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Teacher Newsmagazine   Volume 25, Number 4, Jan./Feb. 2013  

The role of education in reconciliation 

This is the text of an address given by Glen Hansman at the recent 2012 First Nations Education Steering Committee conference in Vancouver. It followed a keynote address by the Honourable Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. You can learn about the work of the commission at www.trc.ca 

I’m in a very privileged position to be able to visit schools and school districts around BC, including some very rural and remote communities, and I’ve been learning a lot from that experience. One of the events that I’ve continued to think about took place two years ago, when the BCTF was invited to send participants to an all-day initiative for the public held at the Chief Joe Mathias Centre just across the Lion’s Gate Bridge, hosted by the Squamish Nation, the Indian Residential School Survivors’ Society, and the First Nations Health Council. The focus of the event was on the Indian Residential School experience, and I remember very clearly Jody Wilson-Raybould, the regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations, talking about the need for all the individuals in attendance to be on their own journey to find balance and reconciliation, and that the act of transferring despair into hope is not an individual effort, but one that by necessity involves the larger community of Canadians recognizing our colonial past in order to move to reconciliation and a positive future for all of us. It is this “us” piece that seems to me to be so crucial. It will take a long time to change attitudes at all levels of government, throughout society, as well as in our schools—such a long time that it will be the children, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, who will need to carry on this work. And we have a responsibility for helping them.

We have a growing amount of curriculum /resources that are entirely focused on Aboriginal content, including material that addresses the legacy of the residential school system. We have survivors speaking about their experiences at residential schools, and other opportunities to bring these issues into BC classrooms. Yet we’re still facing many of the same obstacles. Why is this the case? What do we need to be asking ourselves?

Before going any further, I should situate my own public education experience as a white, Anglophone student in French immersion in North Bay, Ontario. I remember learning about Indians of the past as “helpers” to the people of Nouvelle France and the Hudson’s Bay Company, though I grew up in a community where the narrative of the present was one of the “lazy Indian.” I did not learn about the genocide of Aboriginal peoples. Certainly did not learn about loss of languages, the anguish faced by children and parents in being separated, or of the abuse that occurred in residential schools.

From Grade 9 and up, I attended Chippewa Secondary School, where the non-Aboriginal principal would parade around in large feather head dress at pep rallies, cheerleaders would lead the student body through the tomahawk chop and chants of “Raiders on the Warpath” before football games, and the school’s mascot was Joe Raider—a large, yellow, fuzzy character in buckskin and carrying said tomahawk. It was culture as a cartoon, appropriation at its worst, even while there was a significant Anishinaabe population at the school, and Ojibwe was a language course. (We raised this with some friends as being problematic when I was in high school, but we were rebuffed by the adults as being “too serious,” though almost two decades later, a couple of us were happy to contribute to what became a bit of a chain reaction involving the Ontario Union of Indian Chiefs that finally saw the “firing” of Joe Raider. But it shouldn’t have taken that long, and you wouldn’t believe the organizing being done by some people to “save Joe Raider.” But that’s a whole other speech.)

I graduated from high school in 1992. It’s now 2012. Has much changed?

Public education in Canada has been (up until and including the present moment) largely a settler construct, and that the legacy of colonialism has almost been completely obscured in what is taught in the public school system, and in some cases (in particular, the purpose and legacy of the residential school system) has been deliberately hidden. We know this to be the case, and it is time to stop denying it.

In order to move forward, we need to have a lot of people come to the table to break through assumptions based on European perspectives.

And part of that means we need to change what it means for a student to become an educated citizen. In March of 2010, based on a lot of conversations we were having internally with our provincial Aboriginal Education Advisory Committee, the BCTF Executive Committee brought a number of Aboriginal education recommendations to our Annual General Meeting that carried overwhelmingly, which in and of itself perhaps represents a change. One of the recommendations is this:

That

  1. Additional secondary school IRPs with an emphasis on Aboriginal culture (such as First Nations Studies 12, and English First Peoples 10, 11, and 12) be created, across the subject areas.
  2. Ministry funding be available to support the implementation of these courses.
  3. Should such additional courses be created and made available with the necessary supports, the completion of such a course be a requirement of graduation for all students.
  4. Aboriginal content be embedded in all K–12 IRPs.

A bit of an explanation… Enrolment in the Aboriginal-themed secondary courses that do exist is extremely low—the courses are only offered in a handful of schools across BC, and there are less than 300 students registered in them in total. Boards need to have the funding that will allow them to offer such courses, and run them even if there are only 12 students registered in the course. We want them to expand in numbers and flourish; there need to be more such courses, covering other subject areas, and at least one such course should be a requirement for graduation for all students in BC.

Why? Because every student who leaves the BC public education system should, from K through Grade 12, have had school experience with Aboriginal content, knowledges, and understandings—and have had at least one course devoted to this content and these knowledges and understandings. For some, this might sit in tension with the present dialogue about “personalization” and moving to a system where all students are to have their own personal learning plans. One such course is now a requirement for teacher certification in this province, which is something the BCTF supports, but it needs to start earlier than post secondary.

Aboriginal content can’t be an add-on to what we do in BC classrooms from K–12. It shouldn’t happen by chance. It needs to be core.

And this speaks to the need to ensure that teachers have regular opportunities in all regions of the province for in-service and professional development to learn about the intergenerational effects of the residential schools, to learn how to incorporate Aboriginal content more appropriately into teaching from K–12, to have time and someone to go to for collaboration and to be able to talk through problems. And to address these things, we mustn’t avoid the conversation about funding. We recently saw, for example, the cancellation of the Eagle program in Langley, which was a successful all-day Kindergarten program for Aboriginal students that had the involvement of elders and the local communities. Funding was the issue, as it is in many other circumstances positive initiatives and programs are stymied. To do this work meaningfully, and to ensure teachers are supported in doing this work, the provincial government needs to get BC back at least to the national average for education funding.

That being said—there are a tremendous number of new learning resources out there about the residential school experience. And lack of funding doesn’t prevent the adults in the system from reading, from borrowing the various documentaries from the library, from visiting the Truth and Reconciliation Commission website (www.trc.ca) or make connections with local communities. Government has its role too to support us in this work, but the access to information has improved remarkably over the past few years. It’s not a matter of things being obscured or deliberately hidden any more.

There’s something else though that can be done in the short term that would not cost significant amounts of money. And that is school districts working with teacher locals to implement Aboriginal educator employment-equity agreements. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is. My background as a teacher is focusing on antihomophobia work, and often I and those I was working with would stress the positives for LGBT youth when they have role models in the system, not just allies but lesbian and gay teachers and principals who are “out” at school as lesbian or gay. Aboriginal youth are the fastest growing student population in BC. The percentage of Aboriginal teachers needs to catch up proportionately, so that Aboriginal youth not only see themselves reflected in the curriculum but also in the teaching work force. There are ways of improving this situation if the two local parties co-operate on adopting a recruitment and retention strategy as part of an employment-equity agreement. That’s why the human rights exemption is there, and why both the BCTF and the BC Public School Employers’ Association signed off in 2006 on a letter of understanding that encourages the local parties (school districts and teacher locals) to do this. The number of Aboriginal educators in schools should be significantly higher than it is now, and not just in targeted funding roles. We need self-identified Aboriginal people in regular classroom teaching positions where they are seen by all students and are working with all students.

There’s also a conversation to be had about getting Aboriginal students from secondary schools into post-secondary programs and then into B.Ed programs, and that will require a provincial-level conversation as well.

Part of retaining people, though, is addressing the climate of racism in schools, and this is what I’m going to come back to now.

We need to acknowledge that racism is the norm in public schools—still today. Some people will take offense at that assertion, but it is the case, and educators have a responsibility to acknowledge that before we can move forward.

Changing culture of racism requires individuals taking steps to change what they do, and working collectively to change what we do. It’s more than erasing bullying, in a generic sense; racism is more than bullying or individual acts of violence—it’s attitudes, perceptions; it’s people being excluded; it is about what is seen as a priority, what is acceptable knowledge and what are acceptable ways of knowing. It’s about whose experience “counts.” And those sorts of shifts require more than treating negative experiences of Aboriginal students and adults in the education system as simply symptoms of generic “bullying.”

Addressing the racism is essential for everyone—not just Aboriginal students, but for the entire student population and, consequently, for healing and reconciliation of our nations together. The residential school system represents over 100 years of loss. Colonialism, in its totality, is several times that. Change takes time, but we need to ensure that we are working together to ensure that change is occurring and that it occurs at all levels.

We mustn’t fall back on the old excuses anymore, and start by asking ourselves: what’s holding us back now?

Glen Hansman, BCTF 2nd vice-president