Monday, December 27, 2010

For Your Consideration


Merry Christmas!

I wanted to take a moment to introduce myself and thank you for the opportunity to share this discussion with everybody.

My name is Robert Genaille and I am mixed Stó:lō and Anishnaabe (Plains Ojibwe) ancestry and I am a teacher working in the Fraser-Cascade School District in British Columbia.  I am, primarily a secondary teacher and have taught in several high schools, covering a variety of courses: English 8-12, Social Studies 8-11, BC First Nations Studies 12, Planning 10, Art, Foods, and Resource Room.  Currently I am teaching Tourism 11/12, and modified versions of English 10, Planning 10 and Earth Science 11.  I am also a Special Education case manager and also handled a caseload of First Nations students, while in a previous position.  In addition, I currently sit as Chair of the Aboriginal Education Advisory Committee for the BC Teachers' Federation, sit on the Fraser-Cascade Teachers' Association Executive as the Aboriginal Education Rep, a position that I have held since it was originated three years ago.  Finally, I represent my Band on my local Aboriginal Education Council. 

I also own a film and television production company with my brother, but that is a topic for another post.

I know that we need Aboriginal Education, my two previous posts did sort of address the issue.  I am planning to explore the definition of Aboriginal Education as time goes on and I will attempt to lay out for you what I see as the necessary elements for its success as well as try to develop a vision of what we want to accomplish.  There are three elements to Aboriginal education that I see:

1) Success for Aboriginal students

2) Understanding and acceptance of the Indigenous lived experience by non-Native people.

3) Equitable and fair treatment of Aboriginal people in Canadian society, which in the situation I find myself includes the employment equity program I am working to achieve in BC.

 There is no agreement within Aboriginal communities on what success for Aboriginal students looks like.  Different things are important to different partners in the education of our children.  I have, from time to time, felt this to be a negative, but there are also huge positives that go along with this, as the conversation that we can have has the potential to be deep and give birth to innovation and real transformation. 

My first post Why do We Need Aboriginal Education?, addressed the the second element that I will be exploring as time goes on.  The post itself will soon be released as an article in the BCTF Aboriginal Education Association's journal.  There is so much more that can be added to that article, so much that is ignored by Canadian society about Aboriginal people and their lived experience in this country.  I hope to uncover some of it and explore some of the myths surrounding the First Nations people.  This is something that needs to happen, otherwise we reinforce stereotypes and continue to avoid understanding difference and truly coming to know and accept the uniqueness we all bring to the table.

The third element is important if we want to break the cycles that we all live in.  I know that there is a lot of talk of being treated equal, but how are you equal when you come from such a disparate situation?  There are voices that argue for the abolition of "special status", but I do not believe that that is fair at this time.  Many First Nations people are already on the bottom of society as it is, removing that "special status" and treating FN people equally only further reinforced the inequality that is embedded within society.  This society likes to find fault in the other, likes to condemn the vulnerable for the situation they are in.  This is not fair when the situation is the making of someone else and the continuation is the result not of the vulnerable but of the dominant society's policies.  I will be focusing on employment equity for the time being, I suspect.  It is an issue that I am deeply involved with in the BCTF and the FCTA in my school district and it is one that I think is necessary for all the other elements to be achieved.  Teachers of Aboriginal ancestry have to fight to be recognized by their colleagues as "real" teachers.  This is ongoing and really sad.  I am still often mistaken for a support worker, despite having my teaching certification and a Masters degree in Education.  How teachers are treated by their colleagues is reflected back by the students who see this and copy it.  How an Aboriginal student sees the Aboriginal teacher treated (if, indeed there is one around), is how the student feels they are expected to be treated as well.

At any rate, issues that will be explored and I hope will start conversations.  I will be attempting to get some other teachers and advocates to comment or post on my blog, as guests to present their thoughts on issues for you to hear and experience.  We'll see if that works or not.  As I said, I will try to lay out what Aboriginal education is to me, what it could be and what it is.  I have been asking Aboriginal teachers or contacts around the province of late what they see has been accomplished here and what they want to see in the future.  I am hoping to do that here.

I haven't forgotten about language and culture as a necessity to Aboriginal Education.  I will be exploring that as well.  One of the ongoing debates I have had with other teachers of Aboriginal ancestry, is the centrality of this one to student success. 

At some point, I will also explain my blog's title.
And maybe talk about resources and research.  And share some of the stuff I see as potential avenues for success and cultural identity development.  As you may have guessed, I like film and I am also very interested in how our youth, our people can use the media of popular culture to preserve and evolve their cultures and develop an identity for themselves.  Maybe I'll post my M.Ed final project, which explores Native identity construction through hip hop, with you here.  Plus I may just reflect on what I am doing from time to time.

I do want to thank you for your patience with this blog, I am still figuring it out, some of the posts are looking a little weird, I like the look of the blog, but am having trouble with the colour of the text and different links.  I also want to thank you for your tweets to me regarding my family's hurts.  They were much appreciated.  I had been able to distance myself, somewhat clinically from suicide, but that is hard to do when it is family, and so many in such a short time.

Anyway...That is the plan at the moment.  We'll see how it turns out.  It may be intermittent from time to time, the life of a teacher is somewhat hectic.  Hope your holidays are going well and you had a Merry Christmas.  Have a Happy New Year everybody.
Take care

Friday, December 24, 2010

What's at Stake

I need to talk about suicide.  Not anybody’s favourite subject at Christmas time, I know.  But I need to get a few things off my chest.  Please bear with me, I appreciate that it is an uncomfortable topic.
In the past couple of weeks, I have lost three cousins to suicide, hitting both sides of the family and leaving everybody particularly unhappy about this Christmas holiday.  I cannot and will not discuss the nature of their passings, but to say that they will be missed and that I am unsure if we will understand why they chose the path they chose.  There is no cause in blaming them for what they did, everybody has a choice, we must wonder though, what made them believe this was the only choice left to them, as my brother mentioned recently.  As well, we must not blame ourselves for the actions of others, to do so will only carry us down into something that we cannot necessarily get out of.
I started 2010 dealing with the fallout of a suicide.  A young man from one of our local communities went into the river on New Years’ Day.  The official word is that it was an accident but the students I worked with refuse to believe that.  I do not know for sure, and for the purposes of my job as the First Nations Support Coordinator at my school, neither I nor my FN Support Workers could treat it as such.  Whether a suicide or not, the trauma the kids would be dealing with was something we could not ignore.  The sad thing about this whole episode was not so much the loss of such a promising young man to the world, but the fact that our preparations at school turned out to be unnecessary.  The kids seemed resigned to it.  Used to it.
Health Canada has a report, Acting on What We Know: Preventing Youth Suicide in First Nations, which states the following in its executive summary:
Suicide among First Nations youth has been occurring at an alarming rate in recent years. Statistics show an Aboriginal suicide rate two to three times higher than the non-Aboriginal rate for Canada, and within the youth age group the Aboriginal suicide rate is estimated to be five to six times higher than that of non-Aboriginal youth.
Well, duh.  There are a lot of reasons for the high rates of suicide in Aboriginal communities.  I won’t go into many of them hear, but suffice it to say, colonialism, residential school affect, poverty, hopelessness all play a role.  I also cannot stress enough that that pat answer I just made runs the risk of generalizing a complex issue and I don’t want to do that, but I also do not want to get bogged down in some intense and painful issues.   I have had uncomfortable conversations with people who I was scared were going to hurt themselves.  I have had to frantically work the phones trying to track kids that I was terrified we were going to lose. 
The report makes some recommendations:
The recommendations listed below fall into four main themes: (1) increasing knowledge about what works in suicide prevention; (2) developing more effective and integrated health care services at national, regional and local levels; (3) supporting community-driven approaches; and (4) creating strategies for building youth identity, resilience and culture.
I think numbers 3 and 4 may be the more important of the bunch, but I don’t know.  I didn’t read much beyond the executive summary.  Don’t want to right now. 
An interesting side note.  My three cousins were not youth.  They were all adults.  My age or older. 
I am terrified that our children are getting used to suicide.  I am not used to it, despite having had to deal with it periodically and peripherally.  I don’t want to get used to it.  I worry that we are losing whole generations to the affects of suicide.  I am not saying that they will commit suicide; I am saying that whole generations are being affected by suicide and who knows what the damage will be.
So, I guess I should link this to education.  How are we as educators offering hope to our students of Aboriginal ancestry?  How are we ensuring that they are building a positive understanding of who they are and who they deserve to be?  How are we ensuring that the public education system, built, as it is on a westernized colonial system, isn’t reinforcing the cultural hierarchies and stereotypes that place the Native on the bottom of society?  How are we ensuring that they are not internalizing the institutional racism that Canada is built upon and taking it home to eat them up?  How are we ensuring that our students know that the legacies of colonialism and residential schools are not their fault?  They will face many challenges that other Canadians will not face.  Are we preparing them to survive and thrive?
I can’t answer these questions by myself, and you may not like my answers.
 A friend of mine, in encouraging me to start my blog, recommended always show hopefulness in your writing or you will scare people away.  I get that, I understand that, but I needed to talk about this.  I would argue that there is hope in these words.  They may be hard to see, but they are there.  Another colleague, in talking about challenges in her community, was angry and said “look at it, don’t look away.”  So, there you have it, I need you to take a look and ask yourselves is this acceptable?  I need you to see what’s at stake.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Why do we need Aboriginal Education?

                Why do we need Aboriginal Education?  The question is pesky, persistent and always whispered in school staffrooms, quietly resurrecting itself when we think that we have answered it and put the issue to rest.  Why do we need Aboriginal Education?  We have Shared Learnings and are addressing Aboriginal people in Social Studies 7 AND 9.  Why do we need Aboriginal Education?  We have implemented BC First Nations Studies 12.  Why do we need Aboriginal Education?  We teach about social justice and preach equality.  We bend over backwards to accommodate Aboriginal children.  Why do we need it?
                This past summer, the summer of 2010, is the twentieth anniversary of the Kanehsatatá:ke Resistance.  For me, this anniversary carries a lot of meaning.  Before the standoff hit the news every day, before Saulteaux warrior Brad Laroque stared down the Canadian soldier in that iconic image, before non-Natives stoned Mohawk women and children coming off the Mercier Bridge, I had no identity.  I had just moved to my Mom’s reserve in the Stó:lō territory, and, while I had been through my Anishnabeg naming ceremony, I had no understanding of who I was or where I belonged.  Kanehsatatá:ke changed all that.  I became aware, acutely aware of how I was different then the other kids, and where I belonged within my school and society in general.
                The following headline jumped out at me recently:  Another BC Native tot dies in foster care Reading this article on, I made the mistake of reading the comments that were left by citizens who had read the article and felt the need to respond.  quickbrownfox commented:  “1 solution might be to ban adoptions of indian children. they are more than happy to give them up, thinking that they have pulled 1 over on somebody. don't let anything go wrong though, or they are right in there, pointing fingers. the other solution would be to take them all over to stu phillip's place.”[1](sic) whatever!!! commented: “why should our tax dollars be 'dolled' out equally? THEY DONT PAY TAXES! Or are you not aware of that fact. Why should there be money given to them unless theyre putting into the pile. Dont get me wrong, there are some very intelligent sucessful aboriginals. Ones that dont cry about how rough theyve had,Ones that dont take advantage whenever they can. They are hard working people that make a paycheck every two weeks. They get back the same as every other working stiff and dont demand everything for free. They deserve no more than me, my children or anyone else that lives here.”[2] (sic) There were many more posts that had been deemed inappropriate by the staff and deleted.  There were two posters kfcanada and bingodingo that offered very reasoned and thoughtful comments, carrying on an ongoing debate, refuting the comments made by the negative posters.  I am proud of them.  And grateful.
                During the 2010 BCTF AGM, a Vancouver Sun blogger posted a story about the AGM decision to acknowledge the Aboriginal territory at all BCTF meetings and events.  The anonymous posters made all sorts of comments, talking about honouring drunks and other less flattering comments.  There was very little in the way of refuting the comments.
                In the interior of British Columbia, Teztan Biny is being considered.  Taseko Mines Ltd. would like to open a mine.  Calling it the Prosperity Project, it would have pumped a potential nine billion dollars into the region over the next twenty-five years.  They would have mined copper and gold and use Teztan Biny, also known as Fish Lake, and Little Fish Lake as tailings ponds for their processing.  In exchange, the company would have built an artificial lake and stocked it with trout for all the people in the area to enjoy.  Teztan Biny supports an extraordinary eco-system that sees an abundance of Lake Trout support a large Grizzly population.  As well, Teztan Biny exists as “an area that is a place of worship for our people, a cultural school for our children, and a bread basket that has fed our people for centuries.[3] The Mine would have destroyed all of this.  At least according to the Province’s environmental assessment, which argued that while it will devastate the eco-system, economics must outweigh the environment.  The Province endorsed the project.  A young Elder from the Peters First Nation, a Stólō person, living near Hope on the Fraser River on the boundary between the Lower Mainland and the Interior of the province, had conniptions when I told her about this event.  They’ll kill us.  I didn’t understand, but she explained that our sockeye run would have been negatively affected by anything that happens up in that region.  The salmon that sustain us go up there to spawn.  Destroy that region, contaminate our food supply.  To their credit, The Federal government declined to permit this mine project.  In the run-up to the decision, the discourse devolved into a war of words that were flavoured with racism and derogatory comments about the laziness of Native people.  
          The Cheam Band, in the nineties, blockaded the CN Rail and Ferry Island Road to regain control of the land along the Fraser’s river bank, which had been expropriated by the government to create a provincial park.  I am told that the Premier couldn’t understand why they were fighting so hard for this tiny strip of rocky shore and weeds.  The Cheam, like me, are Stólō.  The river is the life blood of the Stólō.  It is our communication route, our highway, our food source and our home.  I have heard a story that after the flood wiped out everything and X’als made everything ready for humans, he dipped into the river and pulled out two sockeye, transforming them into the Stólō (People of the river).  The Government tried to take away the Cheam Band’s access to the river.
          Audrey Thompson, in her 2008 paper, There are no sheep in post-structuralism, argues if we don’t recognize something in our own life as being central, Thompson argues, we are not likely to look for it in others.  What is central to the lives and experiences of Aboriginal people in British Columbia is not necessarily what is central to the settler peoples of this province.  I consider BC First Nations Studies 12 to be a tokenizing  Aboriginal course.  It is First Nations Studies that looks at BC History, ostensibly from a First Nations perspective.  It is reactive though.  It presents the before and the after of contact.  It presents First Nations reacting to White, or colonial action and policy.  What it does not do is look for the centrality of the Indigenous worldview.  It encourages us to present local culture but tests our students on coastal culture.  It does not try to explore why Teztan Biny is so meaningful to the Tsilhqot’in, or how the river sustains us beyond just being a food source.  It opens up the this is what happened and BC is sorry, but it does not address the ongoing inequity between First Nations and non-Native people that allows a government to take away our children more quickly than non-Native children, and it allows the voices of people like quickbrownfox to be legitimized because we are teaching about Native history and culture in school.
                Why do we need Aboriginal Education?  Teaching the BC First Nations Studies 12 course last year, I spoke to my students about the Highway of Tears and how no one noticed until the white girl died.  I shared with them the difference between status, non-status, on and off-rez, Métis, and Inuit.  I taught them how language can have so much meaning and debated the difference between equity and equality, an important part of social justice activism that can have an unequal affect on Native people.  I understood it best, reading that Vancouver Sun blog about the AGM’s decision on acknowledging the Aboriginal territory.  I had a moment of bravery. It was to write and post the following:  “It is unfortunate that the anonymity of the internet allows for stereotypes and miscommunications to flourish. It removes the possibility of open and honest discourse and doesn't allow for the sharing of ideas and the understanding of difference. The idea of an acknowledgement of Aboriginal territory is not a giving in to a special interest group. Historically, the Aboriginal peoples of British Columbia are the only group of people who did not make the choice to come to Canada, to buy into the Canadian way of life. Acknowledging the territory is merely sharing understanding and welcoming a historically ostracized group to the multicultural table. This is not a slippery slope which will lead to all minority groups requiring welcomes; it is merely allowing the Aboriginal peoples of British Columbia the same privilege that is enjoyed by the rest of the province: dignity.”[4]
                I could go on and say we need Aboriginal Education so that people understand the history and experience of Aboriginal peoples under colonization.  I could argue that understanding the residential school experience allows us to know the intergenerational affect on our students and that knowledge will help us work with our students and their families.  I might make the case for Aboriginal education being the means by which we fight institutionalized racism and the belief that somehow Aboriginal people are not as well trained, not as well credentialed, or not as smart as non-Native people.  I think the answer is much simpler, however.  Why do we need Aboriginal Education? 
                Because you are still asking that question.

[2] Ibid.
[3] Chief Marilyn Baptiste of the Tsilhqot'in,