Wednesday, January 26, 2011

It's About Fairness: Can you imagine what we could accomplish?

 On October 29, 2010, I attended the BCTF Bargaining Conference in Richmond, BC, on behalf of the BCTF Aboriginal Education Advisory Committee to present our recommendations to the conference regarding priorities in the upcoming contract talks between the teachers and BCPSEA, the provincial bargaining body for the school districts in the public system.  While I can hear some of you screaming "propaganda!" and "he's getting political!", I need to stress that that is not what I am doing here.  I have removed our actual specific recommendations from the following piece (it isn't hard to see what at least one of them is if you look at it) and left the story and the need there.  I made this speech to the delegates and it was meant for them to consider as well, as it is a request of districts AND teachers, for both sides have to be onside for it to work and, to be honest, not all teachers are onside.  This is my stab into employment equity as an issue.  I have argued in the past, that for Aboriginal students to buy into schools, they need to see role models succeeding.  I have argued that for the stereotypes of Aboriginal people to start to fade, non-Aboriginal students need to see Aboriginal people as well, not just teaching Aboriginal children, but everybody's children, bringing their perspective to the multtude of perspectives that are already shared.  Sadly that is not yet the case.  I will look at the obstacles at another time, for now I wanted to share.  I have edited out the confidential stuff, and I hope it holds together well.  For your information, there are approximately 300 teachers of Aboriginal ancestry out of the 41 000 teachers working in the BC public education system.  For your consideration:
I heard an interview with John Ralston Saul recently on CBC Radio.  He was talking about his book, A Fair Country, and he was talking about the Native leadership in Canada.  The subject of Guu’jaw, Hereditary Chief of the Haida came up and Saul brought up what was, approximately, the following thought: “Can you imagine what he could have accomplished, what he could have contributed to our country, if he hadn’t had to spend the last twenty or thirty years fighting that same country for his, and the Haida’s right to be treated equitably?” If you ask Guu’jaw if he felt like he had missed out on something, I do not believe he would say yes.  I think he would say he was doing what was right by his role in his culture and because his people deserve a better life. 

My Mom relates the story of an Aboriginal doctor, who, during his residency was approached by security at the hospital he was doing his residency in because he was in a doctor’s only section and they were there to escort him out, despite the fact that he was a doctor and legally allowed to be there.  They did not believe him and none of the other doctors present would stand and defend him.

When I was doing my Masters, I was dealing with a poisonous work environment.  I was ready to throw in the towel on the Masters because I could not manage both, I happened to run into my uncle, our last old Elder on my rez.  He said, “Bob, I’m proud of you.  No one has ever tried to do what you are doing before"...I sort of had no choice...

The last few years have seen impressive gains in Aboriginal Education... These advances have been hard won and should be celebrated. They exist because of hard work carried out by Aboriginal education activists who were not willing to put up with the status quo anymore. They exist because Aboriginal people value education but it needs to be an education that is relevant to their history, culture, and way of life. It is not a rejection of western education, though it is a desire to decolonise that education by creating an education that respects and honours the First Peoples of this land.

Having said that, it must be acknowledged that we still have a long way to go. It is a fact that there are few Aboriginal teachers. The differing value systems, as well as the ongoing legacies of colonization have resulted in a decreased sense of well-being and belonging within the education system for the Aboriginal teacher.

Employment equity and other issues related to increasing the presence of Aboriginal teachers in our schools is about fairness.  It is about fairness to our teachers, who face inequitable employment options, expectations and the continued questioning of our right to be here.  It is about fairness to our children who face many challenges in this education system and need to see themselves reflected in their education.  It is about fairness to their parents, who care about their children’s opportunities.  And finally it is about fairness for everyone else, who need to see real Aboriginal people and not stereotypes and myths.

Our students of Aboriginal ancestry are a brilliant, talented, extraordinary group whose strength, perseverance and humour often leave me absolutely in awe. Many have faced challenges, legacies of colonization and attempted assimilation; they live lives that they never deserved. I see them persevere in systems that are alien to the traditional ways of learning. The teaching and learning, in my experience, have never been one way. The work we do here is for them, to create opportunity for them to have a sense of where they are from, who they are and who they can be.  Because if we, and they, didn't have to fight to be treated equitably, to be treated fairly, can you imagine what they could accomplish?

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