The handshake depicted on this Treaty 6 medal is understood by nêhiyawak to symbolize asotamâkêwin – a sacred promise to live together in the spirit of good relations.
In September 1874, Treaty Commissioners representing Queen Victoria traveled to Fort Qu’Appelle to negotiate the terms of a sacred promise to live in peace and friendship with nehiyawak (Cree), Anihšināpēk (Saulteaux), Dakota, Lakota, and Nakoda peoples of the region that came to be known as Treaty 4. Prior to this meeting, the Indigenous leaders had learned that the Hudson’s Bay Company had sold their lands to the Dominion of Canada without their consultation or consent. Thus, when the Treaty Commissioners sought to initiate negotiations, the leaders declined to discuss the Treaty. Instead, an Anihšināpēk spokesman named Otahaoman explained with the help of a translator that the assembled peoples felt that there was “something in the way” of their ability to discuss the terms of the Treaty in good faith (Morris, 2014, pp. 97–98).
It took several days of discussion for the Queen’s representatives to comprehend the concerns expressed by Otahaoman. The people were questioning the sincerity of these Treaty negotiations because they knew that the Government of Canada had already made a side deal with the Hudson’s Bay Company for the purchase of their lands. The view expressed by Otahaoman was that these side dealings undermined the integrity of the Government’s Treaty intentions. Through the translator, Otahaoman clearly articulated the view that the Hudson’s Bay Company only had the permission of Indigenous peoples to conduct trade. They did not have the right to claim ownership over any land: “The Indians want the Company to keep at their post and nothing beyond. After that is signed they will talk about something else” (Morris, 2014, p. 110). Despite these misunderstandings, as well as notable disagreement among the various Indigenous groups in attendance, the terms of Treaty 4 were eventually ratified.
I begin with this story to draw attention to the persistence of Canadian colonial culture as “something in the way” of efforts to repair Indigenous-Canadian relations. The critical observation that Otahaoman articulated in 1874 is still a very relevant and unsettling problem today. In the wake of the 94 Calls to Action issued by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, educational jurisdictions and institutions across Canada have rushed to respond to the Calls through the implementation of various policies and program initiatives. However, the rush to Reconciliation facilitates an active disregard of the Truth of colonial ideologies and structures that continue to block possibilities for the emergence of healthy and balanced Indigenous-Canadian relations in Canada. Before Reconciliation can even be considered as a possibility, a broad social, cultural, and educational reckoning process must be undertaken that focuses on unlearning colonialism. Colonial ideologies remain mostly uninterrogated in Canadian educational contexts and continue to be “in the way” of meaningful Indigenous-Canadian relational renewal. Such relational renewal is only possible if colonialism is unlearned.
Colonial ideologies have got “in the way” of schooling practices in the sense that prevailing curricular and pedagogical approaches perpetuate colonial worldview. The founding principle of colonialism is relationship denial1 and the centuries-long predominance of this principle has resulted in the creation of educational practices that perpetuate relationship denial in mostly subtle and unquestioned ways. One prominent form of relationship denial is evident in the ways in which the mental aspect of a human being is considered more important than the emotional, spiritual, and physical aspects. The possibility for holistic unity and balance is denied when the different aspects of a human being are increasingly fragmented and disassociated as a person becomes educated. The teachings of relationship denial can also be seen in the ways in which human beings are taught to believe that their needs are always more important than the needs of other forms of life. They are also evident in the ways in which students are taught to deny relationships that they have with people who do not look like them, speak like them, or pray like them. When someone is educated to accept relationship denial as a way of being in the world, it becomes part of how they are as a human being – how they live – and this acceptance has a very distinctive bearing on how they understand knowledge and knowing.
Such practices are reflective of the “Western code” – the Enlightenment-based knowledge paradigm that is presented as possessing all the answers to any important questions that could be asked by anyone, anywhere in the world. It is important to state that Western conceptions of knowledge and knowing have provided many benefits. However, belief in the veracity of those understandings becomes a form of violence when they are prescribed as the only way to be a successful human being. Wynter (1992), for example, has argued that the arrival of Christopher Columbus to Turtle Island instigated a centuries-long process wherein a universalized model of the human being was imposed on people around the world. She asserts that this particular advancement of colonial power has served to “absolutize the behavioural norms encoded in our present culture-specific conception of being human, allowing it to be posited as if it were the universal of the human species” (Wynter, 1992, pp. 42-43). The assertion of this colonial power is carried out in the name of Progress.2 Formal schooling eventually became a primary means by which those with power could discipline the citizenry to conform to this model of the human being and this notion of Progress. As I see it, this has resulted in the predominance of curricular and pedagogical approaches that perpetuate these universalized behavioural norms by persistently presenting knowledge and knowing according to the rubric of relationship denial.
The complex task of unlearning colonial forms of relationship denial does require learning more about colonial worldview and the ways in which the cultural assumptions of that worldview deeply inform the structure and character of the common-sense conventions of educational practices. However, it cannot only rely on learning about such things in an informational way. To do so is to assume that relationship denial is really just an intellectual problem and that unlearning can be accomplished via a detailed three-hour lecture with accompanying PowerPoint slides.
The difficult truth is that colonial forms of relationship denial are much more than just intellectual problems. Human beings who accept colonial worldview as natural, normal, and common sense come to embody colonial forms of relationship denial that teach them to divide the world. The field of education has become so fully informed by the assumed correctness of colonial worldview that it has become difficult to take seriously other knowledge systems or ways of being human. However, this struggle to honour other knowledge systems or ways of being is implicated in the deepest difficulties faced today in trying to live in less damaging, divisive, and ecologically destructive ways. It is clear to me that the acceptance of relationship denial as the natural cognitive habit of successful human beings undermines the ability to respond to these complex challenges in dynamic ways. Thus, an urgent educational challenge facing educators today involves:
As a teacher educator struggling to address this challenge, I draw significant guidance and inspiration from Indigenous wisdom teachings of kinship relationality. These wisdom teachings emphasize how human beings are at their best when they recognize themselves as enmeshed in networks of human and more-than-human relationships that enable life and living. For example, in nêhiyawêwin (the Cree language), a foundational wisdom concept that is central to nêhiyaw (Cree) worldview is wâhkôhtowin. Translated into English, wâhkôhtowin is generally understood to refer to kinship. In a practical way, wâhkôhtowin describes ethical guidelines regarding how you are related to your kin and how to conduct yourself as a good relative. Following those guidelines teaches one how to relate to human relatives and interact with them in accordance with traditional kinship teachings. Importantly, however, wâhkôhtowin is also extended to include more-than-human kinship relations. The nêhiyaw worldview emphasizes honouring the ancient kinship relationships that humans have with all other forms of life that inhabit their traditional territories. This emphasis teaches human beings to understand themselves as fully enmeshed in networks of relationships that support and enable their life and living. Métis Elder Maria Campbell (2007) eloquently addresses wâhkôhtowin enmeshment:
“And our teachings taught us that all of creation is related and inter-connected to all things within it.
Wahkotowin meant honoring and respecting those relationships. They are our stories, songs, ceremonies, and dances that taught us from birth to death our responsibilities and reciprocal obligations to each other. Human to human, human to plants, human to animals, to the water and especially to the earth. And in turn all of creation had responsibilities and reciprocal obligations to us” (p. 5).
Thus, following the relational kinship wisdom of wâhkôhtowin, human beings are called to repeatedly acknowledge and honour the sun, the moon, the sky, the land, the wind, the water, the animals, and the trees (just to name a few), as quite literally our kinship relations. Humans are fully reliant on these entities for survival and so the wise person works to ensure that those more-than-human relatives are healthy and consistently honoured. Cradled within this kinship teaching is an understanding that healthy human-to-human relations depend upon and flow from healthy relations with the more-than-human. They cannot be separated out.
These wisdom teachings of wâhkôhtowin enmeshment and kinship relationality are also central to the spirit and intent of the so-called Numbered Treaties negotiated between Indigenous peoples and the British Crown between 1871–1921. Although I cannot claim expertise in the details of each individual Treaty, I can state that Indigenous peoples understand those Treaties as sacred adoption ceremonies through which they agreed to live in peaceful coexistence with their newcomer relatives. This means that Indigenous peoples understand those Treaties as a formal commitment to welcome newcomers into their kinship networks, share land and resources with them, and work together with them as relatives for mutual benefit. In this sense, the Numbered Treaties can be understood as expressions of the wâhkôhtowin imagination – human and more-than-human kinship interconnectivities.
However, such kinship interconnectivities are not a central part of how most Canadians understand the Numbered Treaties. In accordance with the colonial emphasis on relationship denial, Treaties have been a massive curricular omission in Canadian education systems. If Canadians have learned anything of Treaties in their formal schooling experiences, it usually comes in the form of historical background information that characterizes Treaties as business deals through which Indigenous peoples surrendered their lands and received gifts and certain rights in return. So, tragically, the possibility that the Numbered Treaties could actually honour the layered complexities of kinship relationality and its constant renewal is undermined by ongoing institutional and societal dedication to relationship denial.
It is my view that Treaties can be a significant source of inspiration in addressing the two educational challenges mentioned previously: unlearning colonialism and honouring other ways to know and be. The handshake depicted on the Treaty medal guides me to work together with others in ways that bring benefits to all people who live on the land together. Specific to Treaty 6, the shaking of hands is understood to signify ka-miyo-wîcêhtoyahk (for us to get along well), ka-wîtaskîhtoyahk (for us to live as Nations), ka-wîtaskêhtoyahk (for us to share the land and live as good neighbours), and ka-miyo-ohpikihitoyahk (for us to raise each other’s children well). These teachings place emphasis on learning from each other in balanced ways and sharing the wisdom that comes from living together in the spirit of good relations. Indeed, Treaty teachings appear to provide the much-needed antidote to colonial logics of relationship denial and assist in the educational challenge to unlearn. Importantly, however, the wâhkôhtowin imagination also offers a significant opportunity to engage with other ways of knowing and being by consistently reminding us of our enmeshment within more-than-human kinship connectivities.
What expressions of knowledge and knowing flow from an education that emphasizes kinship connectivities and relational renewal? What kind of human being emerges from such educational experiences? These are questions without clear answers. However, they are also questions that educators must begin to carefully consider as part of the much larger struggle to unlearn colonialism. It is clear to me that the human ability to honour other ways to know and be depends on the willingness to return to the ancient wisdom teachings of kinship relationality that are clearly emphasized in Treaty teachings.
Photo: courtesy Dwayne Donald
First published in Education Canada, September 2022
Campbell, M. (2007, November). We need to return to the principles of Wahkotowin. Eagle Feather News, 10(11), 5. www.eaglefeathernews.com/quadrant/media//pastIssues/November_2007.pdf
Donald, D. (2019) Homo economicus and forgetful curriculum. In H. Tomlinson-Jahnke, S. Styres, S. Lille, & D. Zinga (Eds.), Indigenous education: New directions in theory and practice (pp. 103–125). University of Alberta Press.
Morris, A. (2014). The Treaties of Canada with the Indians of Manitoba and the North-West Territories: Including the negotiations on which they are based, and other information relating thereto. Cambridge University Press.
Nisbet, R. A. (1980). History of the idea of progress. Transaction.
Wynter, S. (1995). 1492: A new world view. In V. L. Hyatt & R. Nettleford (Eds.), Race, discourse, and the origin of the Americas: A new world view (pp. 5–57). Smithsonian.
1 I use this phrase to draw attention to the ways in which the institutional and socio-cultural practice of dividing the world according to colonial worldview has trained Canadians to disregard Indigenous peoples as fellow human beings and thus deny relationships with them. This disregard maintains unethical relationships and promotes the development of cognitive blockages (psychoses) that undermine the possibility for improved Indigenous-Canadian relations. The psychosis of relationship denial results from a decades-long curricular project dedicated to the telling of a Canadian national narrative that has largely excluded the memories and experiences of Indigenous peoples. A major assertion that stems from this relational psychosis is that Indigenous peoples do not belong in Canada and are therefore out of place in their own traditional territories. This relational psychosis is a fundamental characteristic of Canadian colonial culture that must be unlearned.
2 I choose to capitalize this term to denote its mythological prominence within settler colonial societies like Canada. This notion of Progress has grown out of the colonial experience and is predicated on the pursuit of unfettered economic growth and material prosperity stemming from faith in market capitalism. For more on this see Donald (2019) and Nisbet (1980).
I believe that reconciliation is an opportunity that has been given to us here in Canada by the Survivors of the Residential School system.
I don’t mean to say that Survivors intended reconciliation to be an opportunity for Canada, or that Survivors owe us anything at all. What I mean to say is that if it hadn’t been for the courage and strength of Survivors in sharing their stories and holding Canada to account for that history through the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement (IRSSA), I don’t think we would have come around to talking about reconciliation the way we are today.
It is humbling to me to think about the profound strength and courage it must have taken to share those stories. We know that in many cases, the stories that Survivors shared were never told before. In some instances, their own families had never heard the details of the horrors that were residential schools. Perhaps any of us who have survived trauma in our own lives can appreciate how significant it is to share stories of trauma; to relive the pain, fear, and shame that so often accompanies having survived cultural genocide. As an Indigenous person myself, I am proud. I am grateful. Being able to acknowledge that I come from people of such strength inspires me. I would want all Indigenous young people to know that they come from communities of strength and resilience.
Yes, there are barriers acting against young people. There is intergenerational trauma. There is no excuse for turning a blind eye to the suffering of youth across the country. However, there is also intergenerational strength, and dignity, and courage. That fact is as real as any other. I would hope that every Indigenous young person is able to hold their head high with pride for that fact. Indigenous people and communities are strong.
Where schools in Canada were once used as weapons against Indigenous peoples, they can now become places of healing and empowerment for all students.
When I say that reconciliation is an opportunity, what I mean is that through the 94 Calls to Action of the the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), Canada has the opportunity to heal as a nation. A very notable scholar by the name of Tasha Spillett once said on live TV that Canada doesn’t have an Indigenous problem, it has a colonial problem (paraphrasing with deep respect and gratitude). The work of reconciliation is not an act of pity for Indigenous peoples. Rather, it is an opportunity for Canada to get out of the way of the vibrancy and flourishing of Indigenous peoples and communities, while at the same time working to live up to its own values and potential.
Please understand that I am not suggesting that Canada is not a great country; it has been for many people over the past 150 years. I am of mixed ancestry. My father’s family is Ojibway/Métis from Treaty Two area. My grandparents, Mary and E.G., worked tirelessly for the Indian and Métis Friendship Centre here in Winnipeg for many years. There is a street named after them in Winnipeg and I am extremely proud of that. My mother’s family are Ukrainian/Polish from Ukraine. After the First World War, my Baba’s parents fled Ukraine to escape the Soviet Union. I’m told that if they had not they might have faced persecution and death. This was before the Holodomor and the genocide of Ukrainian people at the hands of the Soviet Union. Canada provided my family with an opportunity to survive – and not just survive, but to flourish on land that was made available through the signing of Treaty One. I have to acknowledge that part of my family’s story with gratitude in my heart.
However, as great as this country has been for so many families like my Ukrainian ancestors, Canada hasn’t lived up to its full potential. We are not yet the country that we can be, and I believe we never will be for so long as there are First Nations communities living in Third World conditions. We can never be the country that we want to be for so long as there are people within our own borders living under conditions that other people flee countries to escape from. There are communities in Canada that don’t have clean drinking water. If we consider that statement objectively, I believe the only rational response might be absolute disgust at the injustice. The fact that such conditions are tolerated speaks to just how deep the damage of colonization reaches in our country: into our relationships, our politics, and even our own sense of justice and fairness. Reconciliation is an opportunity to heal and to reach our full potential as a nation.
Reconciliation is an opportunity for all of us to contribute to solutions even though we are not responsible for having created the problems we inherited. That’s the incredible gift that has been given to our generation: to not just be concerned citizens, but to be transformative. We wouldn’t have this opportunity if it had not been for Survivors sharing their truths, and I for one am grateful to them in a way that I can’t fully express through words.
Education is key. I once heard Grand Chief Wilton Littlechild, one of the TRC Commissioners, say that in his estimation 72 of the 94 Calls to Action are about education and awareness. If that is true, teachers are crucial to the work that must be done. Schools can become places where students are empowered to be a part of change. Where schools in Canada were once used as weapons against Indigenous peoples, they can now become places of healing and empowerment for all students. The damage created by colonialism and cultural genocide in Canada deeply impacts Indigenous communities, but it doesn’t end there. All Canadians have been impacted by this history. It is visible on our streets, in our schools, in our hospitals, in our justice system. The impact of colonization on thinking, assumptions, and our very identities has caused hatred, injustice, violence, and cruelty. Having watched the rise of populism and extremism globally, I can’t help but think about Canada’s own vulnerability to such threats. Truly, there is much healing work to be done.
Let’s be clear that the education that is needed isn’t just about transferring information from one intellect to another. This work is going to require deeper learning; what Jack Mezirow referred to as Transformative Learning, the pedagogy of allowing individuals to transcend previously held beliefs about the world in favour of a worldview that better serves them moving into the future. The education that is needed would free individuals from ever getting caught up in the callousness and cruelty of statements like, “Why don’t they just get over it?” It would empower young people to transcend apathy. The kind of education that is needed would allow people to see with clarity and compassion the absolute dishonour that exists for Canada in allowing communities to go without clean drinking water.
In order to facilitate that kind of learning, I believe that we will need to return to the basics. I certainly don’t mean reading, writing, and arithmetic (the supposed basics of the holy grail of any school system: academic achievement). I believe we would be better served with the basics of love, kindness, and compassion. I think our children, our economy, and our democratic freedoms would do better with that sort of foundation.
My Ojibway heritage teaches that as human beings we have the sacred responsibility to love and care for children even if they are not our own. The notion that schools should be about something other than this love, kindness, and compassion, is antiquated and rooted in an exploitive understanding of childhood – viewing children as a labour force rather than democratic citizens. The work of reconciliation allows us to reimagine business as usual, such that all children feel safe in schools. We know that school has not been safe for many Indigenous communities; we need to make them safe enough for children to find their voices in challenging the harmful legacies of colonization around them.
There continues to be an abusive discourse in Canada that argues that teachers need to be accountable and that accountability is measured through standardized testing of academics. I’m reminded of the Emperor who parades in front of his subjects, naked in his new clothes. Of course, that cautionary tale tells the story of swindlers who are producing nothing of value on their looms, but who manage to convince the emperor’s subjects to buy into the lie. I don’t believe that standardized tests predict the ability of a nation to navigate an uncertain future. They certainly haven’t served children of colour, Indigenous children, or children surviving poverty. They haven’t served teachers who have had their enthusiasm and passion for teaching handcuffed by the fallacy that we should feel shame for not achieving scores as high as others who were better able to squeeze a couple more points out of their exhausted, terrified, and anxious children. The education system parades through the streets in the fancy clothes of accountability through standardized testing, having been sold empty promises by those who never wanted to see us succeed in the first place.
This article isn’t about the history of such testing, which is grounded in the work of eugenicists and white supremacists who found rationale for their abuse of minorities in those test scores. Nor is it about how such tests, and their philosophic relatives, have been used to justify the forced sterilization of minorities and other “undesirables,” or how many brilliant, vibrant, potentially world-changing minds were cast aside, left believing they were dumb, because they didn’t do well on a test that was never designed to recognize the things that they were good at. No, this article isn’t about that, it is about really getting back to basics. But first we will have to be courageous enough to acknowledge that we have been sold defective goods, and that the Emperor is walking around naked.
During the worst days of pandemic lockdown, I was reminded of how willing so many teachers are to go above and beyond the call of duty for their students. I am not surprised by this, but am certainly inspired. The lengths that many were willing to go to ensure that that their students were engaged and loved was nothing short of heroic. However, we also need to recognize that these sacrifices came with a price. The entire system is exhausted and depleted. Many teachers are struggling with very serious consequences that impact their physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. Now, more than ever, I think the notion of schools as places of healing is resonating with people. “Business as usual” isn’t going to allow us meet a post-pandemic future with resiliency, but I believe that engaging in reconciliation might.
Through the work of reconciliation, we have the opportunity to engage with teachings, wisdom, and worldviews that can help us reimagine business as usual. Indigenous people know how to survive and meet hardship with resilience; but there is also a deeply rooted cultural belief regarding the sacredness of children that can help us in our work to create places of healing. Canada made its best attempt to erase that teaching from the face of the Earth – but it failed. The Knowledge Keepers, Elders, Grandmothers, and Grandfathers kept teachings alive so that future generations could reconnect to those sacred lifeways that allowed First Peoples to not only survive, but flourish through sustainable relations with Mide Aki – kind-hearted Mother Earth. Thanks to the courage, strength, and dignity of Residential School Survivors, we have the opportunity to re-engage with relationships that might allow us to see a future that is so deeply threatened in our age.
Photo credit: Adobe Stock
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This was a question I kept asking myself when I thought about the youth living through the 2013 Alberta floods. What were their experiences and what could we learn from them? In 2019, I interviewed nine youth who had graduated the year of the flood to find out what life had been like for them during and after the disaster (Markides, 2020). I chose this group because they were transitioning from life in school to life out of school at the time of the event. The stories and advice they shared about living through a disaster has significant bearing for supporting youth during our current pandemic times.
“It’s hard but you need to find time to grieve and it… it’s tough. Being a teenager is tough by itself.”
While the disasters are different, the needs of the youth of today are likely similar to those of the youth from the study. Following from this assertion, we can expect that the youth will lean on and be held in relationship to others as a means of mutual support. They will need informal and formal outlets for processing their experiences and healing from the trials of pandemic life. Finding work will also be a challenge for many, and accessing resources for school will be of greater need in the years to come. Youth are often hailed for their resilience, and rightly so, but that does not negate the reality that youth will need various supports to bounce back from this experience.
Whether describing their greatest supports or greatest challenges, the youth consistently spoke about their families, friends, partners, and even pets as a source of strength. Some relationships were strained and others changed over time. It became clear who was there for them in their time of need and who was not. The youth value those who can be present for them – to provide a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, a helping hand, financial support, a place to crash, or a space to visit with their friends. Some youth were able to be a supportive person for others:
“Some of my friends who felt close enough would reach out to me if they needed a place to stay.”
“I just had a campfire one night, so everybody got together and got to feel some companionship.”
With the ever-changing safety guidelines in mind, youth living through COVID-19 have had to significantly reduce their in-person social interactions, which has consequently reduced their opportunities for mutual peer support. The social isolation may be seen by many youth as the greatest challenge they faced during the pandemic. Even over the shorter duration of the flood experience, youth found the isolation from their peers challenging:
“I feel like it would have been better to have a space where we could all talk and converse… Just a place to share stories.”
As restrictions lift, the youth may be re-evaluating their relationships and prioritizing social gatherings. Some have become more reliant on virtual interactions than before, while others have found creative ways to see friends outside of their schools and homes. In the months to come, they will need spaces to gather and reconnect with peers in safe and supported environments. Specifically, youth may need structured support in navigating their changing peer or familial relations.
While the youth in the study did not utilize wellness supports themselves, they all noted that youth would benefit from having access to counsellors and psychologists. They recommended that health-care professionals need to find creative ways of connecting with the youth and letting them know what resources were available to them. They also felt that group settings or online options would be most appealing.
“I feel like there should have been, like therapists and psychologists at those evacuation centres, like right away.”
When we consider the experience of the pandemic, it is clear that no one has been left untouched by the present disaster. However, each person’s experience of it is unique. Youth will need space to share and process their experiences from the past year and a half, as well as having options for professional supports offered directly to them. Families, schools, and organizations working with youth should pro-actively seek out counselling and other mental-health related programming that could benefit the youth. Often youth know that supports exist, but do not know how to access them. Keeping open and honest communication about the challenges of living through a disaster can help to destigmatize the issues and normalize seeking support.
During the post-flood cleanup, many youth had their hours cut back significantly or lost their employment due to business closures. Those who had sustainable employment reported that they appreciated having purposeful work during the summer months and being able to save money for school or to support themselves if they were living on their own. In many ways, they were a largely untapped labour force in the post-disaster recovery. Additionally, one youth expressed gratitude for receiving a scholarship earmarked for flood victims:
“My third year, I worked two jobs while in school…. But actually, I was lucky enough my first year of college they had a grant for flood victims.”
With the pandemic closures and restrictions of 2020 and 2021, the economy has been hard hit. Youth are seeing greater competition for employment and fewer opportunities than in years past. The prospect of finding a job, let alone meaningful work, is more abysmal than ever. With extended time at home, people have been tending to their yard work and home improvements themselves, potentially reducing the positions for summer employment. As businesses begin to open up, increase hours of operation, and cautiously increase staffing, it will be important to consider where youth can be utilized. Youth who are transitioning from high school may also need support in accessing bursaries and scholarship for further education, and in securing apprenticeships and co-operative learning positions. Again, people working in intermediary roles with youth can play a major role in supporting their needs – by approaching industry to provide bursaries and positions earmarked for youth.
The 2013 Alberta floods disrupted many events and plans that the youth had envisioned and prepared for as they transitioned into adulthood. Graduation, summer celebrations, travel, work, and other happenings were cancelled or changed completely. These sudden and often stark shifts created significant breaks between what the youth had anticipated and their lived realities. As Leaf Van Boven and Laurence Ashworth (2007) assert, the expectations of future positive events can heighten emotions and associations in ways that overshadow the event itself. For example, the replacement of an anticipated graduation ceremony with something “other” – such as a drive-thru graduation or online ceremony – can lead to long-term feelings of loss and regret, despite their gratitude for the efforts made to make the day special for them. As one youth explained:
“There was the effort made to make it as best as possible and I appreciate that. And I think it was – I think everyone felt a little bit disappointed.… It’s kind of like the tradition [to have grad in the park] and it was a bit weird not to. It was kind of disappointing not having that, to be honest with you. I find no fault with anyone, it’s just how things worked out.”
In the years to come, youth will look back on the pandemic with a range of emotions and associations that may be difficult to negotiate. They may feel loss, anger, grief, and remorse for various aspects of their lives that changed temporarily or permanently as a result of the worldwide disaster. Oftentimes, these experiences will go unexamined unless there is a purposeful space for the conversation to unfold. As one youth said:
“[I] didn’t really, didn’t overly feel affected from the flood until I… wrote this out and… put all the puzzle pieces together.”
The notion of the “new normal” refers to the reality that life cannot return to what we remembered, anticipated, or wished it to be. It just carries on, different than before. So much of the experience has been out of the youths’ control. Rules, safety precautions, closures, cancellations, and limitations abound. Youth will be looking for ways to assert their autonomy and reclaim power over their lives. Some of these options may be healthy, others may not be. As parents, educators, and people involved with youth, we need to be pro-active in our planning and programming. We need to invite the youth into dialogue – to listen to their experiences, learn about their needs, and support them as they live through the challenges of post-pandemic life.
First published in Education Canada, September 2021
Markides, J. (2020). Wisdom and well-being post-disaster: Stories told by youth [unpublished doctoral dissertation]. University of Calgary.
Van Boven, L., & Ashworth, L. (2007). Looking forward, looking back: Anticipation is more evocative than retrospection. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 136(2), 289–300.
When I think about the necessary steps to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, Indigenous rights and justice come to mind immediately. To me, it is clear that there can be no sustainable world without creating the conditions that allow Indigenous people to thrive.
Many of the objectives of the SDGs (such as a sustainable world for future generations to inherit, responsible practices of consumption, strong partnerships, etc.) already align with the values and practices of most Indigenous nations, which, according to a 2018 United Nations report, make up only five percent of the global population, but protect more than 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity (Raygorodetsky, 2018). Not only this, but the emphasis that the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development puts on reducing inequalities “is of particular relevance to Indigenous peoples, who are almost universally in situations of disadvantage vis-à-vis other segments of the population” (United Nations, 2018). In Canada, Indigenous people are grossly overrepresented in every area of inequity.
Despite these clear points of connection, I think for some people, and certainly for many environmentalists, policy-makers, and educators I have known, emphasizing Indigenous people’s role in the SDGs is approached as an afterthought rather than as a necessity. This line of thinking and inaction is something we must change, especially in Canada, as progress on the SDGs lags – incredibly so when it comes to the state of Indigenous communities.
This is not to say that there has been a complete failure in the conversation about Indigenous people and the SDGs. Indeed, in Canada’s 2018 Voluntary National Review of Implementation, Indigenous people were mentioned under the progress reports for almost every one of the SDGs to date (Global Affairs Canada, 2018). However, I have long maintained that the degree to which Indigenous people are centred in conversations about the SDGs is insufficient. Moreover, I believe the approaches Canada and Canadians have taken to collaborate with Indigenous people thus far, are the wrong ones.
As of 2019, the primary approach Canada had taken to addressing Indigenous concerns regarding the SDGs was to “invest in existing Indigenous-focused programming relevant to each SDG and aim for greater consultation and collaboration with Indigenous people in every sector” (Yesno, 2019). None of these approaches are transformational. Consultation and increased dollars are not enough to bring about the changes Indigenous communities deserve or the impact the 2030 Agenda seeks to achieve; these types of changes necessitate a restructuring of power and jurisdiction; a provision of tools and capacity so Indigenous people can chart their own paths to self-determination.
Why self-determination? Because Indigenous people cannot protect the land if it is always under threat of seizure. They cannot pursue sustainable development practices if threats of mining, damming, pipelines, and other forms of extraction loom without consent. Indigenous people already have the knowledge to uphold sustainable relationships between ourselves and the natural world; we had been in harmonious relationships with the environment for a millennia before colonization. It is hard to pursue those ways of living though, ones which would benefit all people living in Canada, when we have to fight for basic rights at the same time. This is where education plays a critical role. As current and future generations navigate sustainability crises into 2030 and beyond, it is important they, too, see Indigenous rights as central to a sustainable world.
One of young people’s greatest strengths, I believe, is their ability to seek and embrace radical change – a skill that can be increasingly challenging for people as they age. Transforming Canada’s relationship with Indigenous people in the ways I have described above is a truly radical and momentous change. It will take an entire coming generation fighting for, and believing in, this change in order for it to be realized. It is up to current generations of educators, parents, thought-leaders, and policy-makers to help them understand this, emphasize the importance of building strong relationships with Indigenous people, and ultimately, guide them in this fight.
The SDGs offer a great entry point for discussions about the specific ways Indigenous people are left behind in this country, and how that might be able to change. Discussing SDG 5: Gender Equality? Highlight Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). There is a whole list of action items necessary to address this inequality. Tackling SDG 6: Clean Water and Sanitation? Identify the dozens of Indigenous communities who lack reliable, clean water and the many Indigenous voices finding ways to overcome this challenge. Let young people know that Indigenous people all around them are fighting for their future as well as our own.
I should note that there are individuals all over the country, including educators, who are leading by example and already sharing this information in and out of the classroom. I know this because I have been lucky enough to be taught and mentored by such people. For those who have the essential job of educating and shaping young people, and want to do more to bring Indigenous justice to their work, the resources are already there – they are just waiting for you to embrace them. (See OISE, 2001; Gamblin, 2019; Yellowhead Institute, 2019, for starters.)
Overall, Indigenous rights and justice, especially the right to self-determination, needs to be a major priority as we collectively tackle the SDGs and address what feels like an increasingly precarious world; not only because it’s the moral thing to do, but because it is a critical part of the path forward. It is long time we realize that, ultimately, there is no sustainable future without Indigenous rights, and that we all have a role to play in ensuring that these rights are realized.
The United Nations (2015) said it well when they stated: “The future of humanity and of our planet lies in our hands. It lies also in the hands of today’s younger generation who will pass the torch to future generations. The road to sustainable development is already mapped; it will be for all of us to ensure that the journey is successful and its gains irreversible.”
Indigenous people have long been ready to embark on that journey; it is my hope that we can work together so the next generations will be ready too.
Photo: Adobe Stock
Gamblin, R. (2019, November 4). LAND BACK! What do we mean? 4 Rs Youth Movement.
Global Affairs Canada. (2018). Canada’s implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (pp. 1–148). Government of Canada.
Deepening Knowledge Project.(2001). Best practices for teaching Aboriginal students. Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.
Raygorodetsky, G. (2018, November 19). Can indigenous land stewardship protect biodiversity? National Geographic.
United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. (2015). Transforming our world: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. United Nations.
United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. (2018). Indigenous Peoples and the 2030 Agenda. United Nations.
Yellowhead Institute. (2019, October 29). Land Back: A Yellowhead Institute Red Paper
Yesno, R. (2019, June 11). UNDRIP and the SDGs: There’s no sustainable future without Indigenous rights. Alliance2030.
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”?
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?
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?
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
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.
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.
The Trades Awareness Program (TAP) brings high school students from the outlying communities of the South Slave Division in the NWT to Aurora College for a hands-on introduction to the trades. Through TAP, students who would not otherwise have exposure to qualified instructors, accredited shops or equipment may be motivated to complete high school, enroll in the College, and pursue careers in the trades, with benefit to both themselves and their communities.
The skilled trades gap continues to widen as more tradespersons retire than join the Red Seal ranks each year. Such is the case in the Northwest Territories, where the largely Indigenous population is located in 33 communities distributed across more than 1.3 million square kilometres of land between the Alberta border and the High Arctic. With the high cost of living and lack of skilled tradespeople in most communities, it may be impossible to find a plumber or an electrician – and the pipes freeze quickly at 40 below.
The trades shortage is exacerbated by the prevalence of oil, natural gas and mining activities in the North that have generated a large demand for skilled workers. Compounding the issue is the fact that schools in the North are small and often lack shop facilities and qualified instructors. As a result, finding ways to raise awareness and expose Northern students to careers in the trades is problematic.
In 2005, the South Slave Divisional Education Council (SSDEC), Aurora College and the Fort Smith Career Centre formed a partnership called the South Slave Communities’ Learning Network (SSCLN). The SSCLN’s first task was to brainstorm initiatives of mutual interest and potential benefit to the South Slave region and the predominantly Indigenous communities (75% Dene and Métis) of Fort Smith (Chipewyan, Cree, English and French), Hay River (Slavey, English and French), Fort Resolution (Chipewyan), K’atlodeeche First Nation (Slavey), and the fly-in-only community of Lutsel K’e (Chipewyan).
The SSCLN identified career development as a key area of mutual interest, which then led to the creation of the Trades Awareness Program (TAP). TAP began with the intent of providing a hands-on trades experience for students in the South Slave who did not otherwise have exposure to qualified instructors, accredited shops or equipment. The hope is that, through TAP, more and more students will be motivated to complete high school, enrol in the College, and pursue careers in the trades, with potential benefit to both themselves and their communities.
The Trades Awareness Program (TAP) brings interested Grade 8-12 students from the outlying communities to the Thebacha Campus of Aurora College in Fort Smith to experience a series of short courses in several different trades. For each week of sessions, the partnership organizes transportation, meals and accommodation in the student residences, and instruction for 30-50 students.
After its inception in 2005, TAP quickly expanded from a one-week pilot into a three-part program in which students can earn up to three credits toward high school graduation. The TAP program now includes two on-site options for students: TAP Introductory and TAP Intensive.
First-time participants attend TAP Introductory, which provides students with experiences in a variety of trades. Students spend one full day in each of four different trades. Depending on the availability of instructors and facilities, students have had the opportunity to choose one-day workshops in carpentry, plumbing, cooking, electrical, welding, computer diagnosis and repair, heavy equipment technology, and environment and natural resources technology. In most years, local businesses have also partnered and generously provided more options for students in mechanics, aviation, and hairdressing.
The TAP Introductory schedule keeps students busy and authentically engaged. Each day they are fitted with proper attire, be it steel-toed boots, hard hats, chef uniforms, welding leathers, hair nets, or safety goggles. They learn about such things as basic pipe fitting, extension cord composition and assembly, meal planning and preparation, toilet installation, and how to use tools like hand saws, measuring tapes, band saws and welders. The flight simulator at the flight training centre of the local airline has been a highlight for many. The students who rotate through the cooking option prepare lunch for the entire group of students in the Introductory program for that day. Most students also return to their communities having completed a project or two they can take home – wooden birdhouses, extension cords and metal wind chimes, to name a few.
The Introductory program also includes workplace safety and career development sessions, and an extremely popular Trades Olympics event where students compete against each other in a race that has included tasks such as hammering a nail, sawing a piece of wood, assembling a pipe fitting design, and installing a light switch cover.
Completion of the Introductory program is a prerequisite for students who are interested in returning to attend one or more TAP Intensive sessions. In the Intensive program, students complete a week in one trade of their choice, providing students with more in-depth exposure to that trade. Some students have returned for a third and fourth Intensive session, when space is available, to gain further exposure in a different trade than they did in previous years.
In both programs, students are required to participate in all activities and behave respectfully at all times. They are informed that they are ambassadors for their people, their schools and their communities, and reminded that their behaviour and effort should make their respective families and communities proud. Thankfully, it is a rare case in which a student breaks the rules and must be sent home early.
Students are evaluated by instructors in both the Introductory and Intensive modules by means of an evaluation rubric. The rubric addresses six areas: safety, student effort, punctuality, participation, use of equipment, and task completion/workmanship. Students are able to earn one credit upon successful completion of the Introductory Program and another credit in the Intensive Program. A third credit is also available for work completed by participating students in their home community in preparation for TAP Intensive, and follow-up reporting and personal career planning upon their return.
The delivery of TAP over its 15-year history is attributable to those involved in the SSCLN partnership. Each plays a critical role. The regional school council provides the students and chaperones, organizes transportation (taxis, buses and a chartered flight for Lutsel K’e students) and hires the program coordinator to plan, promote and oversee both TAP modules each year. The Career Centre has access to labour market funding and provides student access to career counsellors during the TAP modules. Aurora College provides the facilities, accommodations and trades instructors for the modules. Other important partners are local businesses that also provide instruction and facilities. The efforts of the SSCLN ensure there is no cost to students who wish to attend TAP.
When TAP rolled out as a pilot in 2005, the SSCLN identified several objectives, including:
Clearly, the program has provided awareness and access, having introduced hundreds of students to the trades over the past 15 years, but how do we know if it’s making a difference and worth continuing?
Student interest and participation in the program is one measure. Approximately 80-100 students attend TAP each year (in a region of only 1,300 JK-12 students overall). The program set a new participation record this past fall when Aurora College was able to accommodate 53 students in the Introductory program. Most Introductory students return for TAP Intensive.
TAP has proven popular as further evidenced by consistently positive ratings from students, chaperones, and instructors on feedback forms completed and submitted on the last day of each program. The feedback forms encourage facilitators of the program to ensure a quality program every year. The initiative stays fresh and is constantly improving because the feedback is also used to prepare a report with conclusions, commendations, and recommendations for further improvements the following year. An analysis of this historical data found that over 96 percent of students and chaperones who attended over the years indicated the value of the program to be either “very good” or “good.”
The partnership also contracted out a longitudinal review of the program that sought feedback from both past and present students, including those who were in post-secondary school and/or in the workforce. The review’ has garnered further feedback on the long-term value of the program and helped to determine what further improvements might be considered. The study concluded that TAP was both memorable and valuable. TAP helped 81 percent of participants to decide on their future careers. Thirty-nine percent indicated TAP helped them decide to pursue a career in one particular trade. Feedback also confirmed that some students discovered the trades were not for them, which can also be considered a positive outcome from the program.
Due mostly to the Trades Awareness Program and its success, the SSCLN partnership was presented with the Premier’s Award of Excellence for Collaboration.
Both students and their parents have expressed surprise and excitement about how much they learn and the skills they can employ in such a short period of time. The fact that most of the instructors and chaperones are enthusiastic and Indigenous themselves has provided important modelling for students to consider and set similar career goals, especially for our students from the smaller and more remote communities.
We give others the last word on the success of TAP. These quotes were obtained as part of the longitudinal review:
“It was very good, in fact, it was better than I expected,” wrote one student. “I met new people, learned new things and most importantly I had fun. The instructors and chaperones were amazing and I learned a lot. It was useful to me because it opened me up to new opportunities and it gave me ideas of what I want to be in the future.”
“I have always had a fascination with mechanics, and how things work together to make an effective machine. Seeing the shop and tools, meeting the instructors, I realized that I wanted to become a mechanic,” wrote another student.
“The students are told, on the very first day, that they are in a college setting and that they are expected to behave as college students. And, they do!” wrote one instructor. “The reason I take part in and support this program is just this: the students who participate are being given a valuable opportunity to experience a trade and what they can expect while attending a post-secondary institution. While many may not go into a trade, I hope that all of them will attend college or university at some point, and what better way to get a feel for it than in this safe and nurturing environment. As long as this program runs, I will continue to participate and support it.”
“My daughter has learned a lot from the TAP program,” responded one parent. “She cooks a lot at home now and likes to try new things. When she got back from the program she told me she had lots of fun and enjoyed the instructors. I hope she gets to go one last time this coming year. Thanks again.”
The program has been a tremendous success, but it has not been without its challenges.
The North may be small in population, but it’s large in land size. With South Slave communities and schools separated by hundreds of kilometres of highway, and one community accessible only by air, the logistics are nothing short of complicated.
Scheduling both the Introductory and Intensive modules also requires a delicate balance. TAP must be scheduled during appropriate times in the calendars of five schools, when regular Aurora College programs are not in session and students not in the dormitory, when the college instructors are available, and when a suitable coordinator can be contracted. TAP also relies on the ability of local businesses to fit students into their busy schedules. The available dates vary from year to year but have most often occurred in September and June, with at least one Introductory and one Intensive week per calendar year. In the end, it still means taking students out of their normal classroom routines for an entire week, which means catch-up on their return. Students tend not to enrol in their final Grade 12 year, when success on the diploma exams takes precedence.
Maintaining relations and commitment to the initiative in the face of staff turnover has also been a priority. Only one of the three original CEOs remains. Yet the program has been able to continue each year because of its evident value and because of the partnership, commitment, and generous contributions of the South Slave Divisional Education Council, Aurora College, and the Fort Smith Career Centre (Government of the NWT Department of Education, Culture and Employment).
The SSCLN partnership and its Trades Awareness Program was designed to provide students with greater information and exposure to the trades and college life. TAP gives opportunities for students from across the South Slave to “try out” several trades. TAP has also been instrumental in getting students thinking about the trades as viable career options after high school. But TAP has proven to be more than that.
Justice Murray Sinclair has said, in reference to the legacy of Residential Schools, “Reconciliation is about forging and maintaining respectful relationships,” and, “Education is what got us here, and education is what will get us out.” TAP appears to be doing its part in responding to these calls to action. Since students have been scheduled according to their preferred trades, the makeup of each group changes daily, which provides opportunities to socialize with youth from other communities. The meals and social activities further integrate students with food and laughter. The quiet silos of students, clustered by community and language group on day one, completely transform by the end of the week into large group banter and laughter, hugs, exchanges of contact information, and sometimes tears upon departure. In addition to increasing career opportunities for youth, TAP is also helping to break down cultural barriers, strengthen relations, expand comfort zones, and encourage student aspirations.
The skilled trades gap isn’t going away. However, by providing students with an organized gateway to the trades that is both fun and educational, TAP is strengthening relations and creating futures.
Photo: courtesy South Slave Divisional Education Council
First published in Education Canada, June 2020
The authors’ qualitative survey asked teachers to explore what supported their commitment to reconciliation education and what stood in their way. Here’s what they found out.
Inspired by our graduate work in the Call to Action Program at the University of Calgary, we set out to determine what factors either support or limit teachers from implementing reconciliatory practices in their classrooms.
Our research uncovered commitment, collaboration and self-reflection as key factors in supporting education through reconciliation.
“84 percent of these teachers believe Indigenous education should receive greater attention in schools.”
Recognizing that Canadian teachers are poised at the forefront of responding to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Calls to Action (2015) and encouraged by strategies mandated by their school boards, in 2018 we conducted a survey of 90 teachers in our urban area.
Our survey revealed that 66 percent of these teachers are aware of the TRC’s Calls to Action, and 84 percent believe Indigenous education should receive great er attention in schools.
Teacher respondents also reported that they regularly engage in learning opportunities surrounding reconciliatory practices and Indigenous perspectives; however, these preparatory activities have not yet led to considerable shifts in their everyday classroom practices.
We followed up by interviewing self-selected teachers in order to gain a more thorough understanding of the specific conditions that support their efforts in engaging in reconciliatory pedagogy, along with an identification of barriers to this work.
“One-half of interviewees also reported a fear of making mistakes and of culturally appropriating.”
During interviews, teacher participants shared the challenges that they face in this work. One challenge was not having enough time to digest complex ideas. “There are a lot of resources out there but it takes time to think about them,” reported one interview participant.
Approximately one-half of interviewees also reported a fear of making mistakes and of culturally appropriating.
Other challenges identified by our peers were recognition of the emotional labour associated with taking up this work, along with resistance from either administration, students, parents, or teachers.
Still, fueled by their own ethical positioning and sense of moral obligation, these teachers were able to find a way forward by focusing on supportive relationships and maintaining a self-reflective stance in their pedagogical decisions.
Findings from our study signal that it is a sense of personal responsibility from individual teachers that indicate a greater likelihood of their future and ongoing engagement with reconciliatory practices.
Not too surprisingly, teachers who volunteered for the follow-up interview identified themselves as having a strong commitment to reconciliation; in all cases, they were actively engaged in reconciliatory pedagogy motivated and driven by their own initiative.
Being already strongly committed to reconciliation meant that they were in constant pursuit of deepening their personal knowledge of Indigenous topics and perspectives, as well as ways to infuse them within their own classrooms. For example, interviewees shared that they are now taking a far more critical look at Canadian history, and asking their students to do the same by questioning how Indigenous peoples are portrayed in the media. They are also checking themselves against any tokenistic approaches to teaching.
Teachers in the survey who described themselves as self-reflective were far more likely to engage in reconciliatory pedagogy. This heightened sense of self-awareness forms a cornerstone of all good teaching, and is crucial to the ethical integration of Indigenous perspectives across the curriculum.
Teachers who described themselves as highly reflective were considerably more likely to reach out to Elders, and to incorporate Indigenous arts, literature, and cultural practices (such as sharing circles) into their classrooms.
All interview participants relayed the importance of having supportive administration, colleagues, and parents as essential to the continuation of their efforts in incorporating reconciliatory practices into their teaching.
In fact, both the survey and interviews found a strong correlation between supportive personal relationships within the broader school community and individual teachers’ attempts to integrate reconciliation through education. Collaboration with colleagues was one of the primary factors that increased the likelihood of engagement in a wide variety of reconciliatory practices, such as incorporating Indigenous arts and literature in their classroom. So while teachers can start this type of work on their own, they require a community to sustain their efforts.
Teachers who indicated that they formed and nurtured relationships with Elders also reported that they engaged in all reconciliatory practices that we researched: incorporating Indigenous literature and arts, cultural practices (such as circle protocols), professional development related to reconciliation, and land-based learning.
Interestingly, the teachers who collaborated with Elders were the only participants in the study who engaged in land or place-based education. In these cases, learning from an Elder went hand-in-hand with learning from the land, which is central to understanding Indigneous perspectives as a connection to Mother Earth is often given a prominent place in Elder teachings.
Survey results indicate teachers are receiving pre-service teacher training in the area of Indigenous cultures and contemporary Indigenous issues.
The vast majority of teachers with less than five years of experience have had these learning opportunities incorporated into their teacher education training.
This demonstrates that some post-secondary institutions are making good on their calls to action and creating change within their institutions.
Through anecdotal evidence, we know that these teachers are moving into classrooms and schools armed with knowledge to further education for reconciliation. However, we found that even though seeds are being planted at the university level, it takes personal commitment, self-reflection, and collaboration to nurture and maintain the growth of these commitments in the face of challenges inherent in all complex school environments.
Pre-service teacher training and professional development learning opportunities need to focus on the development of a teacher’s own commitment to reconciliation, self-reflective practice, and a desire to collaborate with others in implementing reconciliatory practices in their classrooms.
Furthermore, these learning opportunities need to be followed up with a culture of collaboration and trust within school settings.
We encourage teachers to step onto the path of reconciliation by embarking on their own journey of self-reflection around their responsibility to this important work. Then, to transform their emerging beliefs into action, teachers can share ideas with their colleagues and administrators, support each other, and collaborate.
First steps to take include:
There are many different points of entry into reconciliation, and there is no one way to work on it. What is important to remember is that it takes personal commitment, self-reflection, and collaboration to initiate and sustain reconciliatory efforts.
First published in Education Canada, March 2020
In April 2019, I boarded an airplane with 21 teenagers from Toronto to travel to Thunderchild First Nation in northern Saskatchewan, where we would stay for one week as part of a YMCA youth exchange program.
These students had all taken the English: Understanding Contemporary First Nations, Métis and Inuit Voices course I teach at James Cardinal McGuigan (JCM) high school – a course designed to honour Indigenous voices.
But I wanted to push that education further by having my students participate in authentic experiential learning: being immersed in a First Nations community; engaging in rich discussion with the youth and Elders; and forming relationships that would bridge the gap between our cultures.
This YMCA program offered the perfect opportunity.
The project required an enormous amount of preparation – both logistically and emotionally. We explored stereotypes and learned about how to respectfully enter into an Indigenous community.
We participated in a workshop led by Dr. Angela Nardoz called “Build a Community” – an embodied experience that teaches about the impacts of colonialism and connects participants to the historical facts in a heart-based way.
I was in frequent communication with the coordinators at Thunderchild, Lydia Sunchild and Leah Arcand, to ensure that the experience would go smoothly and that their students would feel respected and welcomed when it was their turn to visit us in Toronto a few weeks later.
When we arrived at Piyesiw Awasis school, we were graciously greeted in a welcoming ceremony by all 250 students and teachers, who shook each of our hands, saying, “Tansi” (welcome).
Over the course of the week, my students engaged in land-based learning activities including teepee-building, hide-stretching, fire-building, and hiking. They visited historic sites and museums in neighbouring communities. A lucky few were even able to participate in a Sweat Lodge ceremony. Thunderchild shared their teachings, traditions, languages, artwork, and dance. Students met with Elders, watched a traditional powwow demonstration, and participated in a round dance.
“I was so impressed with how trusting and receptive both groups of students were.”
My students formed immediate relationships with the host students.
They played co-operative games and volleyball (with Thunderchild’s regional championship team), listened to music, and watched movies together. They talked about social media, family, traditions, and hobbies.
They were so alike and so eager to learn about one another.
At the end, the students participated in a sharing circle where they were able to openly and honestly express their thoughts and feelings regarding their newfound relationships.
It was moving for me to see such a wonderful example of trauma-informed and anti-colonial relationship-building.
“It was a truly special celebration of inclusion and unity.”
Two weeks later, we welcomed our new friends to Toronto. Our JCM students and the Thunderchild youth were so excited to be reunited, and they emanated a joy-filled energy all week. The days were jam-packed with activities: we did beading; we took them to the CN Tower, a Blue Jays game, the waterfront, the Royal Ontario Museum, and the CBC for a tour where we met award-winning Cree journalist Connie Walker. We even met the famous Ojibway author Drew Hayden Taylor!
A highlight was a downtown mural walk to discover the beautiful Indigenous artwork that is hidden all around our city, led by First Nations artists Chief Lady Bird and Aura, whom we had met earlier that year.
We concluded the week with a multicultural festival where JCM and Thunderchild students showcased their traditional music and dance. It was a truly special celebration of inclusion and unity. The week’s end brought emotional good-byes, and the students are still keeping in touch with each other months later.
I was so impressed with how trusting and receptive both groups of students were.
They came to the experience with open minds and a genuine interest in one another.
My students returned from Thunderchild changed in various ways: some came out of their shells, others now have more direction in their lives. They’ve grown: they have more friends, they’ve traveled, they understand what community is, what pride is. They have a broader worldview. Parents noticed this change immediately and thanked us for giving their children this experience.
I’m proud of us for rising to this challenge.
We hear about the realities on certain reserves and we know about the resounding impacts of colonization. Colonialism has created a divide between people who live on reserves and settler-people – yet the students managed to overcome those obstacles together.
That’s how relationships are formed; that’s how foundations are built; and that’s how change is made.
Photo: Dave Donald
First published in Education Canada, March 2020
How a 12-day placement in a local Indigenous community gives teacher candidates a chance “to develop the knowledge, motivation, and skills to facilitate the transmission of an environmental consciousness to their future students… and to establish inclusive learning spaces by being better able to teach to and about Indigenous people.”
My dad taught me about the land. We were a hunting, gathering, and fishing family, so we were always on the land harvesting food. I have many wonderful memories: fishing; snaring rabbit; partridge hunting; and picking apples, berries, fiddleheads, chokecherries, puff balls, leeks and mushrooms.
Picking mushrooms requires particular knowledge and skill because some mushrooms are dangerous. After a day picking mushrooms my dad would fry them with onions and serve them with venison steaks or chops.
Invariably at the dinner table, my brother, sister, or I would ask our Dad, “How do we know these aren’t the poison ones?” to which he would reply, “Well, if you wake up in the morning, then I know they weren’t poisonous.” While his response provided a small degree of worry, my siblings and I found it funny because we had trust in his knowledge. I acknowledge that my love of the land definitely comes from my father.
When a gap needs to be filled, you fill it. This is a common experience for me as an Indigenous educator (Anishinaabe – Bear Clan from Kitigan Zibi First Nation) trying to fill the gap in Indigenous education.
I teach in the School of Education at Trent University and have had numerous Bachelor of Education students approach me inquiring about including Indigenous knowledge into their curriculum plans. They came knocking on my office door with requests such as, “My associate teacher is asking me to teach the Grade 6 unit on First Nations Peoples and European Explorers in my practicum, and I have no idea where to start,” or “My practicum is in a secondary school English class, what Indigenous texts could I explore with my students?”
These teacher candidates identified a gap in their knowledge and skill regarding inclusionary practice, yet had the desire and fortitude to ensure their teaching would be inclusive of Indigenous students and promote healthy cross-cultural sharing.
I had enough of these requests to identify a need for an explicit learning opportunity toward the goal of educating teacher candidates about Indigenous people and how to teach Indigenous students and non-Indigenous students about Indigenous people. Since all teacher candidates in the School of Education at Trent University are required to find a site for an alternative learning opportunity for three weeks or 75 hours, I felt this would be an opportune timeframe for an in-depth learning opportunity.
Since the worldview of Indigenous peoples is connected to the environment, and since there is a global/universal need for all students to learn about the state of the planet, I felt a land-based program would serve the dual purpose of learning about Indigenous people while instilling an ecological consciousness in teacher candidates, and ultimately their future students. I also knew that I could take my students the furthest in the shortest amount of time teaching on, and with, the land. The Learning From the Land and Indigenous People alternative settings placement was born in 2007 and has been delivered every spring since then.
Teacher candidates spend twelve days with me in my home community of Burleigh Falls and Lovesick Lake in the Kawartha Lakes to experience land-based activities in order to develop a personal connection to the environment and an awareness of Indigenous, specifically Anishinaabe, culture.
The placement offers teacher candidates a chance to develop the knowledge, motivation, and skills to facilitate the transmission of an environmental consciousness to their future students. Additionally, the placement assists teacher candidates in establishing inclusive learning spaces by being better able to teach to and about Indigenous people. It is my hope that teacher candidates develop themselves personally and professionally while increasing their cultural capacity to teach Indigenous and environmental education.
Learning activities on the placement include: a medicine walk, fishing, tracking/bush work, harvesting, canoeing, shelter building, a “solo” (period spent sitting alone in nature), observation and survival skills, a daily morning circle, sharing circles, traditional teachings, traditional land-based practices, storytelling, eating collectively, field trips to local Indigenous sites, drumming and dancing, and environmental learning activities that are transferable to the classroom.
“These future teachers clearly state that they are better prepared to teach about Indigenous people and teach Indigenous children.”
Through an intensive evaluation process, including daily student reflections and a pre/post-evaluation questionnaire, teacher candidates indicate that the Learning From the Land and Indigenous People placement is immensely enjoyed and valued as a learning experience. Many define the placement as the highlight of their teacher education program: “This was the best part of my year.” Another teacher candidate says: “Truly this has been one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. I really feel changed and in such a positive way.”
These future teachers clearly state that they are better prepared to teach about Indigenous people and teach Indigenous children – “I now have new skills so that I can teach about Anishinaabe and First Nations peoples to my classes in a respectful and engaging way. I feel that I am also better prepared to teach Indigenous students.” Perhaps the experience can be summed up by this teacher candidate: “I came away with a better understanding of Anishinaabe culture as well as a new yet familiar approach to teaching and learning. This was a rich experience – a lot was accomplished in a short time. I feel full of possibility with respect to future teaching. I also feel connected with local Anishinaabe culture and the land.”
The Learning From the Land and Indigenous People alternative settings placement is transformational and self-actualizing education that occurs through teaching holistically by engaging all four aspects of who students are as human beings. That means teaching to students’ mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual capacities.
“An opportunity to learn about Indigenous people through the land and to move through the 4Rs: respect, relationship, reciprocity, responsibility.”
All education, including environmental sustainability education, must engage all four parts of our beings: our minds, our bodies, our hearts, and our spirits. While it may seem easy to envision how we could engage the mind, the heart, and the body, it is somewhat more difficult to envision how we could engage the spirit or the soul. Talking about spirituality in education can cause tension because some equate it with religion. From an Indigenous perspective, spirituality has nothing to do with religion. Spirituality is about knowing, feeling, and acting like we are connected to the natural world. It is a spirit-to-spirit connection and it is accessible to everyone regardless of religion because we all share this same natural world, this one planet. It is not about religion; it is recognizing that we only exist because of the life-givers that provide us with everything that we need. The life-givers are the air that we breathe, the water that we drink, the sun that provides light and heat, and the earth that provides us with the food that we eat. We all need those things, and that is universal.
Spirituality is also about being humble enough to acknowledge that humans are the most insignificant beings on this planet, because we cannot live without the life-givers that are provided for us – yet the life-givers can exist without us, and perhaps the planet might be all the better. The earth does not need us, but we need the earth. This humility allows us to understand and respect our connection to, and dependence on, everything else.
In the Learning From the Land and Indigenous People alternative settings placement, teacher candidates have the opportunity to learn about Indigenous people through the land and to move through the 4Rs: respect, relationship, reciprocity, responsibility.
Respecting the land requires re-spect, looking again, at all that the natural world provides; seeing ourselves as inextricably linked, and thus in relationship, with the natural world; engaging with the natural world in reciprocal and balanced ways; and acting with responsibility, or response-ability, to ensure respect, relationship, and reciprocity.
To live life in a spiritual way is to live respectfully in reciprocal relationships that result in taking responsibility.
The Learning From the Land and Indigenous People alternative settings placement engages this spirituality with teacher candidates, with the hope that they will teach to their students’ spirits, resulting in spiritual connections to creation and the natural world.
I encourage all educators to consider how they can instil and foster a spiritual connection in environmental education through land-based learning.
This will shape the future.
Photo: Rich McPherson
First published in Education Canada, March 2020
Nunavik’s Kativik Ilisarniliriniq school board launched the Compassionate Schools initiative to better support its students, who experience disparities in health and well-being. Elements of the program include training in understanding trauma, Restorative Practice, and a universal system of Positive Behaviour Interventions and Support (PBIS).
Kativik Ilisarniliriniq is a school board located in Nunavik, a remote region in northern Quebec. Inuit, who have inhabited the region for thousands of years, live in 14 small fly-in villages spaced along the Hudson and Ungava coasts.
The project aims at facilitating the social, emotional and academic success of students, while simultaneously educating teachers and staff on the impacts of trauma on the brain; it also seeks to provide maximum support to teachers.
The region’s legacy of colonization includes residential schools, forced relocations to the high Arctic, sled dog slaughters and the Sixties Scoop,1 yet it suffers from an extreme paucity of resources to help people heal from the impacts of intergenerational trauma. As a result, the current generation of children experiences disparities in health and well-being.
Members of the region’s school board, Kativik Ilisarniliriniq (KI), wanted to find a solution to the resulting challenges they saw students facing. Inspired by schools in Washington that had dealt with similar challenges, KI launched Compassionate Schools as a pilot project in three of its 17 schools in 2012.
The project aims at facilitating the social, emotional and academic success of students, while simultaneously educating teachers and staff on the impacts of trauma on the brain; it also seeks to provide maximum support to teachers. Each school adapts the approach to its home community so as to establish a positive, safe, consistent and predictable framework that is culturally relevant. Schools receive training as well as individual support from a dedicated coach on staff. A travelling regional pedagogical counsellor also visits regularly to encourage reflective practices and build skills in improving class climate, student engagement, and support for students with challenging behaviours.
The progressive implementation of the Compassionate Schools framework reached an important milestone in 2017. That year, all 17 schools had received training on teaching practices that take into account the trauma that may affect some students, and were introduced to the design of a universal system of Positive Behaviour Interventions and Support (PBIS), which creates a consistent intervention approach throughout the entire school. All schools additionally received training in Restorative Practices, an approach that helps facilitate relationships and trust. Schools use these as a foundation for responding to wrongdoing in a way that promotes community outreach, empathy and accountability.
The foundation of PBIS is universal prevention for all students and staff. Examples include teaching behavioural expectations school-wide as well as adopting school-wide approaches to recognizing positive behaviours. Teachers play a major role at this tier as they build relationships with students that can break down the self-doubt, hopelessness, fear, and barriers against trust that can plague students who have experienced trauma. By having clear, consistently taught expectations with frequent feedback, teaching students self-regulation skills, providing calm areas, and striving to identify and meet the needs behind students’ behaviours, teachers and other staff are able to create environments that are psychologically safe for students; as a result, they can feel confident to take the risks necessary to grow and succeed.
Early interventions are introduced for at-risk students who do not respond to the universal prevention. “Check-in Check-out” is one such intervention that involves pairing students with a trusted mentor who provides daily encouragement and support. Goals are set using a progress report with specific co-constructed objectives for which the student receives feedback throughout the day from each teacher. To date, school teams from 15 of our schools have received training on team processes and interventions for at-risk students.
While previously Compassionate Schools Services was a stand-alone project, it has recently merged with Complementary Services. This department is responsible for special education, student counseling and psychological services, as well as a wide variety of other support services. The new department, Complementary and Compassionate Services, led by Tunu Napartuk, will be well positioned to ensure a continuum of academic, mental health and special education services at all levels of prevention and intervention, using a common framework.
With the integration of the Compassionate Schools approach into the delivery of special education and psychological services to students, we are proud to see the school board at the forefront of some of the best practices identified by recent Canadian and international research.
By Jenny McManus
The beat of the drum brings the group together around the carpet. We celebrate the morning improvising an ayaya song to notice the subtle changes in nature – like the sun shining brighter through our window – to recognize students’ effort and achievement, and to strengthen their memory recall. Beaming with pride, the students clap out the number of stars they earned that morning as tokens for following expectations based on our school values of respect (susutsaniq), unity (tatiqatigiiniq), harmony (saimautiniq), and vision (tukimuatsianiq).
Every morning, we remind ourselves to listen openly, stick together, be peaceful, and dream big with posters on the wall that we made together, hand gestures that silently redirect, and smaller cards to flip to indicate unexpected behaviour. Each student has a colour on the wall for displaying their names, stars and evidence of learning. In the Saimautivik, or Harmony Room, they find a sense of belonging that nurtures friendships, empathy, and growth.
The Saimautivik is a social and emotional learning space at Pitakallak School in Kuujjuaq. Spearheaded by Jenny McManus, the Compassionate School teacher, it provides a home base for a nurture group, social skills groups, and extracurricular activities. Nurture groups are inclusive interventions for students that the Boxall profile (an online assessment tool) identifies as having delays in social, emotional, or behavioural development and who are struggling to flourish in the regular classroom environment. The Saimautivik brings together teachers and support staff to provide evidence-based practices to support our students in need and experiment with new directions in learning.
As a traditional Inuit value, harmony brings peace between people, agreement between ideas, and understanding in place of conflict. A classroom can be warm and inviting, with comfortable spaces for gathering and calming down, tables for sharing meals or collaborative projects, and nooks for using hands-on materials. The Saimautivik’s bright colours invite play and creativity, yet its organization supports the daily routines and serious, focused study.
Using tools that Compassionate Schools and Complementary Services promote the targeted interventions are supporting growth and change on a school-wide level.
Through the security of routine and predictability, caring adults who model positive relationships, clearly and mutually defined expectations, food sharing, opportunities for hands-on and paper-based numeracy and literacy, and engaging activities that are developmentally appropriate, the students make great gains in their development in a short period of time. Using tools that Compassionate Schools and Complementary Services promote, such as the Zones of Regulation and other trauma-informed approaches, the targeted interventions are supporting growth and change on a school-wide level.
Teachers, families, and the students themselves share stories of increased confidence, wider social circles, and greater academic achievement. Since the introduction of the intervention halfway through this school year, behavioural referrals have been reduced by half.
Rejected furniture and random supplies used to accumulate in this unused classroom; students would hide there when escaping their responsibilities. Now a place for healing and learning, it challenges the traditional concept of a classroom and the role of a teacher.
Join our team! Visit www.kativik.qc.ca to view current job openings!
photo: Jenny McManus
First published in Education Canada, December 2019
1 The “Sixties Scoop” refers to the large-scale removal or “scooping” of Indigenous children from their homes, communities and families of birth. This practice took place during the late 1950s until the early 1980s and it has affected Inuit communities. The physical and emotional separation from their birth families also left many adoptees with a sense of lost cultural identity, which continues to affect adults and Indigenous communities to this day.
This new high school program offered through Winnipeg School Division aims to both improve access to the teaching profession for Indigenous students, and to foster and hire more Indigenous teachers in order to improve the education experience of future Indigenous students.
Indigenous student high school graduation rates are lower than the rest of the Canadian student population. In addition, the field of education continues to enroll proportionately fewer Indigenous students than non-Indigenous students. The resulting teaching workforce suffers from a lack of Indigenous teachers and role models, which perpetuates the challenges faced by Indigenous students in school. The Ozhitoon Onji Peeniee (Build From Within) program, launched in the 2018/19 school year, increases the equity in access to post-secondary opportunities in the field of Education to our current Indigenous students, and will benefit our future students by increasing the representation of Indigenous insights, expertise and experience in the teaching profession. Currently, our first cohort is entering their second year in the program.
Build From Within is an Indigenous-focused path to a career in education for Indigenous high school students in the Winnipeg School Division (WSD). The program is offered through a partnership with the University of Winnipeg (U of W) and Indspire. It supports Indigenous students to complete their education within a culturally framed program. We aim to increase students’ education achievement and life-long learning connections, and prepare them for smooth transitions from their senior high school year through the U of W to their successful teaching careers.
The primary goal of Build From Within is to build on Indigenous students’ unique strengths and experiences to create competent and motivated teachers who are passionate about their work and want to contribute back as teachers in the school division they graduated from. We believe what we as a division will contribute, the WSD community will get back ten-fold.
The program is rooted in the Circle of Courage educational framework, which grounds teaching in the development of a sense of belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity.1 Indigenous high school students are selected after a rigorous application process to embark on a journey from high school student to educational assistant to teacher with WSD. In the program, they earn their Educational Assistant Diploma (EADP) while they complete their high school credits, and will graduate from Grade 12 with both their EA and high school diplomas. Next step, the students will be enrolled at the U of W’s Integrated Bachelor of Arts and Education program and will work half-time every morning for WSD as Interns utilizing their EA training. Finally, after graduating from the U of W, the students, who now have earned their BA and BEd, will be hired as teachers with WSD.
Indigenous students are recruited from Grades 10 to 12. They complete an application and attend an information session with a parent or guardian, who will be their family support throughout the program. The program is reviewed with the student and their support person and an interview is scheduled to take place at the student’s home school. The program coordinator, along with another teacher from the WSD Indigenous Education Team, interview the students to identify a fit for the program.
On interview day, the students wait anxiously for their turn. For most, if not all the students, it is their first time experiencing an interview. They have put on their best clothes and have practiced interviewing with teachers and guidance counsellors. They openly admit they are nervous; this program could be life changing for them. While it is technically an interview, we see it as more of an opportunity to meet and build a relationship. It’s a chance for the project manager to learn more details of the student’s life and aspirations, who they are, where they come from, and where they are going.
After the candidates are selected into the program, we hold a feast to honour and start the successful students on their education journey in a traditional way. The feast last year was hosted at R. B. Russell School, whose culinary program prepared a traditional meal of stew, bannock and rice pudding. It was an intimate event with 70 attendees: just a few staff directly involved in the program, the student candidates, and their immediate families. A fire was lit in the school’s cultural area (Tipi and Sweatlodge) and after supper the students offered tobacco. This allowed the students the opportunity to make an offering for whatever reason they felt was important or needed by them personally. An interesting and emotional request came from a parent. They wanted to offer tobacco for the family member they were supporting. Other parents and caregivers lined up to make that commitment of support by offering tobacco; an event that was spontaneous and had such importance and meaning.
The next phase of the students’ journey was to create a sense of belonging amongst them. To accomplish this, students left their home schools for second semester and regrouped as a cohort at the Winnipeg Adult Education Centre (WAEC) in downtown Winnipeg. At this location, students take courses in the morning toward their diploma in the EADP (Educational Assistant Program offered by the U of W), through the U of W Professional, Applied and Continuing Education program (PACE). The courses are taught in blocks of six or 12 days by PACE instructors hired specifically for this cohort. In the afternoons, students are enrolled in high school courses.
On a cold February morning, the program began with 26 nervous and excited future teachers ready to begin their journey. The first week was spent orienting the students to their new school. Their high school courses were scheduled for the afternoon and the students started them the first week. Their EA courses were slotted in the mornings starting the second week. In their first semester, students complete the first six of 12 EA courses. This completes Part 1 of the EADP. In their second year, Semester 1 Grade 12, students complete part II of the EADP. They will finish the EA program by the end of the first semester in January, and for their final semester in high school, they will return to their home schools to complete their credits and graduate with their peers.
After graduating high school, the students will be hired as half-time EAs with WSD and attend the U of W full time from September to June. They will complete a five-year integrated Bachelor of Arts and Education degrees (Grades K to 6) in four years with a Major in English and a Minor in History. Both the major and minor will have an Indigenous focus. At the U of W, they will remain a cohort, taking the same classes and supporting each other as they complete their degrees. We often say to the students, “We are not training you to be master EAs, we’re training you to be master teachers!”
The students will gain invaluable experience working with a variety of teachers at various elementary schools and classrooms during their education journey. Once they have completed their degrees, WSD is excited to offer each graduate of the Build From Within program a teaching position. By experiencing different schools and different grade levels (K-Grade 6), the students will have a better idea where they would like to apply for those positions.
One of our first challenges was to ensure all the students were on track not only to graduate high school but also to earn their Educational Assistant diploma. To make this work, the project manager sat down with each student and their school’s guidance counsellor to plan their high school courses for the next two years. The next challenge was to have the coursework the students completed for the EA program recognized as dual high school credits to ensure students completed the required 30 credits to graduate.
A common challenge has been the workload for the students. The rapid pace and the frequent instructor changes has presented a wonderful example of what university will be like. One student reported, “The challenge of this program is the workload of all the courses, because you have to keep up with both your university and high school work.” Another common challenge has been leaving their home school and friends. Joanna said this was her biggest challenge, but that “I now have made some really good friends that are in the same classes as me… they understand how I feel.”
The students have completed their first half of the EADP. September will bring another set of celebrations and challenges. The cohort is strong and the strength comes from within the group. Soon the group will graduate. Meanwhile, the project manager will be busy identifying schools that will best support and promote the students’ growth becoming teachers. Teacher mentors will be key, as selection of a master teacher and supportive principal are imperative to the development of student teachers. This will bring on the next set of celebrations and challenges.
Photo: Shane Bostrom
First published in Education Canada, September 2019
1 L. Brendtro, M. Brokenleg, and S. Van Bockern, Reclaiming Youth at Risk: Our hope for the future, rev. ed., (Bloomington, IN: National Educational Service, 2002).
When two First Nations visual artists collaborated with students to design and paint three mural-sized banners, they portrayed a journey rich with history, tradition, and courage, and fostered profound story-sharing and dialoguing.
For three days in November, my classroom was transformed into an artist’s studio. Three 11′ x 3′ blank canvas banners hung from the ceiling along the back wall. Chairs and desks were arranged in a wide circle around the perimeter of the classroom, and up along the blackboard perched a rainbow of acrylic paint jars awaiting the stroke of a brush. Soon, these banners would be painted by 55 Grade 11 students and two local First Nations artists in a collaborative art project that would portray a journey rich with history, tradition, and courage, and would foster profound story-sharing and dialoguing.
In my recent years teaching the First Nations, Métis and Inuit Studies courses at James Cardinal McGuigan (JCM) high school in Toronto, I have reflected upon the question: How do I take on the responsibility of making space for Indigenous voices and get my students to engage meaningfully in a primarily non-Indigenous, Catholic, multicultural classroom? This was the challenge I set for myself as a settler-educator, recognizing the importance of my positionality and accountability in the context of Reconciliation. I wanted to develop a positive and inclusive activity that would both amplify Indigenous voices and enable my students to have an authentic, respectful, in-person dialogue with Indigenous people while contributing to a larger project.
Gathering both qualitative and quantitative data to assess students’ learning and transformation was one of the goals of this project, so they completed a survey before we started the art project and a second one afterwards. The results were encouraging: to this day, students describe this learning experience as one where they were able to “learn from two perspectives instead of one.” One eager participant attested, “We can learn from people who have a better understanding of current issues and take part in creating a better community.”
After reading about collaborative mural painting initiatives in various school boards and universities across Ontario, I was inspired to facilitate one at my school. Research indicates that an extraordinary experience with art enables educators and participants to examine multiple, shifting meanings of culture and communities.1 I decided on a banner project because banners (more so than murals) are easy to move around and rotate between different locations in the school for students and guests to appreciate.
Acquiring funding from the Ontario Ministry of Education was essential, so I applied for a Teacher Learning and Leadership grant and received the necessary capital to commission this art project. I want to thank my school’s administration, office staff, and art department for their pivotal involvement and support throughout the project.
Inspired by an article titled “New Mural: A first step toward reconciliation for Indigenous youth,”2 I invited the artists Chief Lady Bird and Aura to come share their culture, history, and perspectives with the students, and to collaborate with them on an artistic piece that could be showcased for years to come. Chief Lady Bird is Chippewa and Potawatomi from Rama and Moose Deer Point First Nations, and her sister, Aura, is Haudenosaunee Onyota’a:ka (Oneida Nation of the Thames). I taught my students greetings in Anishinaabek and Oneida, and posted them on our classroom door to make the artists feel welcomed and acknowledged.
My students had been learning about Indigenous histories, identities and cultural ways of knowing, and I reviewed the specific themes we had examined in class with the artists beforehand so that we could connect them to the project.
In the pre-project survey, the students’ ratings of their level of knowledge about Indigenous teachings (e.g. Medicine Wheel, The Seven Grandfather Teachings) was split evenly between feeling moderately, fairly, and highly knowledgeable. Some students felt a bit daunted by the task of collaborating with Indigenous people on an art project, but most were comfortable or even looking forward to it.
After the land acknowledgement, the artists began by introducing themselves in their languages and sharing with the students their backgrounds, the importance of reclaiming their languages, and their work with young people of all backgrounds in communal spaces to promote mutual respect, care, and knowledge-sharing.
They explored many themes with the students through the artwork, including: Creation Stories, Ceremony & Medicines, Water is Life, Intergenerational Healing, Heart Work & Heart Berries, and the Saskatchewan Lily.
One student said, “Art helps me understand Indigenous concepts because it is where the artists share and express their rich heritage and stories.”
Over three days, I witnessed immense growth in my students. Each had a chance to contribute to the painting – either by picking up a brush, suggesting an image to add or a colour to use. They produced three beautiful banners depicting a Grandmother in traditional dress, illuminated by a full moon; a powerful, resilient female beneath a traditional fish fence, encircled by the Fish Totem; and a young, hopeful girl, looking ahead, firmly rooted to her ancestry and to her Creation story. The three figures stand connected to one another in a symbiotic relationship.
Furthermore, the inquiry that came out of this project was noteworthy. Students asked the artists questions about the symbolic images (e.g. the meaning of the red dress worn by the girl, or the significance of the water being passed on through generations). This spurred further student engagement in the form of independent research, or connecting these meanings to texts studied in class. For one lucky group, this experience inspired a cross-cultural youth exchange with Thunderchild First Nation in Saskatchewan in May 2019, to further strengthen their own cultural competence.
One of the main messages communicated through this banner is “We are here.” It is imperative for all of us to share this message, and to hold space for the often under-represented voices in our society.
When asked why she does this work, Aura stated, “For me it’s about sharing who I am, learning with the youth and creating spaces for them to share who they are too. I believe collaborating between cultures and communities builds unity.” She affirmed the importance of creating positive work in the school system, and her critical role as a facilitator who is “in these spaces sharing my own truth. It is really impactful.”
Chief Lady Bird said that her goal is to “create a safer, kinder, more loving environment that captures the spirit of people, the true spirit of our teachings.” While working with youth, she added, she is “honouring the creative process of everyone. We don’t do things in one cookie-cutter way – we just let it flow; there’s not a lot of room for that in many institutions, so we disrupt with kindness.”
In the post-project survey, 82 percent of students rated the experience as being either highly or fairly meaningful and engaging. In terms of lessons learned, 82 percent said they had learned about relationship building and 68 percent felt more knowledgeable about Reconciliation. All students found that this activity enabled them to learn more about Indigenous stories and traditional teachings.
One student said, “The best thing about this experience was the opportunity to collaborate with the First Nations artists and share moments with them and learn about them and their backgrounds.”
Another student – who, thanks to this project, now self-identifies as part Mi’kmaq – found a sense of belonging and acquired greater knowledge of her history. She observed, “It is important for us to take part in a collaborative art project with First Nations artists because it is important for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to show that they can work together and move forward from what happened in the past.”
This work contributes to a growing body of work on “teacher-allyship”3 and aims to inform teachers who seek respectful and relevant ways of incorporating Indigenous approaches into their pedagogies. I encourage teachers to explore the plethora of Indigenous-written and -produced resources available to them for K–post-secondary, and to be in touch with their school board liaisons; I am grateful to the Toronto Catholic District School Board’s department of Indigenous Education for their support throughout my journey.
This project also is anchored in inter-cultural understanding and respect for alternative ways of knowing. By inviting artists from marginalized groups to share their knowledge and talents with students, we give voice to often-silenced speakers, lend greater legitimacy to the curriculum, and offer students and teachers opportunities for genuine discourse and practice regarding art, creativity, and social transformation.
We came such a long way in just three days. The transformations and mutual sharing that we experienced in that “artist’s studio” were remarkable, equally for the students, the artists, and myself as a settler-educator. The experience invited students to become culturally conscious in an authentic, respectful and engaging way, to understand the concept of reciprocity, to celebrate unity, and to look at storytelling through an artistic medium. Not only do these banners represent Indigenous narratives, but they tell a living story: one of history, reclamation, and relationship.
We hope that all students feel invited to tell their own stories of identity, and understand how much their heritage plays a pivotal role in shaping who they are. I hope this important work will inspire, educate, and transform educational communities across Turtle Island.
Photo: courtesy Laryssa Gorecki
First published in Education Canada, September 2019
1 M. Greene, Releasing the Imagination: Essay on education, the arts, and social change (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1995).
2 Justin Skinner, “New Mural: A first step toward reconciliation for Indigenous youth,” Toronto.com (Aug. 28, 2017).
3 Pamela Rose Toulouse, “K-12 Truth and Reconciliation: Becoming a teacher ally,” Education Canada 58, No. 2 (2018). www.edcan.ca/articles/truth-reconciliation-k-12
Ensouling our Schools is the third instalment in the Teaching to Diversity series produced by Portage and Main Press. It lays out a clear framework by which its authors, Jennifer Katz and Kevin Lamoureux, believe our schools can be re-envisioned to better address the mental, spiritual and emotional well-being of both staff and students.
The book attempts, with fair success, to connect modern educational theory with a more traditional world view of Indigenous teachings, and uses the medicine wheel as a basis upon which to build. Katz and Lamoureux present what they call “an alternative vision to the traditional industrialized version of schooling.” This is the Three-Block Model of Universal Design for Learning, which combines inclusive education practices, social and emotional learning, and the promotion of healthy schools.
Ensouling our Schools hooks the reader in Part 1 with some startling statistics around the state of youth mental wellness in our country, presenting a strong case for urgency. The authors include an excellent examination of the science around mental health issues, although the terminology does get a bit heavy at times. There is also a strong recognition of the importance of teacher mental wellness in regards to the broader conversation. When it comes to the interweaving of First Nations spirituality practices, the book does tend, on occasion, to wax a bit romantic or overgeneralize.
The real meat of the book is in Part II. Here the authors present some fairly easy-to-follow and practical ways in which schools can implement their Three-Block Model. They include a series of unit plans, covering everything from diversity to brain reactivity to lessons on Indigenous treaty rights. These lessons could be easily adapted to fit local curriculum, but there are some tense moments when the authors propose that teachers give lessons specifically on student mental health. If a jurisdiction were to adopt this model, it might be advisable to provide some specialized training before sending classroom teachers too far down that road.
Though somewhat ambitious at times, Ensouling provides an enticing view of how our schools could be better designed to address the social, emotional and academic needs of our students. What really sets this text apart is the way it intertwines this issue and the broader issues of reconciliation. Although perhaps lacking some universal adoptability, the work contains enough significant and thought-provoking information to be well worth the read.
Photo: Dave Donald
First published in Education Canada, June 2019
Portage and Main, 2018 ISBN-13: 978-1553796831
What stories are educators drawing on as they engage truth and reconciliation education? Madden argues that T&R education should not centre solely around stories of the residential school experience and portrayals of Indigenous people as victims. “Counter-stories” of refusal, resistance, resilience, and restorying resurgence are also needed, to shine “light on community processes that challenge historical and contemporary colonial relationships with Canada.”
In my position as an assistant professor of Indigenous teacher education at the University of Alberta, I serve two main teaching roles. The first is contributing to an initial teacher qualification program designed specifically to prepare Indigenous teacher candidates from both urban and reserve communities to centre Indigenous knowledges, pedagogies, and priorities. The second is developing and implementing coursework for all pre-service and in-service teachers that explores how colonial beliefs (e.g. terra nullius), systems (e.g. formal schooling), and strategies (e.g. legislation like The Indian Act) continue to differently impact those who live in the place we now know as Canada. Across both of these teaching contexts, I have noted general confidence among educators that truth and reconciliation education offers a new framework to heal Indigenous-non-Indigenous relationships, and to pursue school improvement for Indigenous students and communities. My observations suggest the most common starting place recommended to, and taken up by, educators is classroom inclusion of non-fiction and fiction books that introduce Canada’s Indian residential school system and related topics (such as Spirit Bear and Children Make History, by Dr. Cindy Blackstock and Eddy Robinson, and the accompanying learning guide that outlines the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal on First Nations Child Welfare for an elementary-level readership).
In response to the popularity of this approach, I have found myself asking: What stories are educators drawing on as they engage truth and reconciliation education? Why are some resources more widely used than others? And how are Indian residential school narratives shaping popular images of Indigenous peoples, educators, and Canadians? In this article, I delve deeper into these questions and present a framework for educational leaders and teachers to evaluate and enhance the types of Indian residential school accounts they include in the education for reconciliation curricula they design.
Perhaps it is useful to take a step back and consider why the questions I pose in the previous paragraph are significant. In her 2009 TED talk, The Danger of A Single Story, the award-winning Nigerian author and feminist activist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie makes the case that single stories – those that show a people as one thing and are told over and over again, typically by outsiders – create stereotypes and result in one story becoming the only story. She argues that single stories have both symbolic and real-world consequences. They flatten experience, obscure humanity, exploit difference, establish deficit views, and negatively define and constrain who those at the centre can become.
Prior to what is being called the “era of reconciliation,” Potawatomi-Lenapé scholar of education Dr. Susan Dion explored the danger of a single story in the context of school-based teaching about Indian residential schools. Her research showed that the single story of hopeless Indigenous victims shaped how non-Indigenous teachers and students taught and learned about Canada’s Indian residential school system. She noted an overreliance on teaching methods intended to foster empathy, such as letter writing to former residential school students. Dr. Dion demonstrates that pedagogies of empathy ensured that the single story, as well as associated images and outcomes, went unchallenged. Students remained preoccupied with feeling sorry for the “pitiful” Indigenous victim at the expense of exploring numerous examples of Indigenous strength and agency that were also present in the stories used. By contrast, they learned to see themselves as compassionate and honourable, in that they were able to demonstrate understanding of the “right” rules of moral behaviour, develop “appropriate” attitudes regarding the suffering of Indigenous peoples, and arrive at “fair” judgments about “historic” wrongdoings. Further, this approach cultivated the conditions wherein students were able to view settler colonialism – the ongoing physical occupation of Indigenous land by a colonial state and non-Indigenous settlers and violent and legislative dispossession of Indigenous peoples through established structures and everyday actions – as a thing of the past. Overemphasis on developing empathy for residential school victims overshadowed fostering students’ understanding of how they were impacted by and participated in ongoing colonial logics and effects. Engagement with difficult knowledge and unpleasant but necessary conflict was hindered.
Both Adiche and Dion suggest that while stories can be used to dispossess and change, they can also be used to humanize, empower, and heal. Counter-storytelling is proposed as a method for exposing, analyzing, and challenging narrow accounts. Counter-stories make space for multiple, nuanced stories of under- and misrepresented peoples and experiences. Counter-stories and -storytelling also provide a platform to interrogate privilege and views of Indigenous peoples and groups, to illuminate how we are all are produced within interconnected systems of oppression.
I organize Indian residential school counter-stories according to narratives of: refusal, resistance, resilience, and restorying and resurgence. To appeal to a wide range of learners and tailor to current and local contexts, I suggest including young adult and children’s literature, as well as additional texts such as primary documents, newspaper articles, film, and museum exhibits. Below I offer examples of each type of counter-story, as well as questions to guide teachers’ practices; educators are encouraged to adapt questions for their education context (e.g. level, discipline) and based on the unique gifts they possess, their geographical location, and local Indigenous priorities and guidance. Figure 1 offers examples of ways to adapt questions for younger students.
Counter-stories of refusal reveal the ways in which Indigenous peoples have been refusing participation in colonial systems since contact, despite ongoing threat to their safety and wellness as a result. For example, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s final report details a variety of strategies that include parents’ refusal to enrol their children in Indian residential schools, as well as refusal to return escapees or children at the end of summer “holidays.” Numerous accounts of students who escaped from an institution to return to their community despite the risk of death, injury, or being caught, returned, and punished are available for inclusion across grade levels. For example, Secret Path is a multi-media text that combines ten songs by Gord Downie with the graphic and animated illustrations of Jeff Lemire to tell the story of 12-year-old Anishinaabe boy Chanie Wenjack. Wenjack died on October 22, 1966 while fleeing the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School near Kenora, Ontario, with the intention to return to his home on the Marten Falls Reservation over 400 miles away.
When preparing to use these print and video resources, teachers might draw inspiration from the following questions: What colonial systems is Chanie Wenjack refusing participation in? What form(s) does refusal take beyond explicitly saying “no”? What knowledge is needed in order to engage in refusal? What is at stake in refusing? What are current examples of Indigenous counter-stories of refusal?
Counter-stories of resistance demonstrate how Indigenous communities and collectives organize and act to resist dispossession, disenfranchisement, and dismissal by the colonial state and demand recognition of human, Indigenous, and treaty rights. For example, in 1970 a sit-in at the Blue Quills Residential School in Alberta resulted in the operation of the school being turned over to the newly formed Blue Quills Native Education Council. The sit-in was led by Stanley Redcrow, a former Blue Quills student and maintenance worker at the school, and Alice Makokis, a school counsellor who worked for the Department of Indian Affairs. It involved over 300 school staff and parents and lasted 17 days, culminating in the Department of Indian Affairs flying 20 Blue Quills community members to Ottawa to meet with the Minister of Indian Affairs (and future Prime Minister) Jean Chrétien. Founded in Nēhiyaw centred curriculum, Blue Quills reopened as an elementary school and junior high in 1971 and expanded to include high school in 1976. The building now houses University nuhelot’įne thaiyots’į nistameyimâkanak Blue Quills, the first Indigenous-controlled university in Canada.
The legal campaigns initiated by former residential school students that led to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement – the largest class action settlement in Canadian history – is an additional example of a narrative of resistance that I suggest deserves space in truth and reconciliation education. In creating classroom space for counter-stories of resistance, teachers could consider how they will invite students to explore: What injustices are being resisted by Indigenous communities and/or collectives? What rights are being asserted? What strategies support organization, capacity building, decision-making, and action? (How) Is Indigenous activism unique in the example(s) being studied?
Counter-stories of resilience highlight the incredible ability of Indigenous peoples and Nations to overcome systematic assault on ways-of-knowing and ways-of-being. Resilience is often nurtured through drawing on the strength of communities and traditional teachings, both of which are comprised of human, other-than-human (e.g. plants, animals) and more-than-human (e.g. ancestors in the spirit world) relations rooted in land and honoured through protocol, ethical practice, and ceremony. The testimony of former residential school survivors who went on to work as residential school staff because they felt their presence made an important difference in the lives of students stood out in the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada as a particularly moving example of resilience.
Children’s and young adult literature, as well as graphic novels, often illuminate processes and possibilities of resilience. For example, Shi-shi-etko, written by Nicola I. Campbell and illustrated by Kim Lafave, chronicles the four days a young girl spends learning with her family in her community before leaving to attend residential school. Shi-shi-etko bathes in the creek with her mother, canoes on the lake with her father, collects medicines on the land with her grandmother, and privately offers tobacco to Grandfather Tree to keep her memories and family safe until she returns home in the spring. The reader infers that she will draw strength from the ways of her people and the land she is from during her time at residential school. A video adaptation was also directed by Kate Kroll and produced by Marilyn Thomas in collaboration with the author.
Prompts that can be adapted to encourage classroom connections through literature may include: How do the characters relate to humans, plants, animals, and other beings in the story? How do we know? How are characters’ identities connected to land? What is the significance of protocol and/or ceremony in the story? What and how do these ethical practices teach those in the story?
Counter-stories of restorying and resurgence emphasize the healing and reclamation of Indigenous peoples and places who have experienced trauma as a result of Canada’s Indian residential school system. In many cases, restorying is marked by physical change that mirrors symbolic recovery. For example, survivors, their families, and community members participated in an organized demolition of Peake Hall, the dormitory of the Alberni Indian Residential School that was located on the traditional territory of the Tseshaht First Nation in Port Alberni, B.C. The demolition was conducted in a ceremonial way and included sacred burning, smudging, and a feast, offering participants the chance to heal and free the spirits of their relatives from the former school. In addition to the demolition, the community constructed a traditional-style long house on the site and raised a pole and installed a sculpture made by local artists.
The exhibit Speaking to Memory: Images and Voices from St. Michael’s Indian Residential School is an additional example of restorying and resurgence. It hung on the exterior of the school building at Alert Bay, B.C. transforming the space; a representation of the project was also exhibited at the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver.
Guiding questions to activate analysis of counter-stories of restorying and resurgence include: What traumas have specific peoples and places experienced as a result of Canada’s Indian residential school system? What forms and processes of healing are needed? What is the relationship between reclamation and healing? Between physical change and symbolic recovery? (How) Is Indigenous restorying unique in the example(s) being studied? What does Indigenous resurgence look like?
To be clear, I do support the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s view that truth telling in the form of survivors’ testimony about the abuses they suffered is an integral aspect of education for reconciliation. I do not intend to suggest that stories that shine light on former students’ lived experiences of being abused by priests, nuns, residential school staff, and/or other students should be excluded because they risk positioning Indigenous peoples as victims. Following the Commission, I hold that without truth there is no possibility of reconciliation. I recognize the potential of truth telling to restore dignity, aid in healing for victims, and pursue justice through calling perpetrators, governments, and citizens to account.
Indigenous counter-stories of refusal, resistance, resilience, and restorying and resurgence enhance this oral history by shining light on community processes that challenge historical and contemporary colonial relationships with Canada. They also make it more difficult to take up colonial positions and ways of being in relationship (e.g. rescuer/victim) that reduce Indigenous agency. As educators, the inclusion of Indigenous counter-stories in truth and reconciliation education allows us to imagine reconciliation between settler Canadians and Indigenous peoples, where the latter are not characterized by the singularizing image of victimhood.
Photo: John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail
First published in Education Canada, March 2019
Since the release of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015, school systems across Canada have been grappling with how best to embed Indigenous perspectives into all grade levels and aspects of schooling, including lessons on the history and legacy of residential schools. This has included diverse approaches to curricular reform and staff professional development plans, which have revealed that schools are progressing at varying paces along their journey towards reconciliation as they work to implement the Commission’s education-related calls to action.
While many educators find themselves at the how-to stage and fearful of committing cultural appropriation in their teaching, numerous more are still asking, “Why should I do this?”, “Why is this my concern?” and “Even if I’m now obligated by curriculum, where would I begin since I know little to nothing about Indigenous histories and cultures?”
On October 12th, in an effort to address this tension, the national EdCan Network organized a professional learning event for over 200 teachers at the University of Lethbridge called “Truth and Reconciliation in Every School: What we know, what we don’t know, and what we need to do to move forward respectfully” – an acknowledgment that the road to reconciliation is not only an ongoing process that everyone is called to take up, but also a challenging personal investment that will unfold differently for each educator. The event catered directly to teachers and teacher candidates – regardless of where they might be along their journeys – and convened authors who had written for the recently-published Education Canada magazine special focus on Truth and Reconciliation in the Schools, which maps the progress Canadian public schools are making on this front.
“It’s not so much about the individual teacher,” explained Dr. Leroy Little Bear, the University of Lethbridge’s Special Assistant to the President. “Rather, it’s about the institutional aspect that teachers are a part of, which has played a large part in history in educating those superintendents, those Indian Agents and those ministers who brought about policies that led to residential schools.”
During the event’s main panel discussion, speakers affirmed the need for educators to assess their intentions and work towards navigating from a place of heart, in lieu of “walking on eggshells” and remaining stagnant out of fear of asking a silly question that could offend someone.
Grounded in the view that not doing anything is likewise wrong, speakers accentuated how no one will ever feel 100 percent ready to take up this challenge – that teachers need to be brave enough to say “I don’t know,” which is critical when working with Indigenous peoples and marginalized communities, according to panellist Dr. Pamela Rose Toulouse.
Beyond those three words follows a willingness to reach out to valuable human resources – school district Indigenous consultants, Elders, Knowledge Keepers and those with authentic expertise – so that teachers can advance their own knowledge, build trust-based relationships, and work collaboratively with Indigenous peoples to teach all students about treaties, residential schools and long-standing issues facing Indigenous communities.
“Our biggest obstacle to reconciliation is ourselves,” emphasized Dr. Pamela Rose Toulouse, Associate Professor at Laurentian University and author of Truth and Reconciliation in Canadian Schools. “On the one hand, educators have their fears, misunderstandings and pride, while on the flipside it could be a question of indifference.”
“But I don’t have Indigenous students in my school” is but one of the common excuses Dr. Toulouse has encountered from educators. Her suggestion is to liken reconciliation as a collective endeavour as are other large-scale challenges such as food security, climate change and equity, which touch anyone who has children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces, family and friends who comprise today’s generation and those to come. Confronting indifference and excuses also entails illuminating the contemporary contributions of Indigenous peoples – giving credit where credit is due for Indigenous inventions and inspirations for the “sport of hockey, medicines, potato chips and Dr. Pepper,” as Dr. Toulouse listed. Whereas curriculum will speak about residential schools and treaties, educators are charged with filling-in gaps by leading conversations about positive Indigenous role models and contributions that have been made by Indigenous peoples.
Panellist Julaine Guitton is a novel example of a non-Indigenous teacher who has prioritized the resiliency of Indigenous peoples within her classroom over topics of cultural genocide and residential schools. This approach, entrenched in the viewpoint that Indigenous peoples are not victims first, has proven effective among her fifth and sixth-grade students as project lead for Stavely Elementary School’s “Project of Heart.” The project entails general research about residential schools in Canada, followed by more narrowed research into a particular residential school, meeting with a residential school survivor and a culminating artistic act of reconciliation. In a rural township where many students live on farms and ranches, understanding Indigenous peoples’ connection to land and place was cornerstone to these discussions which, as Elder-in-Residence Francis First Charger illustrated, allows students to understand different people, different worldviews and interrelations.
“I remember where I was when the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was finally released, and I felt especially compelled as a teacher being in a position where I knew that I could help other people,” Guitton recalled. “I didn’t know how I would accomplish that, so I decided to just wear an orange t-shirt to school one day and begin a discussion with my students about what that meant.”
Ira Provost, Manager of the Piikani Nation Consultation, was Ms. Guitton’s community resource person throughout the project. With a career as an Indigenous liaison and cross-cultural educator, Provost found himself astounded by the depth and breadth of learning that had taken place, which transpired through speeches that the students had presented to school board trustees, the superintendent, Stavely’s school principal, FNMI support personnel and Elders from the Indigenous community during a class-organized community event.
All Indigenous peoples want, as Provost highlighted, is meaningful engagement, which forms the derivative of an ongoing commitment to starting early and moving beyond one-off endeavours.
“Reconciliation is about a thousand cups of coffee,” stated panel moderator Dr. Michelle Hogue, Associate Professor and Coordinator of the University of Lethbridge’s First Nations Transition Program, in her recap of the conversation. “It’s about sitting, listening, being present and building relationships.”
Eleven of the ninety-four Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) final report are specific to education. Call to Action 63, “Building student capacity for intercultural understanding, empathy, and mutual respect,” challenges Canadian education systems to focus on students’ understanding of Indigenous human rights and social justice initiatives. Non-Indigenous students are now beginning to learn about the truth of residential schools, treaties and other long-standing issues facing Indigenous communities such as lack of clean drinking water, housing and food shortages. Truth and reconciliation is a spiritual and emotional journey required of all students and educators – from the head to the heart – that will unfold differently for everyone.
As active participants in modelling reconciliation with their students, teachers need both professional development (PD) and a support network that provides safe places to share feelings of trauma, joy, anger, resolve, grief, and hope that they may experience along this journey. PD themes can include cultural competency and safety, the First Nations Mental Health First Aid course, holistic arts therapy and other areas that explore emotional and spiritual intelligence. The support network for non-Indigenous school districts includes an Indigenous Lead, who has meaningful awareness and knowledge of learning resources and cultural protocols.
Overall, Call to Action 63 goes beyond curriculum requirements, pedagogy and resources, and it is critical to changing how generations of young people move forward together.
Czyzewski, Karina. “The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Insights into the goal of transformative education.” International Indigenous Policy Journal 2, no. 3 (2011).
McCarty, Teresa, and Tiffany Lee. “Critical culturally sustaining/revitalizing pedagogy and Indigenous education sovereignty.” Harvard Educational Review 84, no. 1 (2014): 101-124.
Nagy, Rosemary. “The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Genesis and Design1.” Canadian Journal of Law & Society/La Revue Canadienne Droit et Société 29, no. 2 (2014): 199-217.
Savage, Catherine, Rawiri Hindle, Luanna H. Meyer, Anne Hynds, Wally Penetito, and Christine E. Sleeter. “Culturally responsive pedagogies in the classroom: Indigenous student experiences across the curriculum.” Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education 39, no. 3 (2011): 183-198.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015). Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future – Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation of Canada. Winnipeg, MB: Same as Author.
This infographic aims to empower teachers, principals and administrators across Canada with four key steps to begin implementing truth and reconciliation initiatives immediately into K-12 classrooms.
Developed in collaboration with Dr. Kate Freeman and Dr. Lindsay Morcom from Queen’s University’s Faculty of Education, and Shawn McDonald of the Algonquin & Lakeshore Catholic District School Board, this quick-scan infographic outlines how educators can avoid cultural appropriation, prioritize authentic indigenous expertise, develop relationships with local Indigenous Elders and Knowledge Keepers, and build their own knowledge on the traditional territories that they live on. This infographic was inspired by a feature article that recently appeared in Education Canada Magazine.
The EdCan Network has also released a new Facts on Education fact sheet authored by renowned expert Dr. Pamela Rose Toulouse of Laurentian University, entitled How can we embed truth and reconciliation in every school?, which offers evidence-based strategies for how educators and students can bring this learning into our school communities.
In addition to the downloadable copy of the infographic, which can be posted in staff rooms and classrooms, here are several practical resources available to support teachers in building their knowledge and confidence on this subject matter.
Panel Moderator: Michelle Hogue
Panelists: Dr. Pamela Rose Toulouse, Ira Provost, Julaine Guittane
This conversation inspired an article published in the Summer 2018 issue of Education Canada Magazine. Read Carrying the Fire.
Illustration: Don McIntyre
Music: “Perfect” by Ketsa Music/UTK Publishing (www.ketsamusic.com)
The EdCan Network invites you to discover good practices, exemplary school programs and practical ideas for educators seeking to work towards truth and reconciliation in their schools and classrooms.
Add these books and magazine articles to your summer reading list and boost your knowledge before the next school year!
A youth talking circle on truth and reconciliation in our schools
Intentional conversations with Indigenous youth
Teachers and school leaders play a key role in reconciliation, but policy makers must resource schools for equity of opportunity and success
How to get started, and who can help
A Project of Heart at Stavely Elementary School
Reconciliation in Action: Creating a Learning Community for Indigenous Student Success
This step-by-step report can be used to create your own unique program in consultation and collaboration with local Indigenous communities.
We’ve also put together a series of student and educator video testimonials demonstrating how “culture is medicine” that gives students a sense of pride and a will to succeed.
Where are we at in Nunavik?
Bringing Mi’kmaw Knowledge and Western curriculum together
Are you celebrating the National Indigenous Peoples Day in your school?