Indigenous Learning, Promising Practices, Research

Professional Learning in a Community of Relations

Engaging head, heart and spirit in reconciliation with the Caring Society

ON FEBRUARY 14, 2012, the section of Wellington Street directly in front of Parliament Hill was filled with yellow school buses that stopped to let off the children and teachers who were aboard. As the bus doors opened, children of all ages and backgrounds hopped off onto the snowy sidewalks, carrying colourful homemade signs and wearing buttons and fabric hearts pinned to their jackets. They excitedly walked toward the steps of Parliament to join the hundreds of other students, teachers, and community members who had come to participate in the first annual Have a Heart Day event, one of many First Nations Child and Family Caring Society (Caring Society) reconciliation-based education campaigns. Many of the children chanted, “Equal education for First Nations!” and read speeches they’d written. Others sang songs they’d penned, and hundreds mailed letters they’d written to then Prime Minister Stephen Harper, calling on him to treat all children in Canada with love and fairness. The children’s many hand-crafted signs expressed how they felt: “Respect First Nations Children”; “Fight for Equal Rights!”; “Treat First Nations Children Fairly, Please!” Another of the signs that the children held that day stated: “Just because we’re small doesn’t mean we can’t stand tall!” 

The largest youth-driven movement in Canadian history

These children and youth, and their teachers, had been called to action by Shannen Koostachin, who was a youth from Attawapiskat First Nation, a Cree community at the mouth of the Attawapiskat River, on the shores of James Bay in Treaty 9. These lands have been home to the Mushkegowuk Cree for thousands of years, where generations of Mushkegowuk children were educated on the land by their kin prior to the forced removal of their children by the Canadian state to the Indian Residential Schooling system for nearly 90 years (General, 2012). For years, Shannen and her schoolmates had been forced to attend school in temporary portables, after the demolition of the community’s school due to a massive diesel leak. The portables soon became decrepit, with intermittent heat, warped doors, mice infestations, and frozen pipes during the winter. After nine years of waiting for their new school, Shannen and the other children were upset by the federal government’s failure to act. Shannen documented the condition of the school in Attawapiskat and invited other students and their teachers across Canada to write letters to the federal government to get action. Shannen’s leadership resulted in thousands of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children and non-Indigenous children writing letters to elected officials to demand proper schools and education for First Nations students. 

When Shannen tragically died in a car accident in 2010, a group of students from Attawapiskat, with support from the Caring Society and Shannen’s family, created the “Shannen’s Dream” campaign, vowing to continue her work so that all First Nations children receive a proper education. On June 22, 2012 – the day Shannen would have graduated from high school – construction began for a new school in Attawapiskat. The school opened in 2014; however, many other First Nations are without proper schools, so Shannen’s Dream continues (Blackstock 2019). Shannen remains an important role model for all children and young people, as she taught us to “get up, pick up your books and keep walking in your moccasins” (First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, 2020). 

Shannen’s Dream, which has been described as “the largest youth-driven movement in Canadian history” (Angus 2015, p. 2), has grown to include other social justice campaigns put forth by the Caring Society. As a national non-profit organization, the Caring Society aims to ensure First Nations children and their families have culturally based and equitable opportunities to grow up safely at home, be healthy, get a good education, and be proud of who they are. A recognized leader in child and youth activism and reconciliation education, the Caring Society supports the learning of educators and students through three main social justice-based reconciliation campaigns: Shannen’s Dream (equity for First Nations education), Jordan’s Principle (equitable access to government services), and I am a witness (equitable First Nations child welfare). Thousands of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis and non-Indigenous children and youth have participated in these campaigns, and their activism has offered a unique opportunity to advance knowledge about the impacts of reconciliation-based education and provide evidence-based research about how we can best move forward to support professional learning (Blackstock et al., 2018).

Research with teachers: Just because we’re small doesn’t mean we can’t stand tall 

Across Canada, teachers and students are doing the work of truth, and then reconciliation, through their learning and actions. While this is significant, our research with teachers tells us that there continues to be hesitation, avoidance, and fear for many educators when approaching this work and a tendency to relegate learning to such days as the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, rather than a year-long commitment. Our research project, “Just because we’re small doesn’t mean we can’t stand tall,” seeks to understand how teachers use Caring Society campaigns, such as Shannen’s Dream, in their classrooms, and what the impacts are on their teaching and student learning. Based on our findings, we developed a curriculum and resources that were piloted with a group of teachers. We believe that co-creating professional (un)learning communities that are grounded in sustained relationships over time provides opportunities for teachers to engage with their heads, hearts, and spirits in truth and reconciliation and thus address some of the tensions that teachers often explain as reasons for not doing the work. 

Unsettling “professional” (un)learning with teachers

Our research project began in 2018 and involves a team of researchers, teachers, community members, activists, and experts in law, medicine, and child rights from around the globe. This team contributes to a reconciliation framework that respects First Nations epistemology and relational ethicality, emphasizes collaboration, and takes a collective inquiry approach to a shared responsibility (Blackstock, 2011). Our research team endeavoured to uphold an ethic of relationality throughout the study, by forming trusting relationships with the members of the teacher pilot group over the year we worked with them. We did this by reaching out several times throughout the year, and offering support at all stages. We invited them to events within the university community, including talks, workshops, and sharing circles. Thus, in seeking to address the TRC Calls to Action in the transformational spirit that they were intended, our research team endeavoured to work with teachers toward “[b]uilding student capacity for intercultural understanding, empathy, and mutual respect” while “[i]dentifying teacher training needs” and “[s]haring information and best practices” on reconciliation education (TRC, 2015, pp. 238–239). The group of teacher participants who piloted these resources in their classrooms and shared their experiences informed the development of future resources, and have become “Spirit Bear” teacher leaders. 

By creating, supporting, and sustaining professional communities of (un)learning with teachers, we hope that our research provides examples of how it is possible, and beneficial, to unsettle teacher professional learning from a one-day workshop-based model toward a sustainable ecosystem of relationships as we unlearn and learn together. Our relationships with teachers have resulted in the upcoming launch of the Spirit Bear Virtual School for Teachers, which will be hosted on the Caring Society’s website. The Spirit Bear Virtual School will be a space where teachers from across Canada can access curriculum and learning guides co-created with teachers; listen to talks by educators experienced in working with the Caring Society’s campaigns; and learn about additional resources that will help them on their journey towards enacting truth and then reconcilia(c)tion education in their classrooms.

A bear named Makoonse

Barbara Giroux is a Grade 1 teacher at Holy Family School in Ottawa, Ontario. After taking part in our virtual Spirit Bear Retreat for Teacher Professional Learning in August 2021, Barbara decided to join our pilot group during the 2021–2022 school year. She was hoping to unlearn some of the history she’d learned in school, and by extension, had taught to her students. Through our partnership with the Caring Society, Barbara received a Reconciliation Ambearister to help teach herself and her learners about the ongoing legacies of colonialism, including Residential schools, the Indian Act, and current inequities such as the lack of clean water, education, and services in First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities. Barbara writes: 

“My Grade 1 class embarked on an incredible learning journey with a black and cream bear who came to us as a Reconciliation Ambearister from the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society. He arrived in a box with the word “puzzles” on it. We took it to mean that he was puzzled to find out about his Algonquin heritage and we would learn along with him, with the help of an Elder for as much time as she could give to us. She gifted our bear the name Makoonse, which means “bear cub” in Algonquin. The Reconciliation Ambearister Program is perfect for us because it could meet us where the children were at, and expected only a willingness for us to learn about the territory and peoples on whose unceded land we reside, to make connections with, and learn from, our partners, and to demonstrate meaningful work for Reconciliation. The Reconciliation Ambearister Program also encourages us to continue our own group learning, particularly as it relates to the local Algonquin First Nation. We have learned that the third moon of the year is the Sugar Moon or ZIISSBAAKDOKE GIIZAS, and represents the Anishinaabe New Year, when the maple sap begins to run. The children enjoyed learning about maple sap as a medicine, and that Nanabush, an Anishinaabe cultural hero, taught us, through stories, that the greatest gift is in the giving. We also learned that the back of a turtle represents the number of lunar cycles in a year, and the length of time in each lunar cycle.”

In the sharing sessions we held over the year with the pilot group, Barbara shared the challenges and struggles she experiences while doing this work. The sharing sessions supported her questions, thinking, and growth as not only a teacher, but as a human being. Although the sessions were virtual due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, the teachers who participated remarked how they felt a strong sense of solidarity, friendship, accountability, and mentorship. By connecting with other teachers doing the work of unlearning and truth and then reconcilia(c)tions, teachers received and offered support in sustained and meaningful ways. Barbara shares:

“I had a lot to learn and a lot to teach, and I am humbled and proud to say that this year has been the most rewarding experience of my teaching career, as well as the most challenging. It has been a year of humility; admitting to the children that I am learning along with them; realizing there is no end to how much I have yet to learn; being an actively reflective practitioner and acknowledging where past practice requires a new mindset.”

Barbara recently was awarded the Governor General’s History Award for Excellence in teaching for her work with Spirit Bear and her Reconciliation Ambearrister, Makoonse kindergarten curriculum and program. Her example demonstrates that transformational approaches to professional (un)learning and teaching gives life to the head, heart, and spirit. Furthermore, opportunities to engage in (un)learning teacher communities with researchers supports the work of community partners such as the Caring Society, and the thousands of children and youth who are leading the way forward.


An Invitation to Join Us 

The work of unlearning colonialism cannot be facilitated in a one-day workshop based on a slideshow presentation or discussion. Teachers must be invited into a community of relations where they feel a sense of belonging, the space to question and wonder, and the opportunity to pose questions and ideas. In the words of Shannen Koostachin, who said, “School is a time for hopes and dreams of the future” (Angus, 2012), we welcome more teachers to join us as we hope and dream for the future of professional (un)learning. We invite you to visit www.fncaringsociety.com/spiritbear to learn more about Spirit Bear, and for updates about the launch of the Spirit Bear Virtual School!


Photo: Barbara Giroux

First published in Education Canada, January 2023


Angus, C. (2012, January 10). Shannen Koostachin “Really believed that kids could change the world.” HuffPost Canada. www.huffpost.com/archive/ca/entry/shannen-koostachin-really-believed-that-kids-could-change-the-w_b_1197267

Angus, C. (2015). Children of the broken treaty: Canada’s lost promise and one girl’s dream. University of Regina Press.

Blackstock, C. (2011). The emergence of the breath of life theory. Journal of Social Work Values and Ethics, 8(1), 1–16. https://jswve.org/download/2011-1/spr11-blackstock-Emergence-breath-of-life-theory.pdf 

Blackstock, C. (2019, July 16). When will Ottawa end its willful neglect of First Nations children? The Globe and Mail. 

General, Z. (2012). Akimiski Island, Nunavut, Canada: An island in dispute [Unpublished master’s thesis]. University of Waterloo. https://uwspace.uwaterloo.ca/handle/10012/7022

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015). Honouring the truth, reconciling for the future: Summary of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.


Meet the Expert(s)

Dr. Lisa Howell

Lisa Howell, PhD, lives on the unsurrendered territories of the Algonquin Nation, where she teaches and learns with teacher candidates at the University of Ottawa.

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Dr. Nicholas Ng-A-Fook

EdCan Director - Full Professor and Vice-Dean of Graduate Studies, University of Ottawa

Dr. Nicholas Ng-A-Fook is a Full Professor and Vice-Dean of Graduate Studies at the University of Ottawa. He is the former Director of the Teacher Education and Indigen...

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Barbara Giroux

Teacher, Ottawa Catholic School Board

Barbara Giroux, OCSB, is a Grade 1 teacher at Holy Family School in Ottawa. She and her students, and their bear Makoonse, are grateful to learn with and from Algonquin peoples.

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