By Donna Morgan
(she/her), retired teacher, Burnaby
The docudrama We Were Children tells the story of two residential school survivors, Lyna Hart and Glen Anaquod (available to stream on CBC Gem and Netflix). In a poignant scene, one of the teachers at the residential school, a nun, sneaks the hungry children to the kitchen for a snack. Watching the film, an idea rolled around in my mind. For a long time in my teaching career, my relationship to Indigenous students (and others who are oppressed) was similar: I was a “good nun” who, like most teachers, worked to be kind and supportive of my students. Although kindness may make us a feel less complicit with systemic harm, kindness alone does not make us good allies.
To ally with Indigenous students, parents, and colleagues, we must actively work to change the systemic nature of racism and colonial structures. We must move beyond being the “good nun” to walking side-by-side in the struggle for a more just system.
In the early 2010s, I noted that the student teachers were coming with a mandate and an enthusiasm to learn about Indigenous perspectives and how to support Indigenous students in class. I was keen to join them, but I was fearful of my own lack of knowledge. Luckily, I had many wonderful colleagues who were engaging in this work and we moved forward together to develop new understandings, and to find where place-based learning, Indigenous knowledge, and support for students could come together. As with much of what we do as teachers, this work is ongoing, and there are supportive colleagues to learn alongside if we look for them.
All learning starts with knowing our own identity, experiences, and motivations. We are required to dig deeply into our lifelong views and relationships with Indigenous Peoples. It is difficult to confront the mistakes and racism we may have been part of in the past. A good resource to do this work comes from Susan Dion (vimeo.com/59543958) who challenges us to honestly look at our knowledge, relationships, and background. Start by thinking about social location, the combination of factors that inform our identity, including gender, race, social class, age, ability, religion, sexual orientation, and geographic location. Our social location is unique; it affects how we see the world—and how the world sees us.
Do our own work
Asking our Indigenous colleagues for background, resources, and lessons every time an issue arises is very exhausting for them. This has especially been the case as the Western scientific verification of unmarked graves at residential schools has recently featured in the news. Remember that almost every single Indigenous person we know has felt the intergenerational impacts of residential schools in some way, including some of our colleagues who were forced to attend them. This is a time of mourning as the truth they have always known is painfully shared on every newscast.
Start with the simplest of Google searches or using the BCTF resources such as Project of Heart and Gladys We Never Knew (bctf.ca) to do our own learning. Read Indigenous news sources such as APTN (aptn.ca) or IndigiNews (indiginews.com). Make sure to read the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission—their website (nctr.ca) has a wealth of primary documents, oral stories, and the recommendations of the commission. This website has such a depth of resources that reading and re-reading uncovers more with every visit.
Take time to listen—to students, colleagues, Elders, spokespeople for Indigenous groups. When we feel a need to respond, we need to listen more. Talk less and listen more is the first motto for allies. Even when supporting students or colleagues, let them do the talking while perhaps using your privilege to get their voices heard and their concerns acted upon.
Take risks and act
Our own privilege may be small, but it is there. Work out a way to share. Literally and metaphorically, stand besides Indigenous folks when they speak. Stand up to those in power where you can. Stand down from running for positions or taking special responsibilities where Indigenous people are also interested. Whiteness is immeasurably privileged, whether it is in the school system or in the union—we must stay aware of that in all facets of our work.
We can act to decolonize classroom practices and school culture. Teachers are acting: changing books and resources to reflect history and diversity; ensuring power and social justice are taught across the curriculum; involving students in the creation of learning plans; designing assessments to be inclusive and culturally responsive; changing union structures for better representation; and engaging with the broader community to advocate for equity.
It is very difficult to hear we have messed up. None of us want to be called out for racism, but we must take feedback to be better allies. We cannot expect Indigenous colleagues, students, or friends to always call us out with kindness and grace. We need to be able to take negative feedback without reacting to tone. We can thank the person for pointing it out, then sit with the concern or criticism for a few days, consider how our privilege and the system may intersect, and what we can change to become more effective allies.
Our Indigenous colleagues and students do not need us to speak for them. They need us to walk beside them and take up the work of dealing with other settler/immigrant people to raise issues of concern and confront racism in our systems and communities.
About the author
Donna Morgan is an immigrant/settler and recently retired science and math teacher from the Burnaby School District on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh, and Squamish First Nations. She has worked in social justice, environmental, and union activism.
Good resources can be found via our Anti-Oppression Educators Collective (AOEC), who urge us to read, learn, and reckon (aoec.ca). All BCTF members have access to these resources, and we can also all join AOEC to learn and do more.
AOEC membership gives you access to opportunities for professional development and networking, an interactive annual conference centred on unlearning colonial structures, and a community of like-minded teachers concerned about social justice. Visit aoec.ca for more information.
The Indigenous Ally Toolkit from the Montréal Urban Indigenous Network is also an excellent read: reseaumtlnetwork.com/resources
Project of Heart and Gladys We Never Knew are two BCTF resources that teach about the history and ongoing trauma of the residential school system.
Read about BC teachers who used the Project of Heart and Gladys We Never Knew resources to help students reckon with the 215 unmarked graves located in Kamloops in the Teacher magazine stories “Hearts toward reconciliation” and “Project of Heart: Teaching for truth and to honour the lives of children who died at residential schools.”