Jump to main content

By Alanna Skene (she/her), teacher-librarian and inquiry project co-ordinator, Cowichan Valley

Decolonization: is it possible in a colonial education system? What does it mean? How can we progress in education through the truth and reconciliation process that honours Indigenous Peoples and cultures? How can we shift focus from “learning about” to “learning with”? These are all questions teachers in Cowichan Valley asked last year as part of their teacher inquiry project. These are all challenging and complicated questions that are vital to address if we are to ensure that the educational system in our district moves toward understanding the truth about Canada’s history and then participates in honest and authentic reconciliation.

Teachers in this project came from many different backgrounds to participate in this inquiry. Many were teacher-librarians, in both the elementary and secondary levels, some were classroom teachers and others were teachers in Indigenous education departments. All these teachers had questions about how to ensure that their learning spaces honoured Indigenous Peoples, students, staff, communities, Indigenous ways of knowing, and Indigenous knowledge, while also ensuring that they were not tokenizing or “othering.” These questions lead every teacher to reflect upon past practices and personal growth. This journey was one of personal evolution, self-improvement, relearning, clear intentions, and so much more.

In this first year of our inquiry, we worked with the BCTF facilitators to develop individual questions around “decolonizing learning spaces.” These questions varied considerably, evolved throughout the process, and allowed us to focus on our own schools, students, and communities to determine how we could improve the learning spaces for all. This inquiry project, for many of us, was a starting place. It allowed for space, conversation, and time to see what we needed to do to re-evaluate and adjust our pedagogical practice to better serve the needs of our students and to help others in their understanding of the truth and reconciliation process.

Experiential and place-based learning with Indigenous community members

Some of the classroom teachers within this group looked at ways to increase authentic content and experiences by involving local Indigenous community members and Elders to foster respect for the diverse cultures present within the school’s community. Sometimes they invited guest speakers to talk to students about first-hand experiences related to content they were discussing in class. Other times, students travelled to and learned about places through the oral histories of community Elders. This place-based and experiential learning was rooted in Indigenous knowledge and allowed teachers to deliver curriculum in a manner that helped to dismantle the colonial lens of the social studies content. This learning also allowed students and staff to build respectful and long-lasting relationships with local Indigenous community members. This practice will continue and become stronger in the years to come, and will allow all students to see and experience the place they live in, while deeply understanding and connecting to the history of the local peoples. It also allowed Indigenous students to feel celebrated and honoured within their school community. Students are curious and pivotal in the healing of Canada’s past, and their learning is vital to reverse the inequity and racism left in Canada by colonialism. 

Practising Indigenous ways of knowing

Other classroom teachers looked at avenues to improve instruction by incorporating Indigenous ways of knowing into their practice. These teachers began by centring their practice around the whole child, while endeavouring to decentre their own whiteness to allow students to understand that they are all honoured and have gifts to share. By teaching content in a manner that allowed students to understand the impact of colonialism, they created an environment for young students to question past colonial practices and find ways to become better citizens and show respect, collaboration, and kindness to all people within their community.

Celebrating community diversity and Indigenous culture with welcoming spaces

A theme that wove throughout every project in this inquiry process was how to create learning spaces that welcomed and celebrated the diversity of the school’s students and community. As the project progressed, these teachers began to dive deeper into how they could create learning environments that honoured their students’ diversity and Indigenous cultures. To create these welcoming spaces, many teachers began to seriously look at their classrooms and libraries and make changes so children felt invited into the space, able to find safe places to self-regulate, and cared for and respected. Here are some ways that teachers improved learning spaces:

•   Ensuring signage was in both English and Hul’q’umi’num’, as language revitalization is imperative to undoing settler-colonial alienation.

•   Authentically acknowledging the land that we all work and live on.

•   Ensuring all resources are authentic and showcase diverse and Indigenous voices, perspectives, and experiences.

•   Showcasing/displaying resources (books) and artwork that celebrate Indigenous and local culture, as students must see themselves and their culture reflected in the school in order to feel that they belong.

•   Having conversations with Indigenous students about what makes a learning space welcoming and inviting, and what teachers can do in their own classrooms.

•   Engaging in continued professional and personal learning to better understand the impact of colonization, racism, and oppression and how to combat these in the classroom and library learning commons within our schools.

•   For libraries specifically:

  • Weeding culturally inaccurate resources that perpetuate negative and harmful stereotypes and are told from a white-settler lens.
  • Acquiring resources that celebrate and honour Indigenous knowledge, contributions, and worldviews, that are “own voices,” authentic, and represent the community of the school.
  • Looking at how to organize Indigenous knowledge that uses relationship to categorize, rather than a hierarchy of knowledge (Brian Deer Classification instead of Dewey Decimal Classification).

Overall, teachers in this project found that they each could do more to make all students feel welcome and invited into their learning environments. These teachers are now doing what they can to create learning spaces within their schools that are more welcoming, and they are more willing to be catalysts for further positive change within their school environments.

Personal and professional growth and understanding

Every teacher on this journey shared that their own personal and professional growth were the most important aspects of this inquiry project. These teachers also stated that this learning was only the beginning of their journey with reconciliation. Continued intentional effort and practice allowed us to push through aspects that were challenging and often overwhelming. Dismantling our own biased views of the world and education was at times a struggle and still is part of all our own learning. Continuing in this important professional development will ensure that more students feel included and will therefore engage with learning in our schools. We have all learned deeply about ourselves as individuals and educators, and will continue to unapologetically work to promote the process of “challenging and dismantling settler colonialism” within our own practices.1 We will also persevere in promoting and seeking out resources and pedagogical practices that honour, value, and uplift the children we teach, to celebrate the experiences of all. Moving forward, I know that the educators who participated in this project will all find ways to create learning environments that provide space for all children to feel valued and celebrated.


Huy ch q’u (Thank you) to all the following teachers who participated in this project and to the guests who were witnesses to our year-end sharing and celebration of learning. Thank you to the BC Teachers’ Federation, Cowichan Valley Teachers’ Union, and School District 79 for supporting this grant and for providing the time and opportunity for these teachers to learn alongside one another: Alana Baker, Michael Dunn, Beth Elliot, Sheri Kinney, Hannah Morales, Helen Myhre, Alanna Skene, Jesse Whittington, and Darcie Zibin.

I acknowledge that for thousands of years the Quw’utsun, Malahat, Ts’uubaa-asatx, Halalt, Penelakut, Stz’uminus, and Lyackson have walked gently on the unceded territories where I now work. I am honoured to be living and learning on the traditional territory of the Hul’q’umi’num’ speaking people.

1 Aubrey Jean Hanson, “Teaching Indigenous Literatures for Decolonization: Challenging Learning, Learning to Challenge,” Alberta Journal of Educational Research, Vol. 66, No. 2, June 2020, pp. 207–222: doi.org/10.11575/ajer.v66i2.68509


Read More About: