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.