If Not Here, Then Where?

If there are few or no Indigenous learners in a school or classroom, is there still a need to ensure that all non-Indigenous learners learn about learn about, and from, First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities, cultures, and histories? The short answer is yes. This is where we go beyond the need for cultural relevancy in a classroom or school context. This is about a nation being responsive to the original inhabitants of this land.

A number of years ago I was part of a small group of English Language Arts (ELA) teachers from across the province who were gathered together to discuss potential directions for revisions to the K-12 ELA curriculum in British Columbia. The Ministry of Education representative had indicated that one of the changes that would be included in any curriculum revision was to increase Indigenous knowledges and perspectives in the mandated curriculum.

A long-time teacher was not completely comfortable with this announcement. He said “I understand the need for cultural relevancy and cultural responsiveness. If I have Indigenous learners in my class, they need to see who the reflected in the classroom. But I don’t have any Indigenous students. There may be two in the entire school. I have students whose families have been in Canada for multiple generations and students whose families have come to Canada from different countries around the world in recent years.” He then asked “Why is Indigenous content and perspective now going to be specifically mandated in the BC curriculum, and not the heritages of all other students in our schools?” He suggested that if Indigenous content was specifically mandated, then every other cultural heritage should be mentioned or else we were privileging one heritage over another.

I thought about this for a minute before responding. I knew that this was going to be a common question in the years to come.

I asked him to think about the places in the world where his students or their families had come from, whether they arrived last week, or had been in Canada for over 150 years.

I asked if the languages of those places are still being spoken in those places.

I asked if the knowledge systems of the people of those places was still being taught and learned in schools there.

I asked if the written and oral literature connected to the land of those places was still growing and thriving.

He thought about these questions for a moment before nodding his head, “Yes, yes, and yes”.

I reminded the whole group that this is the only place in the world that the First Nations languages (in the land we now call British Columbia) exist, where the literatures of Indigenous here spring from, where the knowledge systems of First Nations here is rooted in the land. If the languages cease to spoken here, if the knowledges and perspectives are not taught and learned here, they do not exist elsewhere in the world.

The teacher came to speak with me a little later that day. He said “I get it.” And asked rhetorically, ‘If [the learning does] not [take place] here, then where?’” 

This conversation highlights the unique work of Indigenous education in Canada. Indigenous education is not multicultural education. Multiculturalism in Canada, in its popular interpretation, recognizes, celebrates, and embraces existing cultures from around the world. Officially, it was a political strategy made into policy in 1971 “as a way to address contesting language, cultural, and land claims within the nation, and it has since been widely explained, defended, and critiqued” (St. Denis, 2011, p. 307). Understandably, many people still use that framework to emphasize the need for us all to embrace a culturally diverse society. Our humanity is deepened when we do not seek to merely “tolerate” cultural difference, but when we value and celebrate the richness that cultural diversity brings.

However, attempts to embed Indigenous education within a conversation about multiculturalism denies the distinctness of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis, and undermines actions to acknowledge Indigenous rights. Not only do First Nations, Métis and Inuit not have representations of their cultures elsewhere, trying to embed First Nations, Inuit and Métis into the multicultural narrative ignores, or tries to deny, specific land-based rights that Indigenous people have in Canada.[1]

A document designed to help educators in Manitoba create inclusive and equitable classrooms and schools for First Nations, Métis, and Inuit students and all students shares the following:

The psychological, social, and multi-generational damage caused by being marginalized and excluded in your own land, by having your land appropriated, and by having your freedom and rights systematically denied or restricted is immense, deep, painful, and long-lasting. The sovereignty and freedom FNMI peoples enjoyed before the arrival of Europeans was appropriated by the new colonial government. Their traditional education and governance systems, their ways of life, their languages, ceremonies, communities, and even their children were targeted for assimilation, and became managed through oppressive federal policies. Manitoba Education and Training (2017)

When we address the lack of knowledge and understanding about communities, cultures, histories, and rights of Indigenous peoples in Canada, we will have an education system that is responsive to First Nations, Inuit, and Métis learners.  When we ensure that all Canadians know the truth of our collective histories and understand the contemporary contexts of the diverse First Nations, Inuit and Métis (including the unique legal relationships between First Nations, Inuit, and Métis and the rest of Canada) we create the conditions to move forward as a country in a good way.


[1] For more information about Land and Rights, see  https://www.canada.ca/en/immigration-refugees-citizenship/corporate/transparency/committees/inan-jan-28-2021/inan-section-35-consitution-act-1982-background-jan-28-2021.htmlhttps://indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/land__rights/ ; and https://www.rcaanc-cirnac.gc.ca/eng/1100100031843/1539869205136

(This post is a snippet of Wayi Wah! Indigenous Pedagogies: An Act for Reconciliation and Anti-Racist Education. Anticipated publishing date September 6, 2022)

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Epistemic Racism, Indigenous Knowledges, and Curriculum

Understanding just how pervasive various forms of racism are in education systems will be the continued work of the next few years. As we learn about, and begin to address, some types of systemic racism, such as the racism of low-expectations, we also need to be aware of other ways racism can be (and is) reflected in education. Epistemic racism refers to the valuing and devaluing of knowledge systems of specific cultures. In education, it is often reflected in what is mandated in curriculum and included in resources, and may be one of the most challenging forms of racism to address. Generally, Canadian education systems privilege and centre Euro-western knowledge systems, and this centering is so deeply embedded that some people think that the values and perspectives reflected by Western knowledge systems are universal, rather than cultural.

Education systems are microcosms of the larger society. When racism exists in society, we would be naïve to assume it is not also present in our education systems. We are challenged in Canadian education systems because these systems have taught us (explicitly or by omission) all that Indigenous knowledges do not exist, or are of less value than Euro-western knowledge systems.

In reality, Indigenous peoples hold an extensive wealth of knowledge, even if this knowledge has not always been recognized by post-industrial Euro-centric/Western cultures (Battiste, 2005). As we begin to unpack the epistemic racism that has rendered Indigenous knowledge systems invisible, more people will be able to understand the importance of these knowledge systems and perspective as necessary in both our learning environments, and in a 21st century world. Ideas that Indigenous knowledge and perspectives only had value historically and are not relevant to the world of today and tomorrow need to be challenged. Barnhardt and Kawagley (2005) write

“Indigenous peoples throughout the world have sustained their unique worldviews and associated knowledge systems for millennia, even while undergoing major social upheavals as a result of transformative forces beyond their control. Many of the core values, beliefs and practices associated with those worldviews have survived and are beginning to be recognized as having an adaptive integrity that is as valid for today’s generations as it was for generations past. The depth of [I]ndigenous knowledge rooted in the long inhabitation of a particular place offers lessons that can benefit everyone, from educator to scientist, as we search for a more satisfying and sustainable way to live on this planet.” (p.9)

However, before we can fully engage in understanding the inherent value in Indigenous knowledges, we need acknowledge that Euro-western knowledge systems are not the only cultural knowledge systems with value. And, we do not have to engage in a debate of one knowledge system or the other; there is room for complementary learning. In order for us to understand how that can happen we first need to be willing to create the space and make the time for us to learn what we need to learn. This will not happen quickly. It is not the result of having one conversation, reading one book, participating on one professional development session, or implementing a lesson. These actions can be a beginning, but they are only a beginning. The First Peoples Principles of Learning include more context about Indigenous knowledges, and their connections to local contexts, but I wanted to address here one of the common signals of epistemic racism – the misperception that the infusion of Indigenous knowledges reduces education standards.

In a society steeped in Indigenous-specific racist perspectives, it is not be surprising to many people that there is active resistance by some educators in K-12 and post-secondary institutes to the inclusion of authentic Indigenous knowledges and perspectives in all curricular areas.

A few years ago I was working with a group of educators who taught various subject areas at the secondary level and I was sharing resources that were available to respectfully integrate Indigenous knowledges in secondary classrooms. Many folks in the room were excited about this and wanted to spend time exploring the authentic Indigenous resources that had been developed for teachers in BC to use. A couple of educators however, made it plain that while they had to be there (as this was a mandated professional learning session) they did not see a value in even examining the resources. When asked why, one educator stated that his students would be going onto elite universities and colleges, so Indigenous knowledge is not going to be important for them. That statement reflected so much ignorance I was not sure where to begin to unpack it. At its heart was a blind assumption that there was nothing of value for his students to learn from Indigenous cultures. But it was also a statement that he also thought that there was nothing that he had to learn as well, that he had already learned everything that he ever needed to know.

I wish this was an isolated experience, that other teachers in the last couple of years have also not said that ”there is no such thing as Indigenous knowledge in Science or Math”, or that “Indigenous literature was not sophisticated enough to be taught in secondary English Language Arts courses”. But this is where we still are, and it shows how much more work we need to continue to do to challenge the narratives of Indigenous knowledges being “less than”. As much as I try to focus on the voices of thousands of other educators across the province who are embracing learning about Indigenous knowledges, and who are creating powerful and rich learning environments that reflect a value for Indigenous knowledges, my mind keeps going back to those who resist doing so. Whether the resistance comes out of fear of making a mistake, or out of racist perspectives, the results are the same – we will continue to have learners leave our education system with the same blind spots and ignorance about Indigenous peoples, cultures, and histories that has plagued Canada’s education systems.

As you might imagine, people who believe that the infusing Indigenous knowledge in learning environments means reduced learning standards, usually understand very little about Indigenous knowledge systems. What they think they know is often based on ignorance, or on just plain stereotyping and racist perspectives. It is important for us to remember that the K-12 and post-secondary education systems that most of us went through were prime examples of epistemic racism in action. Most non-Indigenous educators, and even some Indigenous educators, never had the opportunity to learn about Indigenous knowledge systems and perspectives.

Combatting epistemic racism in K-12 is vital for Indigenous learners and communities. One of the effects of the absence of Indigenous knowledges in learning environments is referred to as cognitive imperialism, a concept that describes the “white-washing” of the mind of Indigenous peoples that is the result of forced assimilation that comes when Indigenous knowledge systems are absent, denied, or devalued in the education systems (Battiste, 2013). This concept includes cultural minorities been led to believe that challenges they have been faced with are the result who they are, rather than the challenges being created by systemic racism. If we are committed to moving forward to create healthy and strong relationships between Indigenous peoples and Canada, then all of our education systems need to ensure that we are not reinforcing (intentionally or unintentionally) cognitive imperialism.

In addition to respectfully and meaningfully infusing Indigenous knowledges and perspectives in learning environments to be more responsive to First Nations, Métis and Inuit learners, we need to help each other understand how essential this is for non-Indigenous learners as well.  Integrating (unappropriated) Indigenous knowledge systems and perspectives into all learning environments helps address and eliminate continuing colonial attitudes. In doing this, we help ensure that other Canadians do not grow up with the lack of knowledge and understanding of Indigenous peoples that permeated the systems that many of us came through. It is important for all learners to see the value for Indigenous peoples and cultures reflected in the physical environments of their schools, in their curriculum, and in their classroom resources. This is a vital part of Reconciliation through education.

Reflection Questions

  • Where are you right now with your awareness of Indigenous knowledges and how they can be infused in our education systems? At the beginning, or continuing to learn? What steps will you take next?
  • How would you respond to learners who ask why Indigenous knowledges are important in our classrooms and schools? To colleagues? To non-Indigenous parents/families?

Taking Action

  • Seek out opportunities to learn more about how various forms of racism manifest themselves in other sectors of our society (i.e. health-care, policing, child-welfare).
  • Honour diversity between and among Indigenous peoples, and avoid making generalizations based on partial or limited knowledge of some learners, families, or communities.
  • Commit to working on uncovering your unconscious biases. Find people to be critical friends in your learning.
  • Engage in self-reflection and examination of personal biases to help understand how these might contribute to systemic or epistemic racism.
  • Periodically look back at the “Becoming Anti-Racist in Canada” graphic and do self-assessments of where you are, and how you have grown.

Moving from the Claiming of “New” Lands to “Discovering” New Knowledge

A different kind of example of epistemic racism has become evident in instances where Indigenous knowledge and/or perspectives are only perceived as important when validated by non-Indigenous people. This is also reflected in situations where non-Indigenous educators “discover” and claim as new or innovative, knowledge or perspectives that have already existed and been practiced in Indigenous cultures in Canada for thousands of years.

Let us look at the example of place-based or place-conscious learning – the awakening understanding about the value of connecting learners, and learning, to the land. Relationship to land and place is deeply rooted in many Indigenous cultural constructs as a foundation for teaching and learning. Living and learning is intimately attached to sense of place, connection to the land, and learning from the land. The community and natural environment are regarded as the “classroom”, and “land was regarded as the mother of all people” (Kirkness, 1998, p. 10).   

In recent decades more educators in Canada have come to understand the learning potential for students learning on, and from, the land. Education systems have begun to embrace not just place-based learning, but understanding that the land is also our teacher, that we are informed by the land we are on. However, there has also been a tendency to treat this understanding by non-Indigenous peoples as a “new discovery” rather than acknowledging that it has been a foundation of Indigenous knowledge systems. I understand why this may happen; if non-Indigenous peoples have not had the opportunity to learn about Indigenous knowledge systems, then they may not realize that what is new to them is not new to Indigenous peoples. However, in the current contexts of this country, I would argue that it is the responsibility of all educators to be engaging in their learning about Indigenous knowledge systems.  A part of the work of building a relationship with Indigenous peoples is explicitly honouring the knowledge that has been and continues to be foundational to so many Indigenous cultures.

I was talking with a small group of friends who are also Indigenous educators. We were discussing the recent changes to the British Columbia curriculum to enable educators to be more responsive to diverse learners and community needs, to focus on deeper learning of concepts, and emphasize the development of core competencies such as critical thinking, communication, positive personal and cultural identity and personal and social awareness and responsibility. We all acknowledged that the transformation that was being undertaken was long overdue and sorely needed to improve our K-12 system. However, one Indigenous district leaders noted with some exasperation, “I do wish though that [the Ministry of Education] would stop referring to all of this as ‘new’. It is new for them; it is not new for us. Sometimes it feels like someone stole my car, painted it a different colour, and is trying to sell it back to me. This transformation of the K-12 system is already going in the direction of what so many Indigenous peoples already know.”

So, why is it important to name the Indigenous knowledges that already exist, and think carefully when we label some thing as new or innovative when it is only new or innovative to non-Indigenous peoples? Because, when we ignore (out of ignorance or indifference) that the knowledge has already existed in Indigenous cultures prior to it being learned in non-Indigenous cultures, we contribute to the misperception that Indigenous peoples did not (do not) have robust knowledge systems, and that there was little value in Indigenous cultures. This kind of thinking (and acting) continues to erase Indigenous knowledge systems in Canada. If we are to move forward as a country, non-Indigenous education (and other) systems will need to disrupt and change perspectives and narratives that do not acknowledge the existence and value of Indigenous knowledges. Ignorance of that, intentional or otherwise, will only contribute to continued colonization.

Reflection Questions

  • What damage is done to Indigenous cultures when non-Indigenous people claim knowledge and new or innovative when it is not new to Indigenous cultures?
  • How do we stop framing knowledge and perspectives as new or innovative when they already exist in Indigenous cultures? What impact might this have on how society perceives First Nation, Inuit and Métis cultures?

Taking Action

  • Commit to your continued learning about Indigenous peoples, cultures, and histories.
  • Check Indigenous education department websites in school districts to see what locally developed resources are already available.
  • Check with other local education organizations (Friendship Centres, Indigenous education departments of local post-secondary institutes etc.) to see if there are other collaboratively developed local First Nations, Inuit or Métis resources. As mentioned previously, if no resources are available from local communities, think about widening concentric circles.
  • Connect with local First Nations (or in other parts of Canada, connect with the holders of the local traditional territories) to learn about what resources are available to learn about local knowledges.
  • Begin or continue learning by reading one of the resources listed below. Look at references in those readings and continue your learning.
  • Connect with local Indigenous communities, especially the people on whose traditional territory a school or school district sits to determine what priorities for learner resources the community leadership has.
  • Create and /or support opportunities for educators to work collaboratively with local First Nations, Inuit or Métis communities (on whose traditional territories the schools or districts operate) to develop learner resources. Ensure that schools and districts have policies to protect Indigenous ownership of knowledge shared in the collaborative creation of resources for schools.

Read, Listen, or Watch

References

Barnhardt, R., & Kawagley, A. O. (2005). Indigenous knowledge systems and Alaska Native ways of   knowing. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 36(1), pp. 8-23. Retrieved from      http://ankn.uaf.edu/Curriculum/Articles/BarnhardtKawagley/Indigenous_Knowledge.html

Battiste, M. (2005). Indigenous knowledge: Foundations for First Nations. Retrieved from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/241822370_Indigenous_Knowledge_Foundations_for_First_Nations

Battiste, M. (2013). Decolonizing education: Nourishing the learning spirit. Saskatoon, SK, Canada: Purich Publishing Limited

Kirkness, V. (1998). Our peoples’ education: Cut the shackles; cut the crap; cut the mustard. Canadian Journal of Native Education Canadian Journal of Native Education, 22(1), 10-15.

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Ways Forward – Is Decolonization Even Possible?

In recent years, often in relation to Reconciliation, the concept of decolonizing various public sectors has gained traction. But what does this mean? I often wonder if it is possible to decolonize systems, especially our education system, which is an inherently a colonial construct. In education these days, it seems to me that decolonization has become a buzzword for many non-Indigenous folks to use to justify any change that they want to make. In Canada, colonization has most signficantly impacted Indigenous peoples, so I am especially sceptical when non-Indigenous folks use the concept to justify changes they want in education, especially when those changes are contrary to the priorities of Indigenous leadership. Talk about the saviour mentality at work!

If we define decolonization as the continuing process of critically examining, and challenging beliefs, values, structures and processes that that are steeped in mindsets that implicitly or overtly devalue or exclude Indigenous peoples, knowledge systems, and processes, then yes, we can use the term. I still rarely do though, and instead, I prefer to use the concepts of Reconciliation and the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigneous Peoples (UNDRIP).

Before I talk about the concept of Reconciliation in education, it is important to acknowledge that there are Indigenous peoples in Canada who challenge the possibility that Reconciliation can even occur, and I understand that perspective. The extent to which a person perceives it as possible depends on how one defines what Reconciliation means.  If one defines Reconciliation as the re-establishment of a broken relationship, then this raises the question of how we can reconcile something that was never whole to begin with.

Instead, I understand Reconciliation as the process of the work of every Canadian, individually, and collectively, personally and professionally, to understand the truths of Canada’s collective past, how these truths affect our lives today, how we can address the legacies of the past, and create changes to the present to move forward. Education systems play a vital role in this work. Integral to this process is responding to the priorities of, and working in partnership with, Indigenous peoples, and implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada calls the UN Declaration “the framework for reconciliation at all levels and across all sectors of Canadian society.”

What does some of the work of responding to UNDRIP in the context of education require?

  • It requires Canadians to understand the rights of Indigenous peoples to reasserting, reclaiming and expressing languages and cultures.
  • It asks us to challenge colonial policies and systemic racism that deny Indigenous decision-making power over land, resources, and the organization of Indigenous institutions – including in education.
  • It requires governments and organizations acting in accordance with constitutional principles of unique rights and relationships of Indigenous peoples to their homelands, and having these rights respected and protected in education (as well as other sectors).
  • It asks us to be aware of, and honour the right to self-determination of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis and the nature of “nation-to-nation, government-to-government, and Inuit-Crown relationship based on recognition of rights, respect, co-operation, and partnership as the foundation for transformative change”[1]

It also asks us to think not only the land we occupy, but also the role of colonization in claiming that place, and implications for identity and belonging for each of us.

So what does this mean for education systems? For individual educators in our various roles?

The process of addressing the harms of colonization begins with a critical examination of paternalistic or racist mind-sets and attitudes about Indigenous peoples, cultures, and knowledge systems that endure today. It is that simple, and that challenging.

Moving forward means we examine what aspects of our education system, schools, or classroom practices, continue to ignore or devalue Indigenous peoples, cultures, community structures and processes, or knowledge systems.  We examine how overt, systemic, and epistemic racism play out in classrooms, schools and districts. And we respond to the priorities of Indigenous leadership about what needs to change.

It is as a process – a journey that we are navigating – rather than a destination we will arrive at.

Questions for Reflection

  • What are the stories you are telling about how this country came to be?
  • What are the stories you tell about your place in it?
  • What are the transformational stories you will tell about your role in Reconciliation through education?
  • What are the stories you will tell about your own learning?
  • How much do you know about the rights of Indigenous peoples (as reflected in section 35 of the Constitution)?
  • How Well do you know the Declarations on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples?

Taking Action – General

  • Help educate family and friends about Canada’s true history.
  • Where they exist, examine the locally based authentic Indigenous education resources to learn about Residential Schools. It does not matter if you teach in a related area of not.
  • Create your own personal/professional growth plan to help guide your learning and actions to support Reconciliation. Share it with critical friends and colleagues.
  • Advocate that every province and territory enact legislation to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), along with an Action Plan and a means to implement it.
  • Advocate that leadership in every organization report out on actions the organization has undertaken to engage in Reconciliation.
  • Become as familiar with First Nations, Inuit and Métis governance structures (as applicable according to where you are in Canada) as you are with Canadian, provincial or territorial governance structures.
  • Collaborate with colleagues to determine how you might change something you do to in response to Articles 13 and 14 of The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP)
  • If you have Indigenous learners, learn about who they are, and who their families are.
  • Check out resources for mapping of Residential schools across Canada at
  • Examine the education resources available from the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation     

Taking Action – Educational Leadership Related

  • Support the development of welcoming spaces in schools for Indigenous families.
  • Ensure local Indigenous peoples and cultures are reflected in schools and school district physical spaces.
  • Respond to the education priorities of the local First Nations, Inuit and/or Métis leadership (as applicable to whose traditional territories you work and/or live).
  • Develop school and district growth plans for Reconciliation in education. Share it with Indigenous communities and the public. Create opportunities to review progress.
  • Ask people in positions of formal leadership to create personal/professional growth plans for engaging in Reconciliation. Create structures to review their plans on a regular basis.
  • Create professional learning opportunities for all people in positions of formal leadership in schools and school districts to engage in learning about the Truth and think about their roles in Reconciliation
  • Learn about local, provincial, territorial and federal education obligations and commitments to First Nations, Inuit, and Métis. Understand what your role is in the implementing aspects of those obligations and commitments.

Read/Listen or Watch

(This post is a snippet of Wayi Wah! Indigenous Pedagogies: An Act for Reconciliation and Anti-Racist Education, anticipated publishing date September, 2022)

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Indigenous-Specific Racism in Education – Challenging Biases and Assumptions

We all have biases that we have developed based on our life experiences, and how we have interpreted those experiences. Biases serve a purpose for us as thinking short-cuts that help us organize our perceptions of the world.

Our professional lives are reflection of the personal values, perspectives and biases we hold and carry, so it is important to be aware of how our conscious and unconscious biases affect the decisions and choices we make.

So what do we do? We think critically about what we know versus what we assume.

This work asks us to interrogate what we “know” about people, and create the possibility that what we know is based on assumptions and or biases that limit both learners (and ourselves). This is about changing how we perceive and interpret. It is about how we make sense of what we know. Some of the conscious biases we may hold are reflected in assumptions about Indigenous learners. Similar to how we act on our biases, we all have assumptions that affect our decisions. As educators, it is important to pay attention to the assumptions we may hold because we can act on those assumptions in ways that can limit, or even harm, learners.

Surfacing assumptions is hard to do, but we can only do the work of challenging assumptions, when we can name what we think. The following are assumptions that continue to permeate many schools and classrooms.

What are some assumptions that we need to challenge?

Assumption – We teach in culturally neutral education systems. We do not. We teach in systems that have always reflected value systems of specific cultures. Our current systems generally reflect a valuing of Euro-Western knowledge systems and perspectives about effective pedagogy. When we understand that our systems currently reflect specific cultural perspectives, we can think about what the values are that have influenced our system. We can also create some room to look at how Indigenous knowledge systems, including knowledge about approaches to teaching and learning, can help us create better education experiences for learners (and ourselves).

Assumption – Indigenous pedagogies are limited and simplistic or are about lowering standards. Indigenous pedagogies can create for effective learning environments in ways that support high-expectations for learners and support the whole learner. The idea that Indigenous pedagogies means lowered standards is often connected to lack of knowledge about Indigenous cultures and knowledge systems, or is the result of outright racist assumptions about Indigenous cultures as devoid of knowledge.

Assumption – Indigenous education is only important if I have Indigenous learners. It is important that every Canadian have better awareness and knowledge of our collective histories, and also develop deeper understanding about the relationships between Indigenous peoples and Canada today. This means that all learners (and adults) will need to engage in learning about, from, and with Indigenous peoples and cultures in Canada. It is the only way we will be able to move forward in a good way as a country.

Assumption – If education systems are not working for learners, they need to change to fit into existing education systems. Effective education systems meet the needs of the learners they serve. Period. Full stop. Exclamation point! (Can you tell that I feel strongly about this?) If an education system is not meeting the needs of learners to achieve education outcomes, and to do so in ways that honour support the well-being of the learner and community, what is the point of the system? Our work is not to change learners to meet the needs of systems. It is to support learners to be successful in developing the knowledge, understanding and skills we need to live good lives – for ourselves and for our local and global communities.

Assumption – First Nations, Métis or Inuit learners cannot achieve success in every facet of education. Perceptions that Indigenous learners cannot achieve in any area of education are usually the result of colonial stereotypes about Indigenous peoples, the effects of low-expectation, lack of cultural relevancy, and/or education systems where Indigenous learners do not feel valued and respected. Where disparities in education outcomes exist, our systems have previously placed the responsibility for that on the abilities of the learners (and have focussed on a deficit model of education). More educators are now understanding that our systems need to be more aware of how systemic racism (in various forms) in our systems have created challenges for many Indigenous learners.

Assumption – Indigenous peoples in Canada are a homogenous group. There is as much diversity among Indigenous learners as there is among any other group of learners. It is also important for all Canadians to understand the diversity, not only between First Nations, Inuit and Metis, but also the significant diversity that can exist from First Nation to First Nation.

Assumption – If I just treat everyone the same, there will be no racism. This perspective often co-exists with the idea that educators are culturally neutral, or that cultural perspectives and knowledges that are reflected in our systems are the only ones of value. It is often promoted by people who have not critically examined power differences between majority and minority cultures. The idea that we just treat everyone the same erases our ability to actually see and understand others.

Questions for Reflection

  • Have you seen or heard the assumptions listed previously in your working environments?
  • Have you held any of these assumptions?
  • What purposes might holding these assumptions serve for educators?
  • How do these assumptions harm learners?

The “Yes, but…”

In naming assumptions, we may also need to be mindful about the tendency to reply with the “yes, but…” response. The “yes, but…” is the way to avoid engaging in challenging assumptions that create barriers for learners. The “yes, but…” is often connected to some of our conscious or unconscious biases, and may unintentionally justify a status-quo that perpetuates types of racism and inequity. Doing the (hard) reflective work of surfacing and challenging our biases can help us avoid some of the patterns of thought and action that limit learners. For example, many educators engage in confirmation bias or fundamental attribution bias when they interpret new information in ways that support existing beliefs about Indigenous peoples based on stereotypes and ignorance, or when they attribute any challenges facing some First Nations, Inuit, and Métis learners, families and communities as direct results of their internal qualities, instead of understanding how many contemporary contexts are connected to historical and/or on-going colonialism and racism (Hampton & St. Denis, 2002).

How do we recognize our unconscious biases?

People are too complex for there to be a one-size-fits all approach to challenging assumptions and biases in anti-racism work, but there are some approaches that may help:

  • Acknowledge our potential for bias; if we deny that we have biases, we will remain blind to how they affect our actions.
  • Understand that recognizing and interrogating our own biases is a life-long endeavour.
  • Learn more about types of bias; this can help us become more aware of when we engage in types of bias, and see it in others. The more awareness we develop, the more we can see and understand.
  • Slow down our thinking. Take time to reflect on what we believe and what purposes a belief serves.
  • Be open. Ask for alternative perspectives from trusted friends and/or colleagues.
  • Be aware of automatic patterns of thinking. This is often a signal that there may be conscious or unconsious bias operating.
  • Watch out for patterns of feeling defensive. This is often a sign that there might be a conscious or unconscious bias that has been triggered.
  • Expose yourself to diverse experiences and people
  • Learn to “see” by asking the following:
    • Who are the people I spend most of my time with?
    • Who are the people I ask for advice?
    • Do I feel uncomfortable when I am surrounded by certain people or groups
    • Do I hold different expectations for different groups of learners?

We can remember that it is easy to make a change if the change is convenient and does not ask us to fundamentally challenge our ways of thinking and acting. Anti-racist work asks people to do just that.

Questions for Reflection

  • How willing are you to feel discomfort in order to learn?
  • How aware are you of your biases?
  • How do you recognize and unpack your biases?
  • Do you have people in your life who could help you uncover some of your unconscious biases?
  • What might we need to unlearn as much as learn?

Further Learning

(This post is a snippet of Wayi Wah! Indigenous Pedagogies: An Act for Reconciliation and Anti-Racist Education, anticipated publishing date September, 2022)

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How Do I Avoid Cultural Appropriation in My Classroom or School?

While educators are encouraged to integrate Indigenous knowledges into schools and classrooms, people have also become aware that respectful inclusion of Indigenous resources means avoiding cultural appropriation or exploitation, and misusing or misrepresenting Indigenous knowledges.

Educators often ask about the difference is between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. In appreciation, we can learn about and understand other cultures, and in a cultural exchange there is an intentional sharing of cultural knowledge. These are both different than cultural appropriation of Indigenous knowledge which occurs when non-Indigenous people take elements of Indigenous knowledge as their own, without permission to do so and without recognition of where the knowledge comes from, and how it exists within specific contexts. Cultural appropriation is especially significant to be aware of when there is a power imbalance between the cultures, or when there has been historical suppression of the culture that is being appropriated.  The power imbalance is what helps define the difference between a colonizing culture taking and using as its own aspects of a marginalized culture, and when a historically marginalized culture adopts elements of the colonizing culture (which can also be an assimilative process).

One common form of cultural appropriation found across many art forms (including text/literature) are works that mimic Indigenous art forms, but were created by non-Indigenous artists who indicate that they were “inspired” by Indigenous art or people. It is not respectful for non-Indigenous folks to try to create Indigenous themed works of art or literature no matter how much they may be “inspired” by Indigenous works. Besides often misrepresenting Indigenous cultures or knowledge, this kind of action takes space and opportunity away from authentic Indigenous representations.

Cultural exploitation is another a term people may be familiar with. Indigenous knowledges are usually context specific and connected to place, people, and other knowledge and protocols; when aspects of these knowledge systems are taken out of context they can be misinterpreted, misrepresented or misused. This is often reflected when, in an attempt to include Indigenous knowledges in schools, educators end up trivializing cultural knowledge by equating it with craft projects. For example, learning about the variety and meanings associated with the various cultural poles and pole-raising practices of First Nations on the coast of British Columbia does not need to be accompanied by learners making toy “totem poles”. Learning about the history and relevance of button blankets for some First Nations does not mean students making paper or craft representations of the blankets.[1] Instead, students can learn about these, and other cultural artifacts, in terms of their cultural significance and how they are created. Students can learn about the knowledge and skills required to create cultural artifacts, or the knowledge and skills required to engage in cultural knowledge-based processes. Students can be exposed to authentic examples of Indigenous cultural knowledges in contexts that the holders of that knowledge deem appropriate.

People can continue their own learning about respectful terminology relating to Indigenous cultures and understand why “costume” is a disrespectful way to refer to regalia (and why it is not appropriate to try to use representations of regalia as a costume). Educators could come to understand the significance of regalia, and support Indigenous learners who choose to wear it in school settings.

Cultural exploitation can also serve to perpetuate pan-Indigenous perspectives, where Indigenous cultures are assumed to be homogeneous. It is necessary to understand the diversity of knowledges between and among Indigenous peoples and respect that protocols and knowledge systems differ between not only First Nations, Inuit and Métis for example, but also from First Nation to First Nation.

Cultural knowledge systems are complex; there are often layers of cultural knowledge and protocols that need to be in place for many processes practices, and it is important that non-Indigenous educators understand that not all cultural practices can or should be replicated in classroom settings.

It is with these contexts in mind that we might understand how important it is that Indigenous peoples have the right to control how Indigenous cultural knowledge is used, and with whom it is shared.

A final note on appropriation and misrepresentation. Current communication technologies have made it easier for non-Indigenous people to masquerade as Indigenous in the promotion of ideas or products in on-line. Easy access on-line to representations of Indigenous cultures is more easily used as “inspiration” for some non-Indigenous artists and writers to create works that might look like authentic Indigenous works, but are not. Not only does this result in inauthentic representations and/or promoting “pan-Indigenous” perspectives, it also continues to displace or suppress authentic Indigenous voice. In a country where colonial assimilation policies have attempted to erase Indigenous peoples, cultures and histories, we need to be vigilant about supporting authentic Indigenous text/literature and art.

Taking Action

Classroom/Learning Environments

  • Use teacher or classroom resources that have been created by Indigenous peoples or organizations.
  • Critically examine all student resources to determine that they are authentic Indigenous resources, not created by people who “were inspired” by Indigenous cultures. This may require checking on names of authors, designers, or other artists.
  • When including authentic Indigenous content, help learners understand where it comes from.
  • Help learners understand the differences between cultural appropriation and appreciation, and why this is important.

Educational Leadership

  • Work with Indigenous nations on whose traditional territory a school or school district sits to create specific school district policies that recognizes that the local Indigenous knowledge used in a collaboratively developed resource remains the property of the people it comes from.

Read, Listen, or Watch


[1] There are many ways to learn and teach about these elements of First Nations cultures without trivializing them. One example can be found in the FNESC Math First Peoples Teacher Resource Guide http://www.fnesc.ca/math-first-peoples/

(This post is a snippet of Wayi Wah! Indigenous Pedagogies: An Act for Reconciliation and Anti-Racist Education, anticipated publishing date September, 2022)

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Authentic Indigenous Resources

If we are respecting the First Peoples Principles of Learning and Indigenous knowledge systems, we need to ensure that our classrooms and schools are full of rich, authentic Indigenous resources. This is important for First Nations, Inuit and Métis learners who deserve to see positive and dynamic representations of who they are in their learning environments. This is also important for non-Indigenous learners, so that they do not leave our education systems with the same gaps in knowledge and understanding about Indigenous peoples in Canada that we may have had in our own K-12 and post-secondary learning.

We know that until quite recently, most student resources contained little or no authentic Indigenous representation. There has been a general absence of Indigenous voice in education resources. In addition, resources that did include Indigenous content, knowledge, or perspectives often implied that Indigenous people only existed in history, and did not reflect the thriving peoples and cultures today. Many resources also often contained inaccurate, racist, or pan-Indigenous representations of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis in Canada. It is helpful to remember that resources that do not differentiate between First Nations, Métis and Inuit, or that assume knowledge and perspectives are the same for all First Nations across this land reflect an inherently racist perspective because they deny the distinctness of First Nations, Métis and Inuit, and the diversity between First Nations.

More educators are now becoming more aware of the need to use authentic Indigenous resources. But what does this mean exactly? In an effort to help educators choose learning resources for their schools that authentically reflect Indigenous peoples in Canada, and help K-12 teachers make more informed judgments about which materials to use the First Nations Education Steering Committee (FNESC) defines authentic Indigenous resources as historical or contemporary texts that

  • present authentic First Peoples voices (i.e., are created by First Peoples or through the substantial contributions of First Peoples);
  • depict themes and issues that are important within First Peoples cultures (e.g., loss of identity and affirmation of identity, tradition, healing, role of family, importance of Elders, connection to the land, the nature and place of spirituality as an aspect of wisdom, the relationships between individual and community, the importance of oral tradition, the experience of colonization and decolonization)
  • incorporate First Peoples story-telling techniques and features as applicable (e.g., circular structure, repetition, weaving in of spirituality, humour).

                                                                 First Nations Education Steering Committee, 2016

These are more than resources that are accurate; they are resources that are created by Indigneous peoples. Using resources created by Indigenous educators, writers, or developers addresses the invisibility of Indigenous voice in our schools and classrooms, and better guarantees more accurate and respectful representations of First Nations, Inuit and Métis.  It helps ensures that we are not only learning about – we are also learning from. When we think of resources in the classroom, we can also think about the people who can provide teaching as a resource; this is especially important if we are honouring that much Indigenous knowledge is locally held, and held by people who may share their knowledge orally. Just think about how far it would take Canadian consciousness to fully understand that Indigenous peoples and cultures have rich and vital perspective and bodies of knowledge.

Authentic Resource Evaluation Criteria

Educators who are interested in ensuring that student resources with Indigenous content, knowledges or perspectives are authentic and respectful may also choose to evaluate these resources against the following criteria adapted from Authentic First Peoples Resources for Grades 10 to 12 and Adult Learning (FNESC, 2021). Some statements will be more applicable to some resources more than others. I also acknowledge that the descriptors of excellent, fair, and poor, can be variously interpreted, so it is vital to ensure that Indigenous educators be a significant part of any evaluation process. It can be helpful to review resources collaboratively as this provides the opportunity for professional learning as educators share knowledge and perspectives with each other.

 ExcellentFairPoorN/A
AUTHENTICITY    
Resource created by, or in significant collaboration with First Nation, Inuit and/or Métis writers, developers, creators etc.    
REPRESENTATION    
Recognizes diversity between and among First Nations, Inuit, and Métis (distinct societies, communities, ways of life, histories, languages), including recognition of diversity between First Nations    
Shows contributions of First Nations, Inuit and/or Métis to contemporary society    
Represents of First Nations, Inuit and Métis as enduring, not vanishing or assimilated    
Portrays of Indigenous’ languages and dialects respectfully    
Representation of individual First Nations, Inuit, or Métis lives, past or present accurately    
Is devoid of obvious or subtle Indigenous-specific racism or prejudice    
Avoids stereotypes of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis    
Uses sensitive language, free from loaded or offensive words    
Portrays of diversity of human strengths and weaknesses    
Presents events, issues, problems accurately and respectfully    
ILLUSTRATIONS (where applicable)    
Depictions of First Nations, Inuit, and/or Métis ways of life (past or present) are authentic and accurate according to place and time    
Reflect diversity of First Nations, Inuit and Métis (i.e., recognizes differences between not only First Nations, Inuit and Métis, but also between First Nations cultures)    

What can you do? Move from awareness to action.

Taking Action in Classroom/Learning Environments

  • Learn to develop a critical eye with resources. Ask who developed them and whose voices, perspectives, and/or knowledges are centred.
  • Work with colleagues to evaluate existing learner resources using the Resource Evaluation Criteria.

Taking Action in Educational Leadership Roles

  • Create opportunities for educators to evaluate existing classroom and school resources against the Authentic Resource Evaluation Criteria.
  • Ensure authentic Indigenous resources are included in all classrooms at all grades.

Reflection Question

How might the use of authentic Indigenous resources, as opposed to resources created by non-Indigenous people, impact

  • Indigenous learners experiences in education?
  • non-Indigenous learners’ perceptions of Indigenous peoples?

(a snippet of Wayi Wah! Indigenous Pedagogies: An Act for Reconciliation and Anti-Racist Education, anticipated publishing date – September, 2022)

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A Vision of a System

(a snippet of Wayi Wah! Indigenous Pedagogies: An Act for Reconciliation and Anti-Racist Education, anticipated publishing date – September, 2022)

Many people talk about the need to improve education systems, to create system-wide shifts in values, structures, and processes to support equity. However, we often have different visions of what this means based on context(s) we are most familiar with. The focus on what is needed to improve K-12 education systems differs depending in which province, territory, or state the conversation is had.

It is helpful to remember the diversity of the education cultures that currently exist across this continent, and not assume that every education jurisdiction reflects the same level of awareness and understanding about Indigenous education and anti-racism. We need to remember to be thoughtful about how we interpret and apply ideas from other education jurisdictions. If we make pan-education generalizations across multiple education jurisdictions we might create misassumptions about what currently exists to build upon, and may miss the opportunity to respond to the very real needs of where we are. So, it is important for me to be clear about what I mean when I speak about systemic change.

It is an education system that, as a normalized aspect of the educational culture:

  • celebrates and responds to the diversity of learners
  • nourishes the whole learner
  • has expectations that every learner can be successful
  • provide necessary supports for learners to achieve
  • respects and responds to the needs of Indigenous learners, families and communities
  • helps learners understand their gifts, and supports them in using their strengths to grow in other areas of their learning and life
  • engenders a passion for learning that learners carry with them when they leave the system

We want systems that support every learner to leave our system with “dignity, purpose, and options”.[1] This means that all learners have the knowledge, understandings, skills, and competences to help them take their own next steps in life, whichever paths they choose. When they leave the K-12 system, not only do they still have a passion for learning, but they also recognize that they are valued for who they are. They are grounded in a strong sense of who they are and the strengths they carry in this world. We have a colonial history, where in many cases to be considered successful in the public education system, First Nations, Inuit, or Métis learners have had to suppress pride in who they were, and are, as Indigenous people. A transformed education system will reflect a value for Indigenous peoples and cultures in Canada.

Does this sound highly aspirational and slightly daunting? For some folks, yes. And that is okay. High aspirations are more than good to have; they are necessary. They help us continue to learn and to grow. It is the same thing we ask of learners in our schools.


[1] Network of Inquiry and Indigenous Education, https://noiie.ca/about-us/

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Yes, A Focus on Achievement Is Important

In recent years I have noticed a tendency for some educators to shy away from talking about the need to support the achievement of Indigenous learners.

A group of senior leaders in a school district were discussing what they could be doing differently to better meet the needs of indigenous learners in the district. At one point I asked what the available data was showing about the disparity in learner achievement between Indigenous and non-Indigenous learners. One of the senior leaders immediately indicated that they don’t talk about the success of Indigenous learners in terms of “achievement”. They looked at other things, such as a sense of belonging. In the same conversation, another educator indicated that “success” for Indigenous students also might not include the need to look at the 5- and 6-year graduation rates; success for Indigenous learners might “look different”.

An educational leader in another school district shared a story of a colleague who indicated that the definition of success for a specific Indigenous learner in her class was that the student was coming to school. Given that this child had numerous challenges in her life, just being in school was the achievement of a significant goal. However, the education leader rightfully challenged his colleague’s notion that coming to school was the final measure of success for this learner; instead, coming to school was a first (and vital) step in this learner’ formal education journey. Now that school was a place that this learner felt valued enough to be in, then what would the next steps be? How would the educators continue to ensure that the child’s learning environment reflects that she is valued? How would the school work to support her learning needs so she is able to grow and thrive in that environment and graduate with dignity, purpose, and the options to make her life what she wants of it.

The implications of thinking that success in K-12 education can look different for groups of learners based on whether or not they are Indigenous is an example of systemic racism.

I know that none of the educators who thought that avoiding talking about learners’ achievement and the graduation rates, or thought that coming to school was the measure of success believed that they were contributing to systemic racism. I know that they are all caring people who believe that they want what is best for all learners in their school districts. They had identified some necessary components of learners having successful experiences in school – a sense of belonging, and even just showing up.

The problem occurs when these become the desired end results, rather than understanding them as necessary parts of the larger picture. A sense of belonging is a vital part of a learner’s experience, but it is only a part. Coming to school is necessary, but it is not the end goal. Having a K-12 experiences that nurture and supports the holistic development and achievement of the learner (including mental/cognitive, social/emotional, physical and spiritual well-being) is the goal. This development will provide the basis for them to take their next steps in life.

In order to unpack the racism of low-expectations embedded in statements of those educators, we have to ask a few questions. Is the word “achievement” okay to use when looking at education outcomes for non-Indigenous learners? If so, then why? Think about what it means when educators do not think that academic achievement is important for First Nations, Inuit, or Métis learners. This reflects a perception that First Nations, Inuit, or Métis learners either do not have the ability to achieve academically, or a patriarchal assumption that it is not important to First Nations, Inuit, or Métis learners, families and communities.  If we expect less from First Nations, Inuit, or Métis learners academically, we are negatively impacting their options in life once they leave the K-12 system.

If the problem is that some folks narrowly construe “achievement” to mean only academic success and not the development of personal and social well-being, and competencies in other areas of learning, then we needed to redefine achievement to ensure that it means the education of the whole learner, including, but not limited to, academic achievement.

If academic programs are not culturally inclusive, if they value only certain types of knowledge, identities and cultural experiences, if success in these programs does not take into account the healthy development of the learners social/emotional lives, or connect learning to communities and the land, then we make the changes in the academic programs so that they are better for all learners.

Achieving equity in a system that is not inclusive, does not support the whole learner, and values only certain ways of learning is not the goal. The goal is to create education systems that reflects “achievement” as the holistic balance of academic, personal and social accomplishment, where diversity is celebrated, and Indigenous peoples, cultures and knowledge systems are valued and reflected as an integral part of education for all.

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The Power of Tension and Hope

I write the following for every Indigenous educator doing the work we do – and for anyone else for whom this resonates.

On tension.

I live in places of tension

in the tension between the holistic and affirming educational experiences for all learners, and the continuing reality that this is not the experience for so many children and youth

in the tension between the desire to reveal my anger at so many people in the system who make excuses to keep the status-quo of inequity and racism, and the understanding that their learning needs to be supported with invitations into learning and creating space for people to be curious

in the tension between doing what I personally want to do without thinking about how it might impact others, and knowing that I need to walk carefully because what I do does affect others

in the tension between wanting to separate my professional life from my personal life but knowing that this is not a luxury afforded to people whose identity is integral to the work

in the tension between believing that we can change our world for the better through education, and the cynicism that we won’t

and I learn in tension

in the tension that comes in seeking to learn

in the tension that is created when we open ourselves up to possibility

in the tension between who I am and who I want to be

in the tension that is created when I challenge my own thinking

in the tension that is created when I challenge others’ ideas

in the tension that is exists between self-doubt and certainty

in the tension that comes from dwelling in not-knowing

in the tension that comes from taking steps forward with no clear path

We need tension to grow – tension between what is, and the idea that there could be something better that we can be a part of affecting, or creating. When we enter into that space, we create the possibility of other possibilities.

Today, I also live in another kind of tension – the tension that exists when we witness the harm that human beings can to do each other, regardless of intention, and the ache in the wish that this was not a part of our world.

There is a tension between the need to exist in that loss, and in that grief, and the desire to move past it. I understand that we have to be able to imagine a better future in order to create that future. But this week it has been hard to do that.

On hope.

Canadians have spent too much time looking away. Looking away from overt and systemic racism, from pain or death caused by racist attitudes and actions in health care, in policing, in criminal justice, in child-welfare systems, in government policies and practices, and yes, in education.

A week from now or a month from now, will people turn away again? Or will Canadians stand up and use this time to create real, impactful, positive change? Could this be a legacy of these 215 children, and of the others yet to be found? Let’s see this as yet another call to action for all Canadians – not just to learn the full scope of the ugly past, but also to do the work of making change now beyond what is easy or convenient – the work of critically challenging on-going bias and racism in both ourselves and others.

The pain of the past is carried in the bones of the present. There is no moving past – only moving through, surfacing the dark into the light and air that comes with acknowledging, and with sitting in witness.

So yes, we sit in witness now. We acknowledge and we grieve. And we connect with the spark of anger at the on-going injustices and we act. We listen, we read, we learn, we talk, we stop accepting excuses and half-truths, we advocate.

We learn about the devastation of colonization, and we recognize the difference between knowing about, and understanding.

We learn about racism of the past and how it manifests itself in the present, and we enter that harder place of learning about our current complicity in perpetuating it. This is not about guilt or recrimination. This is about taking responsibility for what we do now.

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You Ask What You Can Do?

From Walk for Reconciliation

It has been a week since the media shared information from the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation, that ground-penetrating radar had confirmed 215 bodies of children buried at the former Kamloops Indian Residential.

I write this now in the place between sadness and anger.

It is the sadness that existed as a layer over my soul for as long as I have been aware of the devastation felt by so many generations of First Nation, Inuit, and Metis people as the result not only of residential schools, but also as a result of other government policies deigned to assimilate or eliminate First Nations, Inuit, and Metis in Canada. It is the sadness that took up residency in my heart when I came to understand the impact that residential schools had on so many in my extended family. It is the sadness that weighs heavy as I think about the bodies of 215 children at the Kamloops Indian Residential school.

And I am angry. I want to soften that word, to replace it with “frustration”, or to remove it altogether because I know that some people are not comfortable with the feelings of discomfort that may arise. But I will not do that today. I will name the anger. It is the anger that clouds my soul at the fact that it has taken this revelation of these bodies to awaken so many people out of the slumber of ignorance. It is the anger that pricks my skin with the memories of times I have heard “Why don’t they just get over it?” in reference to the legacy of residential schools. It is the anger that is an ache in my heart every time I have seen or heard an educator turn away from engaging in their own work in reconciliation in education because they do not see it as important for their role in the system, or “it does not relate to the subject they teach”, or when their engagement cloaks epistemic and systemic racism in the pretense of “examining both sides”.

It is the anger that, despite the work of so many people since the findings of the TRC were made available, and since the Walks for Reconciliation across the country over half a decade ago, little seems to be understood by so many.

I do understand. I can repeat the litany of reasons that people give about why they or others did not know the extent or the scope of the damage done by these schools, and the relationship between that legacy and our education systems today. But at this point, reasons become excuses to actively avoid learning. There have been so many people and organizations in the last decade working across this country to support the learning of educators and others about residential schools, the legacies, and about how everyone plays a role in reconciliation. People have been invited into the learning in caring, supportive ways with everything from book clubs to focussed workshops, to the provision of resources to use in classrooms and schools. In BC a new professional standard for BC teaching certificate holders was developed, and required professional learning focussing on Indigenous education was mandated. And yet excuses continue.

I also know about the desire of some people to turn away to avoid the discomfort of facing ugliness and pain.  I understand that. I have done that. But, the ability to turn away comes from a place of privilege that survivors, their families and communities have not had.  

Instead of turning away, I ask people to enter into discomfort with the understanding that it will help in the learning that needs to happen. We can think about how the legacies of residential schools show up in more than the heart-wrenching knowledge of bodies of children buried in unmarked graves. We acknowledge that the experiences of the children who went to the different types of Indian Residential and day schools differed from school to school, but there are common legacies that affect so many. In making sense of the long-term effects of these schools, we can also understand that in addition to the individual trauma that many experiences there is a collective trauma created by the sum of all those experiences.

Think about how children tried to make sense of what they were taught those schools – that, at best, they could learn a serviceable skill, and that at worse, they should be ashamed of who they were, and where who they came from. Think about the strength it took for those who were abused to survive. Think about the pain that comes from feeling so much alienation and powerlessness. Think about how this affected entire lives.

Think about what it was like for parents who had little recourse when their children were taken away. While many resisted and took action (such as hiding their children for as long as they could), others felt powerless. Think about the impact of that sustained feeling over years.

Think about what it was like for a community when there were no children left. Some communities actively protested and resisted, but with little result. Think about the disruption to the continuation of cultural knowledge.

Think about what it was like for parents when their children returned as strangers years later without the ability to speak in their own language. And yes, think about the parents whose children never returned.

Think about the ways that many people try to erase the pain of those schools, and you may better understand some of the challenges that some people continue to face today. This is not “just history”. This is now.

I know that the current generations are not responsible for the actions of the past, but we ARE responsible for our actions now. Turning away, not engaging, contributes to the trauma. It implies that what happened, and what continues to happen, is not important enough for a collective response that begins with our personal actions. It diminishes us all.

And here is another whisper of anger. It is the expectation that the work of teaching about the full scope of residential schools and of responding to “I don’t know what I can do as a non-Indigenous person” is the responsibility of First Nations, Inuit or Metis people. It is not.

There is, has been, so much that people can undertake to initiate their own learning. Some of the suggestions that follow are general, others are more specific. All will provide more context about the histories and contemporary contexts of this country. Some support specific recommendations and changes. It is tempting to respond to proposed changes with a “Yes, but…”. Remember that changes required for social justice and equity can be inconvenient; they can be challenging, and people may resist with the “Yes, but…”. But changes are necessary if we are serious about meaningful response to what we collectively now know.

It is important to take responsibility for our own learning. By learning more and deepening understanding, we can increase our ability to understand what next steps we can take in moving from awareness to action.

  • Read the Truth and Reconciliation Reports. The reports are lengthy, so choose one and read one chapter.
  • Read the Calls to Action http://www.trc.ca/about-us/trc-findings.html
  • Increase understanding about the historical and contemporary effects of colonization in BC and elsewhere, and government to government and nation to nation relationships by exploring FNESC’s BC First Nations, Land, Title and Governance Teacher Resource Guide
  • Educate yourself about local First Nations, Inuit and Metis
  • Pressure political leaders to enact all TRC Calls to Action
  • Read the British Columbia based resources focussing on Residential Schools. It does not matter if you teach in a related area of not. There is personal and professional learning in  FNESC Residential Schools and Reconciliation Teacher Resources Guides and Education for Reconciliation Metis Professional Learning  and also see They Came for the Children
  • Help educate your family and friends about Canada’s true history
  • Read more books written by First Nations, Inuit and Metis authors. Watch more films created by First Nations, Inuit, and Metis peoples
  • Read the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and collaborate with colleagues to determine how you might change something you do to in response to the Declaration
  • Learn about how racism toward Indigenous peoples shows itself in health care with In Plain Sight: Addressing Indigenous Specific Racism and Discrimination in B.C. Health Care
  • Find and participate in an anti-racism workshop. Yes, racism is at the heart of this issue. Learn about the different ways that racism manifests itself
  • Learn about how racism toward Indigenous learners shows itself in education with the Education of Aboriginal Students in the BC Public System
  • Examine publicly available resources to help learn about residential schools such as the Project of Heart e-book by the BCTF
  • Advocate for mandated Indigenous focussed courses to happen in every high school
  • Read Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian to help understand the relationship between the desire for land, and governmental policies enacted to control Indigenous peoples in Canada and the USA
  • Challenge people when you hear stereotypes about First Nations, Inuit, and Metis
  • Read 21 Things You May Have Not Known About the Indian Act Bob Joseph to learn about the Indian Act and its impact on generations of Indigenous peoples in Canada
  • Critically examine your work places to understand how racism might be embedded in structures, processes, or policies
  • Take a free on-line course such as UBC’s Reconciliation Through Indigenous Education to help learn how Indigenous histories, perspectives, and worldviews can be made part of the work we do in various contexts
  • Advocate for more First Nation, Inuit and Metis people in positions of decision-making in this country
  • Avoid usurping Indigenous voice. Create and hold space for it.
  • Avoid denying or minimalizing First Nation, Inuit and Metis peoples’ experiences of racism in this country. Pay attention when you see and hear it, whether it is overt as shown in the attacks on Mi’kmaq fishers in Nova Scotia, Joyce Echaquan’s death in Quebec, or the hand-cuffing of a grandfather and grand-daughter in British Columbia, or embedded in the daily experiences of First Nations, Inuit, and Metis peoples as we live daily in this country.
  • Commit to continual learning to widen the scope of what you know or to deepen your understanding. Learn something. Reflect on it. Share it. Ask yourself, “what can I learn next?”.

In all, avoid the “Yes, but’s…”. Read, listen, reflect, act – repeat.

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