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.
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.
 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.html; https://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)