Saturday, December 31, 2011

the silence where the outcry should be

I have been wondering something lately.

It has felt, for some time that we are going backwards in our efforts to advocate for Aboriginal Education, both in imparting the knowledge and understanding of the Indigenous experience to the non-Native population and in the education of Indigenous children in a manner that would allow success in both the non- Indigenous world and the Indigenous world they will be living in.  It hasn't helped that much of the media attention and federal & provincial policy decisions have given the perception of a definite anti-Native Rights agenda.  What hurts in this regard is the feeling that we, as Indigenous people, are to blame for all the challenges we continue to face as a result of historical government policy.

What hurts more is the silence.  Deafening in its completeness, harsh in its contempt for our efforts to move things forward, somehow.  Where was the outcry at the "Report Card on Aboriginal Education"?  Where was the outcry at Attawapiskat?  Where was the outcry when the discourse over the mine Prosperity Mine proposal at Teztan Biny turned into "us vs them" racism?  Where was the outcry when the whole thing is starting over again?  Where was the outcry when First Nations kindergartens were being downsized?  Where was the outcry when Aboriginal programs were cut in some districts?  Where is the outcry over the lack of support for the Aboriginal programs that are struggling? 

I know I have tried to bring attention to these and other issues here on the blog.  I know many people who have as well.  Most of them are Aboriginal.  To the deafening silence, we have no voice.  When we speak together, we do make noise, but it is too easy to ignore, to dismiss as the special interest group is whining and complaining again.

There are so many opportunities when an Ally could stand up and speak.  Could allow their voice to be heard, to break the silence.  It can't always be up to me to address the issue that needs to be addressed.  Success for all of our children is tied to our willingness to advocate for them, not just as educators arguing over learning conditions, but as educators challenging injustice when we see it happening. 

Our students see and hear and experience the injustices perpetrated against Indigenous people, through the media, government and education policy.  They feel it.  It is a part of their every day.  As it is with Aboriginal educators.  They, I learned recently, are aware of the work we, as Aboriginal educators are doing and are grateful for it, even as they understand our essential powerlessness.  They also feel the silence where the outcry should be.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

One Year On...

Attawapiskat, I would like to note, should have been an opportunity to become an exploration of the history and lived experience of First Nations people and their relationship with Canada.  The crisis, as it was uncovered by the media, should have opened up a discourse on the nature of First Nations/ Settler relations and the dichotomy of living under the Indian Act, its limitations and its (ironic) protections.  Attawapiskat should have provoked Canada to take a look at itself and consider how the ongoing colonial paternalism practiced by this “benevolent society” was harming, deeply, a people.

Instead, there has been nothing but discussion in the media about what is wrong with the community, with the fault firmly placed on the community itself.  Instead, commentary has not addressed the historical relationship, nor has it address the cultural connection between the land and identity.  Instead, we have had proposals to privatise reserve lands, an issue I do not want to get into right now except to say you want to solve the “Indian problem” by taking away everything we have left?

Have you read beyond the commentary in the media or the spin of the Government?  Have you tried to engage this discourse in the classroom?  I have encountered resistance whenever I have tried.  I have come away hurt, disappointed and angry.  I have had some good discussion, but I have also had bad surrounding this issue.

Today is the one year anniversary of this blog.  My first post was titled Why do we need Aboriginal Education?.  I think I made the case at that time for the necessity of Aboriginal Education, hinting at some of the various reasons and elements that drive the need.  I have tried, over the past year, to define Aboriginal Education, and I haven’t pinned down a definitive definition yet, which I think is okay.  It evolves, it changes, it transforms.  While the necessity is there to educate our Aboriginal youth, a very important aspect, yes, I do still believe that one of the main goals of Aboriginal Education should be to educate the general population about the Aboriginal experience in Canada.  This is something that needs to be uncovered and needs to be shared, or we do run the risk of carrying on in this cycle as we have before.  Within the public education system itself, the focus seems to be on the education of Aboriginal youth, to the point of learning about history and culture is viewed as a pull-out activity for these students, excluding everyone else from some important learning.  As well, it does seem to be focused on the cultural aspects, or even the crafty aspects of the history and culture, with a definite avoidance of the contemporary aspects of the lived experience of First Nations people.

This post feels very random to me today, my apologies.  I did want to acknowledge and thank Starleigh Grass (@starleigh_grass on Twitter) and Chris Wejr (@MrWejr on Twitter) for encouraging me to jump into the blogosphere.
I would like to thank you for reading.  Thank you for taking an interest.  I hope I was able to share something that you found useful.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

On the Art of Listening, Part One

I attended the Edcamp Fraser Valley (Un)conference over this past weekend.  It was an interesting affair.  It used the concept of open space technology to organize the various workshops and presentations available.  Basically, you could put a topic or idea on a board and the attendees could choose to go to it or not.  Or they could do a facilitation of their own if they chose.  I sort of wandered from workshop to workshop, as my curiosity guided me.

I dropped in on one discussing the school as  a village (I think), and ended up sitting down with one of the two breakout groups as they discussed how a village communicates within and how one is able to listen to learn and share effectively.  I was quiet during this time, except for the odd murmer to Chris Wejr (@Mrwejr on Twitter), as I was trying to digest the rapid-fire exchange of ideas.  Two things occurred to me that I didn’t share there but thought I’d share here.

We need to strive to truly listen, this much was said at the workshop, but no one mentioned to what we should be listening to.  Are we listening to the right things?  Or are we dismissing it because we do not necessarily make the connections right away?

In attending three separate meetings in the last couple of years, attended by a mix of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, I was struck by what, in each case, a single speaker was saying and how it was being heard by those around him or her.  In the first, the speaker delivered a speech that was talking, at length, about the traditional territories and the worldviews of First Nations, which, on the surface was fairly benign and positive.  It was taken as such by the non-Aboriginal attendees (at least judging by the responses it invoked), but a non-scientific survey of the Aboriginal attendees received a very different reaction.  They, and I, felt that this was an attack on the other First Nations attendees and their affiliated Bands.  I won’t go into details, as they aren’t important and are long-ago resolved.  What is said and what you hear, though, are two very different things.

In the second, and I spoke about this in my post The Mythological Indian, a young man stood up and spoke about his challenges and successes in the realm of education.  Again, what he said and what was heard were two separate things.  His is a success story, despite his challenges in the education system because he learned from his failures and his successes and his own desire to learn and grow was borne out of that experience.  He learned in an Indigenous fashion and found himself where he needed to be.  What was heard was entirely different, judging by the responses he received and we both wondered if the audience had heard him say that the relationship was more important than the provincial exam.

In the third instance, a Grandmother who had struggled all her life, and, in the meeting appeared to be rambling and all over the place and frequently lost in thought, made her case for the importance of education.  In this case, I believe all the attendees in my little break-out group understood the message she was delivering, although I haven’t taken the time to really reflect on this.  I have seen folks in other situations lose patience with the rambling Elder.

There is an Elder in my District who does speak at length.  I have left him, wondering what he was saying.  I have grown impatient with him, though I have never said that out loud (only once ever interrupting him because I had to meet my mother, an event he pointed out would be unforgivable if I failed to show). Sometimes we need to reflect on the lesson taught us in these discussions, because they aren’t always apparent.  This particular Elder is always teaching, in his own fashion, but I worry that we aren’t always listening.  I suspect he speaks in this fashion on purpose, so that we have to stop and consider what he is saying, take the time to reflect on his words and his intent.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

I am the Indian: Attempting to teach about Attawapiskat

I am the Indian
And yet the burden lies with me.
-Rita Joe

With the recent media attention focused on Attawapiskat, and the ensuing back and forth over who is to blame and who is at fault: the government’s decision to blame the people in the community for their troubles is deeply concerning.  It did bring to mind Emma Larocque’s 1989 article: Racism Runs through Canadian Society.  Larocque’s article was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press in 1989 and can be considered a reflective piece that attempts to explain in a few pages the complexities of racism in Canada as it affects First Nations people.  She shares a lot of her own experiences as an Indigenous person and as an Indigenous teacher, while making a point of not blaming anybody.  What she’s doing in this article is “merely pointing to a history of racism…” (Pg 92).  At the same time, she’s explaining how that history is affecting First Nations people, and how it is being disputed, providing numerous examples of each.

 The article points out the various types of racism that affect First Nations people, documenting how extensive and systemic it is; how normal it has become is something that is shocking for many non-Native people.  Whether from the individual point of view or from a systemic, institutionalized malice, subtle or overt, racism is widespread and very much reinforced in our everyday dealings.  Stereotypes serve to reinforce the image and the view of First Nations people, allowing others to take a dimmer view.  

 When confronted with this assessment, there is a need to deny this racism in Canada.  While there seems to be a willingness to confront the difference in black/ white relationships, there seems to continue to be distaste for the idea of looking at the difference that marks Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal relationships.  This refusal to know and acknowledge the problem tends to manifest itself in a variety of ways, from claiming cultural misunderstanding to backlash attacks blaming the victims for their victimization. 

 Darren Lund argues that few “dare to disrupt the assumed absence of racism in Canada” (Pg 63, Lund, Rocking the Racism Boat), and this serves to entrench the politicized racism that Larocque explores.  Her point that prejudice and discrimination serve to maintain the power relationship of white privilege over the Aboriginal is incredibly strong (She does address the issue of reverse discrimination, dismissing it somewhat claiming it cannot be as hurtful due to the unequal relationship.  Having witnessed a rise in this type of discriminatory language recently, I am tempted to disagree; we need to be better than that.  But that is a topic for another post). 

 At any rate, I made the mistake of reading the comments sections of the articles on the online news sites, encountering language and dialogue that has felt very racist and very disappointing to read.  As a society that claims to be a leader in Human rights causes and claiming to be open and accepting of all, Canada still seems to hold a special place of contempt for First Nations people.  There is no point in addressing the statements and arguments directly, as there are ample counter- arguments available everywhere and anywhere, if only the willingness was there to seek it out.  I have lamented the fact that there is a refusal to know the history and experience of First Nations people, an unwillingness to seek understanding about the reality of the lived experience, preferring to listen to the stereotypes and the hype propagandized by the Federal Government, whom have been leading the way in blaming the victim in this current media focus, rather than actually helping the victim.   

 I have attempted to teach this issue in all of my classes, across the spectrum of the varied curriculum I currently teach, taking the time to connect to the prescribed learning outcomes of each course and ensuring that I present all perspectives on the crisis, including the ones that blame the victim and repeat the government line about money- management and so on and so on, albeit with a counter- argument and attempt to explain the real challenges faced by First Nations people and the history of colonial policy that made this situation possible.  I have felt powerless in this endeavour, as I am trying to teach against hundreds of years of negative discourse.  I have had my successes and my failures in this.  I have, on occasion, felt like I was helpless and powerless.

 I have sat down and fought back tears and realized I lack the resources and money to help Attawakispat and Kesechewan, even the Bands in my region, my own.  I have felt guilty because I have not done more, or known what to do.

 Earlier this week, I was visiting a local community, speaking to a group of First Nations youth, at a Health Fair, about my career choice and what the challenges and benefits of becoming and being a teacher were.  In the crowd, there were current students and former students, a few of which introduced me to their children.  As I spoke, I understood the greatest challenge and the greatest benefit: “You’ve chosen to trust me to educate your children.  To teach them to be responsible and caring young adults, who can survive and thrive in Canadian society.” (Not my exact words, but the sentiment is accurate)

 And really, that means teaching all children to think critically about the situation and ensure that there is understanding of the reality of the First Nations experience.  What have I done?  I have taught 180 kids about Attawapiskat.  I hope to eventually get them to understanding it.
If you have any ideas on how to move forward to understanding, I would greatly appreciate it.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Place Where Two Worlds Collide

In my Masters project, I wrote (about an Indigenous youth identity group):

(They) exist in what Henze & Vanett (1993), cited in Deyhle (2000), calls the area where the two worlds (Anglo and Indigenous) collide (p. 11).  This is a space of multiple tensions, an intersection point, where the youth are challenged to negotiate their identity markers and construct a social memory for their specific circumstances. 

I forget sometimes that I live here too.  The imagery of walking in two worlds is almost a cliché in discussions about people of Aboriginal ancestry.  When I read the Deyhle piece alluded to above, I was struck by the analogy of two world colliding.  I have always believed this to be more accurate because people of my generation, like the youth following, have been in such a state that we are feeling the strain of the changes, the tensions of the western world pulling in one direction, the Indigenous world, in its various forms (traditional, contemporary) pulling you in multiple directions.  There is a lot of tension and stress that is affecting me in this dichotomy and I am feeling overwhelmed by the whole thing.

I have been struggling lately.

My teaching practice is not fully Indigenous.  Not by a long shot.  It is sort of a mish-mash of what I understand of Indigenous ideas and teachings I have been introduced to (I can’t claim I fully get it either, I was educated in the western system after all) and western practices.  As a result, I am still trying to learn how to indigenize my teaching practice and I know with certainty that I still have a lot to learn.  I became a teacher for all the right reasons, I think.  Too many Aboriginal kids were falling out and too many Aboriginal people were not seeing themselves reflected in the school system.  The hope has always been that I would work towards changing the system by teaching within it, to offer a model that students of Aboriginal ancestry could look to and find something that they could use, something that reflects who they are and who they could be.

The challenge to this, and one I have heard from other Aboriginal teachers and have felt acutely myself, is that in this action, I have also made a choice to step into the western system that is the education system that reinforces the normative ideals of the Canadian society, often at the expense of the First Nations sense of identity and location within that larger society.  In this regard, Aboriginal people, when not forced into this system and required to give up that part of us we recognize as our cultural identity, were given the “choice” of giving up voluntarily that cultural identity and entering the western system.  Choosing not to participate in the assimilation that was, and is, the Canadian education system meant choosing a life of poverty and isolation from the larger society we are a part of.

The fact that choosing to surrender that sense of self did not mean escape, from poverty and other socio-economic ills, speaks volumes about the systemic roadblocks that Canadian policy has placed between the Indigenous person and true equity in Canadian society.

I remember fighting with teachers about the right of Aboriginal students to attend cultural ceremonies during school hours.  I have been a defender of the right for our children, or their families, not to have to choose between their cultural identity (and its very important education) and the western system we all are a part of.  No one doubts that the education system is necessary as it is the knowledge we need to function in Canadian society, but it is not the only society we need to function in.  Our Indigenous cultures have been battered, bruised, raped from us and, in many cases, made different from what they used to be.  But they are still here.  And we are fighting for the right of our children to not have to give up that part of themselves to succeed in the other one.

So, we talk about walking in two worlds; we talk about cultural brokerage; we talk about finding a balance between the two and sharing the best of both worlds.  We are working our way towards that ideal, but we aren’t there yet, I do not believe.  I find the two worlds colliding analogy to be more apt at the moment.  This move towards trying to find equity, trying to balance two disparate systems into something that is good for our students is a point where many strands of tension intersect.  There are so many different interests at play in this collision, multiple Indigenous voices shouting out different desires and expectations, some stubbornly refusing to compromise and cooperate, competing with western voices and their understanding of their own system and its benefits and deficits, some of whose voices are as stubborn and harsh as the other side. 

I had only recently begun to discover my cultural identity, my inheritance from my Sto:lo and Saulteaux ancestors, when I made the choice to teach.  Part of that choice was choosing to teach in the western system, to voluntarily give up a part of myself in order to move into a world where I could work towards making it safe for my students not to have to be put in a position where they were forced to make that choice.  To pick one or the other. 

Therein the challenge lies.  One of the issues that came up at our Teacher Inquiry was the knowledge of what we were giving up.  There was never any regret in that decision, but the sense of loss is very much present.  Particularly in those moments when you are starting to reclaim, within the walls of the western system, that Indigenous part of your identity and apply it to your teaching practice and you find you have to give it up again.

That part hurts and it is a time of struggle but I need to remind myself that, by my choosing, I am existing in that place where two worlds collide, it is filled with storm and stress and it can be isolating and unfriendly and terrifying but I remind myself that eventually the two worlds will complete their trajectory, transform into a new world where my students and my children can have the best of both cultures, without ever giving up any part of themselves, like we have had to do.

My quiet act of resistance.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Why Do We Teach?

It was with frustration that I read this article today:

 “For at least the past two years, many residents — including in some cases, multiple generations of one family — in the community have been living in makeshift tents and shacks without heat, electricity and indoor plumbing.

At least 90 people have resorted to living in two construction workers' portables equipped with only two washrooms and four showers to use among them.

Others are using buckets as washroom facilities and sleep in fear of fire because of wood-burning stoves in their homes, the chief said.

The families have been living in these conditions because they had to move out of deteriorating 40-year-old homes and also to accommodate a rapidly growing population.

The province has acknowledged the state of emergency declared on Oct. 28 but has not put any plans in place to renovate or build more housing, or as a last resort, to temporarily evacuate residents to safer accommodations.”

Why do we teach?  If not to prepare our children to be responsible, honourable, critically-observant adults, than why? 

Why do we teach?  If not to show our youth that the world has the potential to be a fair and just place, than why?

Why do we teach?  Listening to the chatter about the need to improve graduation rates and see success for our students and then you read an article where First Nations people are gearing up to spend another- ANOTHER- northern Ontario winter in tents.  We worry about the learning outcomes and listen to teachers and administrators and government officials complain about attendance, and the children are living in tents in NORTHERN Ontario this winter with no running water and no toilets.

Why do we spend so much time focussing on Aboriginal people as a problem in Aboriginal Education discussions?  I do not see Aboriginal people as a problem when I see articles like this.  I see the continuation of the blaming the victim for the issue and the refusal to take responsibility and actually do something.  Aboriginal education should focus, not just on Aboriginal people, but on everyone else as well.
Something needs to change.  I have been watching a short documentary with my Psychology class on the Stanford Prison Experiment, where students became both guards and prisoners, and serious abuses of power happened and serious dehumanization occured.  One of the comments from the researcher in the documentary was telling.  He showed another psychologist around the experiment and commented at length on how exciting it was and how much they were learning about human behaviour and he argued with her when she was objecting so much to the experiment.  Finally the objecting psychologist essentially said, "But they are suffering.  You are letting them suffer!"

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Not Genocide?

“I don’t view it (Indian Residential Schools) that way (as an act of cultural genocide), but it was certainly very negative to the retention of culture and if it had extended for another generation or two it might have been lethal, yes,”- Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan

“As we are all aware, the history of residential schools tells of an education policy gone wrong,”- Duncan.

The previous comments were made on October 27, 2011 during an announcement for a stained glass window to commemorate the survivors of the Indian Residential Schools. I was extremely disappointed to read these comments for more than the obvious reason. First, the comments and the outrage are only noted in Indigenous media, I have found nothing about it in the mainstream media, where only the commemoration plans were reported.
Secondly, there is no doubt that the residential school plan was an act of cultural genocide, if not physical genocide. Children died. Children were abused. Children were changed. Many families were broken and changed forever. The very buildings feel like scars on the landscape to me. I have spoken here before about how the schools have affected me, and to have this one truth denied, I don't know how to respond. What do I tell my Aboriginal students about their history and their family histories? Not genocide? They were only trying to kill the Indian in the child. They didn't fully succeed so it doesn't count?
I would like to remind teachers that our children are affected by the residential school experience and legacy. Do not let Minister Duncan's words affect your understanding of it. The schools were an act of genocide, denying it is also an assault on Aboriginal people. Please look at Article II of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and then take a close look at the residential schools. Take a look at the entire lived experience of many First Nations people.

Convention on the
Prevention and Punishment
of the Crime of Genocide
Article 2

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.


“I, along with so many of our people, feel if you consider what the term genocide means. It references to the killing of people. Our people died in residential schools…the residential school was cultural genocide; the attempt to, over the course of history, to kill the Indian in the child. And that has been the experience of our people.”-AFN Grand Chief Shawn Atleo.

And a couple of related posts: When the truth about what happened to people is told
And The ghosts that haunt me
The Mythological Indian

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

My Challenge Trying to Teach about the Occupy Movement

I haven't brought up the Occupy movement much in any of my classes. That is not to say we haven't had any discussion about it, just not a lot of it. This is something that I should rectify, I just haven't figured out the best way to approach it. I am not opposed to the reasons behind the movement, but I am unsure how to present it, particularly in light of my own feelings towards the phenomenon.

I am ambivalent towards the occupy movement, truth be told. As a First Nations person, I find it interesting that the movement appears to be protesting and fighting over issues that we have struggled over for years, decades. I have been concerned that this movement may be one that is a white, middle-class protest that wasn't interested in these struggles faced by the First Nations and other oppressed minority groups until those issues started to affect this group directly. I am aware that this is most likely an unfair generalization, I do not claim to know, or understand, what is in the hearts of other people. I am merely pointing out my feelings toward it. I am attempting to better educate myself on it, to learn more about it so that I can present a fair understanding to my students. Not easy to do, unfortunately as I am finding the movement is very different in different areas and the media coverage has not been consistent in presenting the message that needs to get out.

So, I can say that the term Occupy is not a nice one, particularly for someone like me, living on a reserve, with the knowledge that the surrounding territory is unceded land, some would argue, that is occupied by Canada. As you might recall, I once lamented the fact that groups using the language of the oppressor to fight for Indigenous rights usually lost me as a supporter. "Occupying" Native land to protest the current economic climate and corporate greed, is concerning when the perception I have is that the oppressed, in this situation, have been the bystanders when First Nations have tried to protest or stand up to government and corporate greed.

So... How do I teach about this? Any advice appreciated.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Aboriginal Veterans Day

"The thousands of miles that aboriginal soldiers travelled over the course of more than two centuries to help defend this country make up a thousand memories, so many of which have been ignored or lost. Yet these are the details of our history which we must remember, which we must commemorate."- Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson, June 21, 2001.

The day just past was November 8, 2011.
That is significant.
Every November 8, I have sent out an email to the staff at whichever school I have worked at, sharing with them that this day is Aboriginal Veterans Day in Canada. This is the day which has been set aside to honour the sacrifices of First Nations, Metis and Inuit men and women who volunteered to serve in the Canadian Armed Forces over the course of the various wars and military actions this country has involved itself in. I have encouraged the staffs to learn about the day and share it with their students. I have no idea if anybody ever has, beyond me.
November 8 was not set aside because Aboriginal Veterans wanted their own, separate day. I would like to clear that up now. Aboriginal Veterans fought in Canada's wars, lost their lives in Canada's wars, stood shoulder to shoulder with Canadian men and women. When they returned home, they were barred from receiving the same benefits that other soldiers received, saw their Aboriginal rights extinguished, which meant that they could not even return home to their communities. In some cases, those homes, their reserves, were carved up and sold to non-Native veterans who had earned the right to affordable land by fighting in Canada's name.
Aboriginal Veterans started their own associations to lobby for their rights. I remember hearing a story once that they could not really get help from the Royal Canadian Legion because there was a long while that Aboriginal people were not allowed to go into places that served alcohol. Places like legion halls. I cannot verify the truth of this. Whether it is true or not, it is true to the people that shared it with me, which tells me that there was an understanding of that.
My understanding of November 8 is an understanding of exclusion. Aboriginal Veterans were not permitted to take part in official Remembrance Day ceremonies, so they set aside a day of their own. A day to remember the sacrifices our Elders made in the name of the Canadian nation. Not just the sacrifices they made on the battlefield, but the ones they were forced to make when they returned home.
To date, Manitoba is the only province that officially recognizes Aboriginal Veterans Day, but if you do a search on Google, you will see videos and references to ceremonies all around the country.
In all the areas you won't find reference to it, one is particularly notable.
You won't see any references to Aboriginal Veterans Day in our public schools. At least I haven't found any yet.
I was later asked why we don't teach this, or acknowledge it. I had no answer beyond no one cares, and the truth is that is the truth. My understanding of it anyway. Non-Aboriginal people AND Aboriginal people have that narrow, colonial view of Aboriginal people. No one cares because no one challenges it. No one is teaching our stories, our histories.
As I have stated, this is my understanding.
Go look up Aboriginal Veterans Day. Learn it, please.
Teach it.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

When the Truth about What Happened to People is Told

@trc_en: I will hug my kids, tell them I love them and be thankful that they are safe in my arms and not in Residential School.

When I read the following tweets last night, I started to formulate a post about the residential school experience, its legacy and affect on First Nations people and the challenges that grow as a result.  But, I am silenced by the power of the tweets themselves and so I will just reshare them here for you.  I may, or may not comment on them later.  These are people who are living with ghosts and pain that I cannot even imagine.  The children and grandchildren of these survivors also deserve to be called survivors.  They have suffered at the hands of the policy that created the residential schools and they are allowed, finally, to start the healing journey now that the survivors have been allowed their voice.

@trc_en: We'd write letters to our parents that nuns wrote on the chalkboard so they wouldn't find out what was happening. -Ben Sillyboy #atlHearings

@trc_en: One girl was blind. She was told to read, but she couldn't because she was blind. They strapped her. -Survivor #atlHearings #aboriginal

@trc_en: One boy stuttered; was told to read. He couldn't. They stuck wedge of wood in his mouth; left it there all day. -survivor #atlHearings #fnmi

@trc_en: Some children were so afraid of peeing the bed, they slept on the toilet all night wrapped in a blanket. -survivor #atlHearings #fnmi

@trc_en: Parents wld send packages for xmas; we'd open them, allowed to look then the nuns'd take toys away to send to orphanage. -atlHearings #fnmi

@trc_en: I remember some children vomiting and being forced to eat their vomit. -Survivor #atlHearings #aboriginal #cruelty

@trc_en:  When I left res. school I was ashamed of being an Indian. When you watched TV, you rooted for the cowboys. #atlHearings #aboriginal

@trc_en:  I was ashamed of being an Indian until Rita Joe started writing her poems. -survivor #atlHearings #aboriginal

@trc_en:  Reconciliation is much more difficult when the truth about what happened to people is told. -Fr MacNeil #atlHearings #aboriginal

Thank you @trc_en for sharing these voices. 

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Word With Two Meanings UPDATED

I read the following tweet yesterday:

@starleigh_grass: Reading kiskinohamâtôtâpânâs by Stout and Peters. The word is used to describe schoolbus and contains the words "wagon" & "cry". #bced #fnmi

It has sort of stuck with me.  

I have been told by a reliable source that the Halq’eméylem word for school is the same word for prison.  I do not know the word myself and have not been able to verify it, but I have no reason to doubt the veracity.  Like I said, I have known the source of this knowledge for a long time.  I have also known the feeling that is conjured by that statement.  Whether it is true or not, the parallel is very much there.  For many of our children, school is a place we have to go to and a place to escape.

When I was a First Nations Support Worker, I was amazed to see so many students leaving to go hunting with their parents, or to attend smokehouse or winter dance.  I was also amazed at how many teachers were angry with this state of affairs. 

A few years later, I listened to a principal say that Native families needed to make the decision to put their children first, stop practicing the culture and their traditions and focus on getting their kids through the system.

I have never been the strongest on language and culture.  I consider it to be an aspect of our identity and not the whole being of it.  I was, however, struck by those words as if he had physically assaulted me.  Indigenous people have always been the ones that have had to give up something, to sacrifice a part of themselves.

I do not believe that you have to practice the language and culture to be considered Indigenous.  I do not believe that you need to choose between your BC “education” or your First Nations education.  I know that, as a teacher, I struggle to find the balance everyday, I have to choose one or the other in order serve my students.  We chose so that they would no longer have to.

And yet, I still hear these words: they need to give up that and put their education first; they need to make a choice between being First Nations, or Aboriginal, and being educated.

Whether or not it is one word for both school and prison, it doesn’t matter.  The meaning is still the same.
I received a tweet from Jenny Cho (@javafest):  Had to find out! H language tchr at our school says school=skwu:l & jail is q'iq'awtxw.
So, two words.  It is a bit of a heart break to learn that, although I am grateful to have this now.  I do not believe that this changes the meaning of my post in any real way.  I believe that the two meanings are still valid in my understanding and the need to challenge, or resist the need to have to make that choice between the one or the other.  Thanks Jenny!

Monday, October 3, 2011

October 4th Sisters in Spirit Vigil

The Following is from a Joint Statement to be read nationwide on October 4th 2011 as part of
Sisters In Spirit Vigils—A Movement for Social Change:

Each year on October 4th communities across Canada come together to honour the lives of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls. As we do so, we remember the lives of sisters, daughters, mothers and grandmothers tragically taken from us.

Today, we offer our support and sympathy to their families and we join with them in demanding justice.

Statistics consistently show that Aboriginal women face much higher levels of violence than all other women in Canada. The Native Women's Association of Canada has documented more than 600 cases of Aboriginal women and girls who have been murdered or who remain missing.

This violence has touched the lives of almost every First Nations, Inuit and Métis family and community. And it has moved Canadians from all walks of life to demand action. Violence against Aboriginal women is a national issue, one that must concern us all.

Please take a moment in your classrooms tomorrow to stand in silent vigil for these women.  Please take a moment to read the full Joint Statement, preferrably to your students.  Please ensure that the invisible and vulnerable are made visible and are protected as they deserve to be.  The Joint Statement can be found at

I will also be posting this on the site.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A Personal Interlude

To begin, I would like to apologize for the neglect that this blog has been experiencing since my last post back in August.  A number of issues are responsible for this:
 I found that particular post to be a rather emotional one and hard to get past.  I find that it is sometimes difficult to visit that particular building and sometimes need time to pass in order to move forward in my thoughts and feelings regarding it.  I do want to say thank you to everybody who commented on the piece.  Your thoughts and contributions are meaningful to me and I just wanted to thank you for sharing.  It is much appreciated.
I have also, recently, regained employment as a teacher and have been jumping in feet first ever since.  I was notified on Labour Day of my new assignment and, while it is only a half-time position, I have been feeling like I am running to catch up.  I am not complaining here, despite this.  I am teaching Planning 10, a course that I consider to be very, very important.  I am very much convinced that the Drug & Alcohol Awareness, Violence prevention & Suicide Awareness are incredibly important.  Healthy Relationships and sexual decision-making are must-knows.  Our students are going to experiment, they are going to try things (it's called growing up), we need to make them aware of the dangers and help promote good decision-making. 
In addition, I am teaching Psychology 11 this year, a course that I have never even looked at before.  I am very excited by this one, I was upfront with my students that I did not know it all with it.  I would be learning with them in a way that was new to me and I could barely contain my excitement about it.
The downside of this, of course, is that I have not been on this blog very much.  I hope to get back into my passions here, but I might be inconsistent.  I truly admire those folks who can read and learn and absorb and synthesize quickly and move forward.  Sadly, I am not always one of them.  Sometimes I can read something, or engage in a discussion that I can absorb immediately and build upon.  Sometimes I have trouble engaging the work, needing to start and restart constantly before anything sinks in.  I am in that place right now with the Aboriginal Education work.  Partly, this is a result of my immersion into schoolwork again and the chaos of start-up (I just scrapped my year plans and am re-starting them), partly, I am not having any ideas that I feel confident to write about.  Or the writing is not very good, even by my own modest efforts.  I once promised a post about Sports mascots, in light of one of my former schools usage of a Chief's head as a logo, and the return to Chilliwack, BC of the Chilliwack Chiefs whose logo I notice resembles a Chief's head in headdress.  That post has not come together in a form that is acceptable to me.
I have also been running the BCTF Aboriginal Education Association blog, which has receiving some of my attention of late, and ostensibly the newsletter for the PSA, which I have to get working on in preparation for the upcoming conference.  I am considering reprinting one or two of my posts in the newsletter, but I am struggling with the desire to maintain a separation of the two, lest I start to get a big head or something.  I have been worrying about that in relation to the other blog as well.  I have two articles from others to publish and I am thinking of doing one on the blog and the other in the newsletter, but I don't know yet which way it will go. 
My Teacher Inquiry Project is in waiting mode as we are applying for a new grant to continue forward with it.  We will be appearing at the AEA PSA Conference, Wellness and Our Environment, where we will be discussing where we are in the process and sort of holding an open forum to bring in stories from others.
On a personal note, I just wanted to say that I recently lost my dog, Amy.  Amy was a fifteen year old chocolate lab and knew how to get out of the yard, even when we would seal whatever break in the fence she would find.  She was slow and arthritic and would still break out and go down to the river to raid the dumped fish parts from the fishers in the area.  She disappeared on Tuesday, September 7.  We looked for her every night after work.  We found the site where the bear was feeding, we found evidence of many of the animals that make our stretch of the Fraser home.  But we never found her.  I don't know what became of her and I can only hope she was at peace.  She was patient, honest, loyal and protective, in many ways my best friend.  I wish that I had been able to be a better friend to her.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Ghosts That Haunt Me: A Reflection on Kamloops Indian Residential School

It’s the ghosts you notice first.

You first arrived here in the mid-nineties, attending a Land Claims research seminar sponsored by the Neskonlith Indian Band and hosted by the Tk’emlups Indian Band.  You weren’t expecting to be taking the seminar in a residential school.  You have mixed feelings about the reclamation of the residential school by the Band to become the seat of their government and home to their museum. 

The seminar was held in what was once the secondary dormitory.  This is a small mercy, as you couldn’t get past the front foyer of the main building before you could feel the unease creep up in the small of your back, running up your spine and causing you to shudder.  This causes your throat to constrict and you have the sense that there was a lot of pain here and you can feel this in a crazy physical reaction that makes you want to vomit and cry and curse all at the same time.

And just like that, you are back out into the sunshine, trying to figure out what the hell just happened.  You’re creeped out, looking at the metal fence outfront with the stylized KIRS with a tee-pee in the centre.

How can the Secwepemc people stand to have this building on their territory?

The Kamloops Indian Residential School building leaves you feeling sick, hurting and angry.  The building is an offensive reminder of a past that is not past, of a policy that still exists with a different name and of a hate that you fear will never go away.

And yet, the Secwepemc keep the building, use it, occupy it and maintain it.

This confounds you, but part of you suspects that it is used as both reclamation of the past, and a reminder that they would not be subdued.  A statement that this building, built to destroy this culture and people is now home to the culture and people.  The walls designed to extinguish are now used to ensure the survival and growth of the people.

You get it, but you wonder how the people handle the ghosts.  They tear at your soul and you were only in the foyer for a minute or two.

You shudder and close your eyes, remembering that this is the school where they sent your Grandfather. 

A few years pass and you are a teacher, straddling that gulf between the colonial world of the education system and your own heritage.  You are attending your first Summer Conference and Facilitator’s Institute for the BC Teachers’ Federation, newly enlisted as a workshop facilitator and tasked with the responsibility of teaching teachers about the history and culture of Aboriginal people, of how to work with our youth and the legacy of residential schools on our youth.

Seeking some escape from the hectic schedule of the conference, you go for a drive and, from the highway, you can see across the river the building.  That building.  Without even realizing it, you find yourself heading in that direction, eventually finding yourself in the deserted parking area.

Wandering around the building (there is no way you are going inside), you see that it is smaller than you remember it being.  You see the evidence of the Secwepemc reclamation: the pow wow grounds below the building, the museum in the secondary dormitory.   What strikes you is the silence.  You aren’t far from the highway and Kamloops thrives right across the river but there is silence here that is both unnerving and comforting.

As if the real world recognizes the sacredness of this place and is determined to let it rest in peace.

Your Grandfather never spoke about the school.  You know he learned to farm and to play the saxophone, but you also know that you never saw him play the saxophone.  You remember that your Mom told you about how she would hear him speaking to his mother in Halq'eméylem, but when she entered the room, they would switch to English.  Every time she entered the room.  You remember that she told you she asked him once to teach her the language but he said no.

He said he didn’t want her to get hurt.

The ghosts flow around you, causing that shuddery feeling.  Time to leave.

A few more years pass and you are back in Kamloops again.  This trip is a strange one for you.  The past couple of years have been both exciting and despairing, fraught with some amazing accomplishments and disastrous failures.  They have left you thinking about how decent a teacher you are and ready to walk away because you are incompetent.  You have wondered if you will ever work again and spoken before hundreds about the need to decolonise the education system.  You have told the story of your modern education and mourned the passing of too many relatives.  You have mingled with politicians and television stars and played the politics game to convince others that what you had to say was important.  You have worried that you were being sucked into a world you are very uncomfortable with.

You are struggling with the knowledge that all the advances made in Aboriginal Education, indeed, Aboriginal rights, seem to be following the consistent theme of one step forward, two steps back.  You are struggling with the knowledge that your battles in this arena have been as much with other Aboriginal people as with non-Native people.  You are currently watching the many advances in Aboriginal education in BC being slowly dismantled, often with the complicity of Aboriginal people, and you are wondering why.

You stand in front of the school, your rental car packed and waiting for you to go home.  You weren’t going to come here this time.  You didn’t want to.  This place was built on hate, whatever it has become now.  This was the place that, while it didn’t necessarily steal the language and culture completely from Grandpa, ensured that your Mom and family and you would never have access to it.  This was a place where children were tortured and killed, where children were starved and punished and told that they didn’t deserve to be.

You’ve never liked going to this place, and you don’t stop by every time you come through Kamloops.  You have to admire what the Secwepemc people of Tk’emlups have done with the place.  They have claimed it and made it their own, using the building that helped destroy generations to rebuild and save the new generations.  And you get it.  Hard decisions were made.  You do not have the language, but your Grandpa survived and persevered.  Your Mom and Dad did their part to instill a sense of honour and justice.  You come here to honour the ghosts and everything that has been lost.  You and your colleagues will continue to strive to transform the system, to make it a better place, but this building is a reminder of why that needs to be done.

You realize that one step forward, two steps back will likely continue for a little while, but you know that you and your colleagues will continue to push forward with that one step, forcing it to be the longer of the strides, to override the fall back you are still forced to endure.  You know that the longer stride will eventually negate the two steps back.  You know this because there are far more voices making noise and educating for change. 

The silence is still a little unnerving, up in front of the school, but the ghosts feel different today.
"Acknowledging the past is the only way to allow us to move forward with dignity."
... Nathalie Des Rosiers President, Law Commission of Canada, August 15, 2001

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Feeling Strangely Fine- In Kamloops for the BCTF Summer Conference

Hello from Kamloops!

I'm up in Kamloops, British Columbia, attending the BCTF Summer Conference.  Tomorrow the Aboriginal Education Advisory Committee will be meeting with the Local Contacts for Aboriginal Education (teachers from various locals around the province) for our annual meeting to both introduce and train new contacts and new committee members as well as take on some training or other work that we are interested in exploring and how it will benefit Aboriginal students and Aboriginal teachers as well as further the cause of Aboriginal education.

As it is listed as a "Discrete" Day, I think it means that I can't really talk about the agenda, but I am excited to get to see the new faces of new advocates, as well as some of the familiar ones.

I can say that Aboriginal Education in BC feels at risk.  Whether that is true or not, I cannot really say for sure, but that uneasy feeling is there.  I have commented on this in more depth in previous posts on both positive issues and negative ones.

I also wanted to say that this is my final full meeting as Chair of the Aboriginal Education Advisory Committee.  While I will be opening our September meeting, it is at that time that I will conduct the election of the Chair whom will carry the Committee into the 2011-12 school year.  I am only serving notice here on that, so if you are expecting a deep, thoughful reflection on my accomplishments and my failures, you are out of luck. 

I will do that later, when my term is complete ;)

I will still be on the Committee, of course. I did want to say that it has been an honour and a privilege to work with an extraordinary group of teachers, all of them dedicated to improving the world of Aboriginal children.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Multiple Possibilities- Ultimate Spider-man is a teachable moment and an exciting development

Marvel Comics has an imprint called Ultimate Marvel, an alternate universe that is different from the mainstream Marvel Comics universe.  Within this universe, the Marvel characters exist in a grittier, more dangerous, slightly darker world.  Within this universe, Marvel decided to kill off the character of Peter Parker, or Spider-man.  They then chose to have a new character take up the mantel of Spider-man: Miles Morales, a half-Black, half-Latino youth.

To be clear, in the mainstream universe, Parker is still alive in the mainstream comic.
It has been interesting to watch the reaction online, on Twitter and in comments sections of blogs and articles.  There has been a lot of racist reaction to the decision to give Miles the mantel of Ultimate Spider-man.  The Crazy Sexy Geeks podcast reported that even Glenn Beck (an American right-wing commentator) commented on the change, tracing it to a conspiracy perpetrated by US First Lady Michelle Obama. 
I am very pleased to hear this podcast oppose the comments being made by the many anonymous people.  There are many articles and blogs online that are starting to address the backlash as well.  I think that it would be a good idea to check them out and see some of the comments being made and how they are being addressed back by other members of the online community.
Comic books are a very important aspect of the popular culture, very much ingrained into our public consciousness.  I don’t read comics very often, but I know many of the histories of characters because it is so THERE.  I have used comics, cartoons, movies, whatever I can get my hands on to teach my students.  All of our hopes and fears and all the themes of the human experience are reflected in popular culture (sometimes you have to look for it, yes, but it is there).  The ownership of this aspect of culture is very deeply ingrained in everyone.  The negative commentary on this recent choice is sad, but also a teachable moment.  The negative commentary needs to be addressed by our teachers and administrators because, when we don’t address issues of racism, we are saying to our students that this is the way the world is, get used to it. 

The comic books have created multiple universes where multiple possibilities exist.  Our students deserve the same opportunity to see multiple possibilities.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

There Was Also Hope- A note on my teacher inquiry project

No names in here yet, I forgot to ask if I could name the other teachers in here.

During my Grad program, my Indigenous cohort had the opportunity to read the novel, "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian" by Sherman Alexie, which chronicled a year in the life of Junior, a bright young man living on the Rez and his experiences in a non-Native school off-reserve.  We were part of a project carried out by our Grad Advisor, who also had a non-Aboriginal cohort read the novel.  The story also followed the challenges and realities of his life at home.  The home life was fraught with all sorts of imagery familiar to the Indigenous individual: poverty, alcoholism, intra-tribal discontent, jealousy, death and abuse.  In the debriefing afterward, we were informed of the feelings and thoughts of the anonymous other cohort.  There was a lot of sadness, a lot of anger and outrage at the lives of the Native peoples on their Rez.  They found the novel thoroughly depressing, to generalize.

It was, markedly different from what the Indigenous cohort experienced in our reading.  All of that emotion was present, but there was also a decidedly different outcome in understanding.  We laughed.  A lot.  We saw the crises of the poverty but also the crises of being a teenage boy.  We also saw something that the others did not see.  We saw survivors, not just surviving but trying to find ways to thrive.  We saw love, despite the alcoholism and the depression, there was a family that tried and failed, and while they couldn't help self-medicating, never gave up trying.

More importantly, we saw hope.  Amidst the challenges, Junior and his family persevered, understanding that he would often be struggling in isolation, but he was okay with that because he could rely on his family to have his back.  He could go to them and be rejuvenated by their very presence.

On Monday, March 14th, 2011, I got together with a group of teachers of Aboriginal ancestry and held our first session on a PQT inquiry into health & wellness issues affecting, specifically, Aboriginal teachers, and its affect on Aboriginal students.  Aboriginal teachers face many challenges, often in isolation from one another, something that was shared, in depth from the stories of our little group; a lot of us were just surviving as teachers, not thriving.  Something else became apparent as the day moved forward.  There was a lot of laughter.

Laughter is healing.  Laughter is what has helped Aboriginal people survive since before time immemorial.  The old saying is to laugh to keep from crying?  In many circles, this is true.  Goodness knows, there have been a lot of times where these were the choices that were available. 

There was also hope.  In sharing our stories, we remembered we were not alone.  In getting together, there was a sense of rejuvenation that relit that fire dimmed by the isolation of our professions.  This is something that we have observed in our other meetings with other Aboriginal teachers.  This first meeting was intense, yes, but the support from the others was immeasurable.  In the alien system that is the western, colonialised education system, the opportunity to share our stories and reconnect with the sense of community that is the heart of many Native cultures.  That sense of belonging allowed strangers in our circle to feel safe and feel like we have known each other for a very long time (We aren't all strangers, mind you).

As a group, we have met on two more occasions and in these sessions, there was markedly less laughter as our individual circumstances had changed, or our direction had altered.  There was still laughter and hope, but there was a definite feeling of more pain.  The support of having other Aboriginal teachers was, and is, invaluable.  I think that this spurred our discussion and the business of the inquiry.  We have decided to focus on the positive defining our research question towards how we can support Indigenous teachers in their health and wellness in order to keep from burning out.

We are meeting again later this summer and prepping to continue into the new school year.  It should be interesting.