Thursday, January 13, 2011

Affirmation & Transformation: Thoughts on Vancouver's Aboriginal mini-School Idea

"To any young Indian, Inuit or Metis... I say this with all my heart and soul; get every bit of education you can. Learn, because learning is power; it is how you come to have choices about what you will do and where you will go; it is how you become free."
                                                         -Len Marchand


Janet Steffenhagen posted Vancouver considers opening an aboriginal mini-school on her blog.  The piece is about the Vancouver School Board’s plans to consider an Aboriginal mini-school in their school district as a means to address the issues surrounding the disparity in Aboriginal student success in the public education system.  This struck up a fascinating conversation between myself and a few colleagues in the Twitter-sphere (Twitterverse?), and I wasn't sure what side of the conversation I was.  I am cautiously supportive of the idea, as nothing I see in the system is currently working to a level that is satisfactory to the kids or their communities.  And yet, I want to know more.   I get as anxious about the word "research" as any other Native person.  Historically that has brought bad news.  But, at the same time, if we are going to see real change, we need to be able to look deeper to learn.  It doesn't mean that it is bad, especially if the research is de-colonized.  This post is not a research piece, obviously, just some thoughts that I am considering.  A couple of times now, a friend and I have both expressed frustration at having to justify decolonization work or provide not just the answer but the question as well.  It is tiring having to go through the whole thing again and again.  We need equity and fairness.  We need to decolonize education, we need a system that is fair to Aboriginal students. No equity is not the same as equality, equality is not equal when you are marginalized, etc.  We do this to ensure that our children will not have to struggle as we have.   Is it going to create controversy and anger from both non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal voices?  Yes.   Will there be meaningful discource about it?  Hard to say.  Aboriginal rights in this country tend to spark all sorts of...I don't know, but it is never pretty.  Is an Aboriginal choice school a good idea or a bad idea?  I don't know. 

Are we willing to go through that pain and frustration to really give this idea a thoughtful exploration?  What if it works?

So, let’s try some of the bad idea stuff first.  Why is this bad idea?
Well.  It’s segregation, right?  In a sense, if you go by the direct definition.  Miriam-Webster defines segregation as follows:
            1: the act or process of segregating : the state of being segregated
2a : the separation or isolation of a race, class, or ethnic group by enforced or voluntary residence in a restricted area, by barriers to social intercourse, by separate educational facilities, or by other discriminatory means
b : the separation for special treatment or observation of individuals or items from a larger group <segregation of gifted children into accelerated classes>

But segregation cannot be defined by that literal definition.  The idea of segregation is what needs to be explored.  Wikipedia defines segregation as “the separation of different kinds of humans (like black and white people) into racial groups in daily life. It may apply to activities such as eating in a restaurant, drinking from a water fountain, using a bath room, attending school, going to the movies, or in the rental or purchase of a home.”  In practice this has been enforced by laws such as the Jim Crow Laws in the US, Apartheid in South Africa, the Indian Act and any number of other laws here in Canada.

This is not what is going on with the discussions around an Aboriginal Choice school.  The current school system is predicated on the Judeo-Christian Western European ideas of what is civilized and what is a proper education.  It is directed at the beneficiaries of white privilege and it is designed to ensure an inequity of status for Aboriginal students.  The current system is the system that segregates.  It marginalizes and it wrecks the self esteem of an amazing group of young people who give up and never explore their potential because they are taught that they are second class, not normal, and not part of the mainstream.  Please see my previous post for some dialogue on that.  No.  It is not overt, it is embedded into the system.  I do not mean to disparage any teachers or administrators.  The ones I know and work with are doing their best to improve the education and lives of Aboriginal students.  It is the system that does not fit.

This is reinforced by everything our youth see and hear in everyday society.  Canada is predicated on the idea of progress and the Native people are often vilified as an obstacle to progress.  The desire to have us assimilate is not the desire to see us succeed, it is the desire to ensure that Indigenous culture and peoples are extinguished from Canada.

Well, we’re caving to a special interest group?  Sorry.  This one doesn’t fly.  I am an Aboriginal person and I have never been given special privileges for that status.  I pay taxes.  I am still paying student loans and sense I will be doing that for some time to come.  I can’t afford my own home and the Band isn’t planning to give me one.  Yes, I can qualify for tax exemptions on purchases if I shop on reserve, but it is almost always preceded by having to explain the history of the fiduciary relationship my First Nation has with Canada and the ongoing legacy of marginalization and colonization.  I have to constantly justify my credentials that yes, despite being Aboriginal, I am a “Real” teacher with BCCT certification and a Masters degree to boot.  I have to put up with the racist comments about Aboriginal people whenever they get in the way of progress (look up any online article about the Tsilchol’tin and Fish Lake).  I then get to go home to my reserve, the legally segregated land set aside for my people by the government. 

I am not sure I am sounding entirely rational in the above sections there.

So, let’s look at the positives then:
If you do a cursory search of any number of education blogs, you will see an ongoing discource on the nature of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation in learning.  This is what is missing in our public system for Aboriginal students.  Starting even before residential schools (a real segregated system), the marginalization of Aboriginal peoples served to change their status as real people and make them wards of the state, dependent on the government for their needs.  Residential schools were not places of learning, but places of training, designed to teach Native people how to farm and/ or do housework and to teach them that their ways of knowing and learning were wrong.  With the closing of residential schools, not much changed.  Canadian schooling had always marginalized Natives as the other and that is how they were treated in public schools.  The publication of the document “Indian Control of Indian Education” was a good start but any and all work done has been underfunded and, I believe, unsupported by the people who have power.  Band schools have varying degrees of success, but they are still finding their way and it will take more time for the infrastucture to be in place to ensure that they work.  They are also segregationist, sadly, funding does not allow for non-status or, in some cases, off-reserve people to participate.  Government legislation that divides First Nations people is also designed to keep us at each others throats to get the scraps offered.

The public education system is the way to go then.  It encompasses students from all corners of the spectrum and all the different Aboriginal groups represented in Canada.  It is the ideal place to explore an idea like an Aboriginal Choice School. Rheanna Robinson identifies some benefits to the type of school in her dissertation Education Transformation: Issues for implementing an Aboriginal Choice School in Prince George, BC:
  1. holistic learning
  2. inclusion of culture, family and community within the school
  3. a place of belonging for Aboriginal students that validates and embraces Aboriginal culture
  4. a greater awareness throughout the entire school community of Aboriginal knowledge and its relevance to modern society.

I have not been able to read the dissertation as it is not available online, only the abstract, but a second document Why an Aboriginal Public School? is.  I am reading it right now, as time allows, and I am intrigued by it.  It makes several recommendations that allow for the idea of Indigenous ways of knowing, ways of learning might be able to flourish.

A key to both is the idea that it is open to anybody.  I have always felt that Aboriginal education is not just about educating Aboriginal people but educating everybody.  Indigenous epistemologies and pedagogies have a lot to offer if you are willing to take a look. 

I remember a conversation with a friend on the difference between affirmation and transformation as it relates to ending oppression.  Affirmation entails the idea of affirmative action and giving a little bit so that the one with power can say they are helping out.  This did give into the idea of resentment and “we’re caving to a special interest group again”.  My friend argued that it was necessary though, to start to give the oppressed some semblance of equitable treatment (which is why in another conversation I am not outright opposed to the cash option as extrinsic motivation, I make food available for my students).  I didn’t agree right away but eventually came around.  What we are doing now in Aboriginal education in BC is affirmation.  What is being proposed here might be transformation, an idea where you tear down the system that causes the inequity and rebuild it into something where there is fairness. 

An Aboriginal Choice school can be the beginnings of that transformation. 

The school in Prince George has only been open since September 2010, so it is too early to tell what will be the result of this experiment.  Even if it fails, it will be good because something was tried.  Someone said I am tired of the status quo and tried something.  I like to fail when I try something.

"I have not failed 10,000 times. I have
successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work."
- attributed to Thomas Edison.

We learn from whatever we try.  We try to ensure that our kids will not have to face the same struggles we face.  Let’s let Vancouver give it a try.  If it doesn't work, it doesn't work?  But what about if it does?


  1. Great discussion start Robert. I have to say, one of the areas I'm interested in since my return to BC, but feel overwhelmed by is Aboriginal education.

    There is a similar school for a different population in NYC called the Harvey Milk school. Again it is a school that students attend by choice, and one which operates on the principal that the kids who are there have real value in society but are undervalued in the greater society.

    It is my understanding that the Harvey Milk school is a success. First, it is still open 8 years after its initial accreditation. More importantly it has served as an excellent dialogue opener about how to improve educational opportunities for LGBTQ youth.

    In the same way, this Aboriginal Public school can be a place where Aboriginal education can be celebrated, where their community values can be incorporated into their education, and where everyone will feel safe.

    I'm going to be following this initiative, and hope to visit the school once it's up and running.

  2. The idea of small, public Aboriginal schools is not new or novel. I work in such a school in Edmonton, Alberta. We are celebrating our 30th anniversary this year. Our focus is on integrating First Nations, Metis and Inuit language and culture, in addition to meeting the academic requirements as set out by Alberta Education. Our focus is Cree language and Culture, but our students and staff represent many different Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal backgrounds.

    It is a very soecial place and we are extremely proud of our school and our students. Parents magazine voted us one of their top 20 schools in Canada last year our school and staff have recieved several other awards as well.

    While not currently up to date, please feel free to have a look at our website and/or contact us if you would like to learn more about us. We always welcome visitors and inquiries about our school. The link to our website is:


    Carolyn Bouchard

  3. It is exciting to see these types of initiatives taking place. I know that there is concern that choice schools are the first step towards privatizing the public education system, but I don't think the success of Carolyn's school and some of the other choice schools I have heard about have dispelled that, though I don't know enough about them to really comment with any sort of authority. I would love the opportunity, Carolyn, to visit the school one day, it sounds really cool. As does the school David mentioned as well.
    We had a discussion at my advisory committee about the school in Prince George and a couple of our members from northern BC are planning a visit to learn more about it. Wishing I could go as well (I haven't used my pro-D funding yet this year, maybe that would be an opportuntiy).
    Thank you David and Carolyn for your comments.

  4. Good idea. We are also attempting to get funding for a "whites only" school. Wish us luck.