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”
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
- Truth and Reconciliation Reports. The reports are lengthy, so choose one and begin with one chapter.
- Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action. Pay particular attention to the Calls that relate to education.
- The Inconvenient Indian (2013) Thomas King. This book helps people understand the relationship between the desire for land, and governmental policies enacted to control Indigenous peoples in Canada and the USA.
- 21 Things You May Have Not Known About the Indian Act (2018) Bob Joseph. Learn about the Indian Act and its impact on generations of Indigenous peoples in Canada.
- “What do you really know about The Indian Act?” Podcast. Episode from Secret Life of Canada Podcast Series. Falen Johnson and Leah Simone-Bowen
- This Place – 150 Years Retold (2019) Various Indigenous Authors/Illustrators
- Introducing and disrupting the “perfect stranger” Susan D. Dion
- Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (1999) Linda Tuhiwai Smith
- “Indigenous Principles Decolonizing Teacher Education: What We Have Learned” (2012) Kathy Sanford, Lorna Williams, Tim Hopper, and Catherine McGregor
- Decolonizing Education: Nourishing the Learning Spirit (2013) Marie Battiste
- Seven Fallen Feathers (2017) Tanya Talaga
- Indigenization Guide: The Indian Act – excerpt from Pulling Together: Foundations Guide. BC Campus
- Métis History and Experience and Residential Schools in Canada (2006) Aboriginal Healing Foundation
- BC First Nations, Land, Title and Governance Teacher Resource Guide (2019) First Nations Education Steering Committee. Relevant to BC educators to increase understanding about first Nations governance and the historical and contemporary effects of colonization on First Nations in BC.
(This post is a snippet of Wayi Wah! Indigenous Pedagogies: An Act for Reconciliation and Anti-Racist Education, anticipated publishing date September, 2022)