Equity, Indigenous Learning, Promising Practices

What needs to change?

Leaders in Aboriginal education share their insights

The announcement in February 2014 of the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act seemed to signal a shift in direction towards positive change for Aboriginal students in Canada. Former National Chief Shawn Atleo of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) commented at the time, “This is our opportunity to fully realize what First Nations control of First Nations education means to us, to get the Minister and government out of our schools and to support success for our children and students – our way.”[1] However, it wasn’t long until dissenting voices were heard; and in May 2014, in the wake of widespread criticism and Chief Atleo’s resignation from AFN, the Conservative government withdrew the bill.

Challenging and essential though it is, the education system itself – from funding to governance to curriculum – is only part of what is required to achieve meaningful educational success for Aboriginal students. After all, the very structures through which reform is negotiated and implemented are grounded in the historical relationship between First Nations and the settler population. The ability of Aboriginal students to make the most of their educational opportunities depends in part on the health and well-being of their families and communities. And so we asked three distinguished leaders in Aboriginal education to briefly share their vision of “What needs to change in order to make real progress in Aboriginal education?” We asked them to focus on one aspect that is prominent in their thoughts right now, rather than attempting a comprehensive answer. Their responses together convey a glimpse of the “bigger picture” surrounding Aboriginal education. 

Indigenizing Education

By Marlene Brant Castellano

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. 

Bringing Spiritual Teachings into Education

By Blair Stonechild

Having been involved in Aboriginal Education for most of my life, from attending Indian residential school to working on the development of First Nation-controlled post-secondary institutions, I would like to focus on an issue that is not often mentioned: the importance of spirituality in education.

First Nation elders assert that spirituality was a special gift given to Indigenous peoples as a way to maintain strong and healthy nations. In pre-contact societies ceremonies, which were mechanisms for maintaining relations with the spirit world, dominated daily and seasonal life and marked progression though the principle stages of personal development.

Spiritual teachings were derived through vision, ceremony and meditation, and stressed the need for establishing good relations as they pertained to personal and community behaviour. These teachings reflected traditional values including bravery, love, respect, honesty, generosity, humility and wisdom.

Education theorists write about the importance of having a positive self-concept in order to learn most effectively. I believe that a key to restoring what has been referred to as the “learning spirit” is the rejuvenation of Aboriginal spiritual beliefs. Elders and many educators talk about the need for holistic education – physical, emotional, mental and spiritual.

It should be noted that Aboriginal spirituality is not about religious dogma, but rather is about establishing healthy relationships with all things, including one’s relatives, one’s nation, and the natural environment. The elders confirm that all things have spirit and that humans are really spirit beings on a physical journey. As we navigate through life, we are here to learn how to have proper relations with all things. The elders also say that learning, including school learning, is a fundamental part of the purpose for living. It is a sacred mission in life.

Unfortunately many Aboriginal youth today have lost touch with their spiritual heritage, and elders believe this is the reason why so many turn to substance abuse, crime and involvement in gangs. We as Aboriginal people need to heal ourselves by focusing on the spiritual mission of education, which often gets lost in the clamour for more funding and the politicization of schooling. The elders tell me that it is now time to research, write about and teach the principles of Aboriginal spirituality, something which I and other academics at the First Nations University are attempting to do.

An Opportunity to Redefine

By Darren McKee

Change. It is a word used so freely in relation to education that it has perhaps become a cliché. However, to Indigenous persons living in Canada and many other countries, that word carries with it a variety of important meanings.

Above all, change is hope: a hope that the historical and ongoing experiences and contributions of First Nations, Métis and Inuit people to what people today call Canada will be recognized and understood.

Education is a powerful tool that can lift a person to realize great opportunities and fulfilment; it can also be used as a powerful weapon to remove the identity and spirit of entire cultures. As Justice Murray Sinclair, Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, stated, “Education is the cause for much of the challenges faced by Aboriginal people today. However, it is also the solution in moving forward.”

Recognizing the irony, I would use the questioning teaching method of Socrates to challenge each person who has an interest in this area. I would ask: “What do you truly know about First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples? Whose truth is it? Whose interests does this truth serve?”

In this country, individuals hold differing and sometimes intransigent opinions on Indigenous people based upon their knowledge. Again, I would ask: “Knowledge gained where? And from whom?”

I realize that it is rather provocative of me to challenge folks about their personal values and experiences, but I do so with the intent of asking us to reflect on what has historically been a negative educational context for First Nations, Métis and Inuit people. This experience colours our opportunity for an appreciative relationship – for example when I say the term “Indian,” what comes to your mind? Is it appreciative or deficit thinking?

In the education world we are quite comfortable with the term evaluation. I would encourage people to evaluate and reflect on their current paradigms in Aboriginal Education, to take an honest look and reframe those views in a place that starts from mutual respect. There is a requirement to rebuild trust, which can only happen if we are willing to work together to create shared understandings that support each other. It cannot be an either/or pathway any longer if we wish to achieve success.

Simultaneously, I would ask that we seize the opportunity that is before us to use the education system as the means to ensure everyone enjoys all the hope and prosperity this country has to offer – and I am defining prosperity beyond the simple economics to include positive social interactions, self-worth and positive community engagement.

The manifestations of change provide us with our greatest opportunity to see every child succeed. Education is the societal agency of change that we ourselves control and that we can indeed ensure is the “solution in moving forward.”

Photo: courtesy Saskatchewan School Boards Association

First published in Education Canada, June 2014


EN BREF – La réforme du système même de l’éducation – du financement à la gouvernance en passant par le curriculum – ne constitue qu’une partie de ce qu’il faut pour réaliser la réussite éducative significative des élèves autochtones. Les structures de politiques et de gouvernance par lesquelles la réforme est négociée et instaurée reposent, après tout, sur la relation historique entre les Premières Nations et la population colonisatrice. La capacité des élèves autochtones de tirer le maximum de leurs possibilités éducatives dépend notamment de la santé et du bien-être de leurs familles et collectivités. Nous avons donc demandé à trois chefs de file réputés en éducation autochtone de partager leur vision de ce qui doit changer afin de réaliser des progrès réels en éducation autochtone. Nous les avons priés d’axer leur réponse sur un aspect prépondérant dans leurs réflexions actuelles, plutôt que de tenter de donner une réponse détaillée. Ensemble, leurs réponses brossent un aperçu du « grand tableau » en éducation autochtone.

[1] Assembly of First Nations, “Communiqué from National Chief Shawn Atleo,” Feb. 2014. www.afn.ca/uploads/files/14-02-14_nc_bulletin_fn_education_announcement_and_budget_2014_fe.pdf

Meet the Expert(s)

Blair Stonechild

Blair Stonechild, PhD, a member of the Muscowpetung First Nation in Saskatchewan, is Professor of Indigenous Studies at the First Nations University of Canada. Dr. Stonechild’s doctoral thesis on First Nations post-secondary policy was published by the University of Manitoba Press as The New Buffalo: The Struggle for Post Secondary Education in Canada in 2006, and his biography of the singer Buffy Sainte-Marie: It’s My Way, a Saskatchewan Book Award winner, was released in 2012.

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Marlene Brant Castellano

Marlene Brant Castellano is a Mohawk mother and grandmother and Professor Emeritus of Trent University, where she provided leadership in the emergence of Indigenous Studies as an academic discipline. In 2005 she was named an Officer of the Order of Canada in recognition of her work to advance the well-being of Aboriginal peoples.

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