nations Child & Family Caring Society of Canada, 2018). https://fncaringsociety.com

CBC News, “Did you live near a residential school?” (2017). www.cbc.ca/news2/interactives/beyond-94-residential-school-map

End the Gap: Fair funding for First Nations schools (2015). www.endthegap.org

First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, Various educational resources  (2020). https://fncaringsociety.com/educational-resources

B. Madden, “Indigenous Counter-stories in Truth and Reconciliation Education: Moving beyond the single story of victimhood,” Education Canada 59, vol. 1: 40-44.

Meet the Expert(s)

Melanie Neilson

Educator, Greater Victoria School District No. 61

Melanie Neilson, MEd, currently works as an Indigenous Education Support Teacher within Greater Victoria School District No. 61. As a practicing educator and scholar, her work primarily examines the use of children's literature and decolonizing pedagogies to support Truth and Reconciliation education within elementary and middle school classrooms.

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Dr. Brooke Madden

Assistant Professor, Department of Secondary Education, Faculty of Education, University of Alberta

Dr. Brooke Madden is Assistant Professor in the Department of Secondary Education and the Aboriginal Teacher Education Program at the University of Alberta. Her research focuses on the relationship between teacher identity and teacher education on the topics of Indigenous education and Truth and Reconciliation education.

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