Tuesday, May 31, 2011

How far have we traveled, really? Where do we want to go?

I have been sitting at a crossroads for some time now.  Four weeks ago, I submitted my resignation from all of my duties and responsibilities at the BCTF, my position as Chair of the Aboriginal Education Advisory Committee, indeed my seat, as well as the teacher Inquiry into Aboriginal teacher health and wellness I had been leading.  I informed my Band that I was stepping down as their Representative to our District Aboriginal Education Council.

I have made no secret of my employment situation, but that was not the primary reason for this set of actions.  I was, indeed still am, somewhat, disillusioned with what I am seeing in our province around Aboriginal Education.  I am understanding of the current crises in the education system, the downloading of costs and the stealthy ways that funding has been slashed everywhere, but it still isn’t a good excuse for the attack I have seen Aboriginal Education come under in this province.  Successful programs, like the EAGLE program in Langley and the FN Teacher/Counsellors in Salmon Arm, have been cut.  Successful First Nations kindergarten programs are being replaced by the new Full Day-K program that is not committed to giving the leg up to Aboriginal students that the FN-K was doing.  I have heard rumours that some of the targeted funding set aside to do the above and beyond work for Aboriginal students has been, in some cases, redirected into Full Day-K and/or core courses.  If this is true, what happens when the funding is audited and determined not to be in use as specified in the regulations?  I have heard rumours that the sole core courses dedicated to the improvement of Aboriginal Education, BC First Nations Studies 12 and the English First Peoples courses, are not necessarily being offered, or promoted in some districts and, where they are being offered, being downplayed as the easier course, or as a course that will not meet the requirements for university.  I admit that these are rumours, possibly wild tales, who knows?  I have witnessed the Fraser Institute release a Report Card on Aboriginal Education that gave a failing mark and, by inference, call our students and our teachers of Aboriginal ancestry failures. 

I also witnessed the silence from ALL the major education stakeholders, so quick to condemn the FSA rankings.  The odd Principal disputed the Report Card, the Minister released a statement, gave a soundbite.  So far the only lengthy repudiation I have seen of this, has been my own, here on the blog, and it lacks the articulation and creditable information that is accessible by people with a higher education than me.  There are so many articles that repudiate testing, so many names trotted forward telling us that the ways the Report Card tells us to teach our Aboriginal children is wrong.  Why did none of the major stakeholders stand up and say “Fraser Institute, you are wrong! These amazing, brilliant, wonderful children learn differently than we have been taught how to teach.  We need to assess and evaluate differently.  You say we need to find a different way to get them succeeding.  I agree.  First we need to stop calling them failures, for not fitting into the definitions of success you are imposing on them.”

My Graduate Advisor’s focus has always been on inter-group and intra-group alliances and dynamics.  Something I found extraordinary to observe in my graduate cohort.  I have wondered about it ever since as I observe the education system around me, in action.  I see a lot of talk about building alliances and developing networks, but I do not see much action beyond that.  My own questions on Twitter about what directions Aboriginal Education appears to be heading, asked of my PLN, have met nothing but silence, echoing back at me as I send it out again periodically.  Those that follow my Twitter account may have noticed my disengagement from the education game we have played around with.

 I am not innocent on this count either; I have been unwilling, or unable to participate in the action needed to build those necessary alliances.  I am distrusting.

We are not immune to the infighting and intra-group disapproval.  Most of my fights around this subject have been with other Aboriginal people who don’t agree with my ideas, or don’t think that anything is working, or just believe that we should not be participating in a western system at all.

Marjorie Dumont talked me out of my departure, in case you were wondering (A former student also invited me to his graduation. These kids are always messing up my self doubt and self-pity sessions, dammit!).  I have talked about the positives I have seen in the past and I maintain that there are positives happening that the FI is unwilling to see or acknowledge.  I also see the recent positives: the Vancouver School Board has approved a working group to develop an Aboriginal-Focus School.  They need to do it right.  That has to be stressed.

But the negatives seem to be rising again.  I get that the negatives are keeping time with all the challenges being experienced by the education system right now from all sides, but I would argue that the demography that is our Aboriginal students, and our Aboriginal teachers as well, are feeling it much more acutely.

I want to share with you a speech made by Chief Dan George in 1975 to a graduating class of new teachers at Simon Fraser University (Thank you to Marj for the transcription).  He makes a challenge to the teachers arrayed before him.  When you are finished, I have a job for you to do.  Reflect on his words and my words here in this blog.  I would like you to consider two questions:

How far have we traveled, really?  Where do we want to go?  Not brilliant questions, I admit, but you can build on them.

What is the future of Native children?

My very good, dear friends.  Was it only yesterday that man sailed around the moon?  And he said tomorrow that we will stand upon its barren surface.  You and I marvel that man should travel so far and so fast.  Yet if they have traveled far then I have traveled farther.  If they have traveled fast then I faster.  For I was born a thousand years ago, born in the culture of bows and arrows.  But within the span of half a life time, I was flown across the ages to the culture of the atom bomb and from bows and arrows to the atom bomb is a distance far beyond the flight to the moon.  I was born in an age that loved the things of nature and gave it beautiful names like tsiel watauth (?)  instead of dried up names like Stanley Park.  I was born when people loved all nature, spoke to it as though it had a soul.  I can remember going up to North Arm to Indian River, with my father, when I was very young.  I can remember him watching the sun light fires on mount ___ as it rose above its peak.  I can remember him singing his thanks to it, as he often did, singing the Indian word, thanks, very very softly.  (song)

Then the people came.  More and more people came.  And suddenly I found myself, a young man in the midst of the 20th century.  I found myself and my people adrift in this new age but not a part of it.  Engulfed by its rushing tide, but only as a captive eddy, going round and round.  On little reserves, on plots of land, we floated in the kind of gray unreality.   Ashamed of our culture which you ridicule.  Unsure of who we were or where we were going. Uncertain of our grip on the present, awake in our hope of our future. 

And that is pretty well where we stand today.  Soon you will be teaching my children.  And you will wonder how you will teach these strange creatures.  You will find they do not fit into the norms set by white society.  And of course, your norms are always so right.  And ours so wrong.  I know we can talk of integration.  But what does integration mean?  To some it may mean a patronizing visit to an Indian family on the reserve where all feel ill at ease as monkeys in a cage when people stare at them. Perhaps it means placing an Indian student in the classroom mostly white where the Indian population must not exceed 50%, otherwise you would have integration in reverse.  And we are told that, that is very bad.  Since you are choosing a teaching career, I presume classroom integration comes to your mind.  I hope it is not far from your heart because integration at the high school is failing.  Perhaps you will be able to save it.  As you know, our students play in the same play ground as your other students, they sit in the same classrooms but what do they share in common with the other pupils?  The respect of the teacher, you see, I fear not.  If teachers respected my people they would not teach from history books that down grade my people.  And list them behind the Orientals as the founding race of this country.  What do they share in common?  The concern of the teacher, I hear you say, no.  I fear not.  Otherwise such a high percentage of Indian students would not be slated off to into seemingly useless occupational classes because extra effort would be required to prevent this.  At SFU they have teacher training course to teach the average white children, not my child.  We do not share you in common.  Three weeks ago, a bill was passed in the legislature in Victoria.  It provided the takeover of Indian education at all levels.  This program has been in the books for years.  Yet what was done by department of Indian education to prepare for the influx of Indian students into local schools?  I say nothing.  SFU has the largest teacher training course in the west.  What has the university done to prepare them for the Indian students they will meet in these classrooms?  Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  Perhaps I should not say absolutely nothing.  I believe there have been seminars or teachings here and at ubc, these are nothing, they are worse than nothing. There are anthropologists here but education seems to have never heard of them.  There are people who could help but I don’t think education really cares.  If education did care, it might look to universities like Saskatoon and find out things can be done to prepare.  But in the end, can we really talk of integration?  Until there is social integration.  Unless there is integration in minds and hearts, you have only a physical presence.  And the walls are as high as the mountain range.  Come with me to the playgrounds of an integrated school.   See how level, flat and ugly the black top is, but look, now it is recess time, the students pour through the doors, see over there is a group of white students, and see over there, near the fence, a group of native students, and look again the black top is no longer level.  Mountain ranges rising, valleys falling, and a great chasm is opening up between the two groups, yours and mine, and no one seems capable of crossing over, but wait, soon the bells will ring, and the students will leave the play yard.  Integration has moved indoors.  There isn’t much room in the classroom to dig chasm, so there is little ones there, only little ones, for we don’t allow big ones at least not right under our noses.  So we will cover it all over with black top cold, black flat and full of ugliness in its sameness.  I know you must be saying, tell us what do you want? What do we want?  We want first of all, to be respected and to feel we are people of worth.  We want an equal opportunity to succeed in life but we cannot succeed on your terms.   We cannot raise ourselves on your norms, we need specialized help in education, specialized help in the formative years, specialized course in English, we need guidance counselling,  we need equal job opportunities for our graduates otherwise our students will have lost courage and ask what is the use of it all?  Let no one forget it, we are a people with special rights guaranteed us by promises in treaty.  We do not beg for these rights.  Nor do we thank you.  We do not thank you for them because we paid for them.  And god help us, the price we paid was exorbitant.  We paid for them in our culture, our dignity, our pride and self respect.  We paid, we paid and we paid until we became a beaten race, poverty stricken, and conquered.  When you meet my children in your classrooms, respect each one for what he is, a child of our father in heaven and your brother maybe it all boils down to just that.  Now may I say thanks for the warmth of your understanding?  And may I humbly thank you in the words my father used to thank the sun for its light and its warmth.  (song)

1 comment:

  1. When I was at the first summer conference for EFP12 I expressed at one point my frustration and general cynicism with the giant machine we call education. Someone came up to me after and told me that in their culture people wear a headband to protect their thoughts and a sash to protect their heart. When you are in public, virtually or for real, you have to protect your head and heart because if you let everything in it will destroy you.

    Start with what is most important to you and make that you're first priority. I also took a step back from my extracurriculars to get ready for our transition. My decision was out of emotional exhaustion due to two or three things happening which were really draining to deal with, but I don't feel bad about it. We have limits and these days anyone in education is at risk of being drawn and quartered by their many responsibilities.

    I stopped doing everything (aka life) for a few days and then I stopped and thought "what's the very absolute most important thing to me?" I made a keep list and a will-do-when-we-are-less-stressed list, and then changed accordingly.

    What's the very most important thing to you?