Dear Minister Abbott,
Ey sweyel! I hope this letter finds you well and that you are having an excellent and productive summer. I am writing to express a concern I have with regard to Aboriginal Education in the public system in British Columbia. In the interests of full disclosure, I need to inform you that I have been and continue to be active in my union and I have just completed a term on the BCTF Aboriginal Education Advisory Committee. I am, however, writing this letter, not as a union activist, but as a working teacher of Aboriginal ancestry and as a registered Status Indian and member of a First Nation in our province. I am hoping, in the coming days to address this issue with the education ministers of the other provinces, as this is a concern that is national in scope.
Recently, an international popular culture magazine, Rolling Stone (released on July 20, 2012) published an article containing an interview with a Canadian singer named Justin Bieber, who is currently enjoying incredible success both in Canada and outside our borders. During the interview, the following paragraph can be found:
"He's wearing a Chicago Blackhawks cap ("I'm actually part Indian," he says — "I think Inuit or something? I'm enough percent that in Canada I can get free gas"), a blue short-sleeved shirt and khaki shorts that hang all the way off his butt."
There has been much commentary online regarding this small, seemingly inconsequential comment. Most of it has been calling out and/or making light of his claim of Aboriginal ancestry, something I cannot comment on as the regulations around identity in the Indian Act does complicate the issue and I do not feel I am in a position to pass judgment on someone else's self-identification. Mr. Bieber's comment, however, seems to indicate a lack of knowledge about the reality of the Indigenous experience in Canada and presents a misinformed understanding of the rights and privileges enjoyed by First Nations peoples and other Aboriginal groups.
I cannot blame Mr. Bieber for his lack of awareness in the experiences of Aboriginal people in Canada or the challenges that are faced by many. I have spent a lot of time correcting the misinformation that Canadians, parents, students and educators, at all levels, have about Aboriginal peoples and the so-called privileges we "enjoy". Often I run into an unwillingness to acknowledge truth instead of the wrong bit of knowledge. I have been told I'm lying or have a chip on my shoulder or that somehow I am mistaken. When an Aboriginal person challenges the Canadian mindset on Aboriginal issues, we often face a lot of anger and pushback. It is exhausting to have to try to bring understanding and knowledge to people who don't want to understand or know.
I am aware that the Ministry of Education has some programs and policies in place under the heading of Aboriginal Education, including a short paragraph in the new BCEd Plan paper. These seem to focus on meeting the educational needs of Aboriginal students in the system, but they don't appear to meet the most important need: fairness.
The red flag that Mr. Bieber's comment raises is the lack of understanding of the Indigenous experience in the general population. The comment reflects the public knowledge and attitude for the Indigenous experience. This is reflected in our national media where you see pushback and a "blaming the victim" mentality when we raise issues like Attawapiskat or the Murdered & Missing women across the country. That pushback is in the classroom where students challenge attempts to teach this history and knowledge and repeat the common line we here everyday, everywhere: "we give you so much money, it must be your fault", "your kids are paid to attend school", "free gas!"
As a teacher of Aboriginal ancestry, it often feels like I am teaching about the Aboriginal experience alone, trying to make visible something that has been systematically made invisible. My question to you, Sir, is how do we change this state of affairs? How does the BC Ed Plan challenge the status quo on knowing the Aboriginal experience when it lacks any mention of the learning in the document? How do we make visible what is invisible when no one seems to want to challenge our long-held assumptions about Aboriginal people?
I am a teacher of young people, Minister Abbott. I am preparing Canadians to live in Canada. When I am pushed back against by people for trying to share my knowledge and experience of Aboriginal life in Canada, then I am not able to teach what they need to know to be fair, just and good people. And that teaches the Indigenous population of Canada that they don't matter. If that is the case, I fail the one reason that drove me into education: to help create a better future for our youth. Mr. Bieber has a voice that will reach many more British Columbians than mine ever will, but you have a voice that can aid in challenging the misconceptions and assumptions about Aboriginal peoples.
Thank you for your time and consideration, Minister Abbott. I look forward to hearing from you.
Robert V. Genaille (Stó:lō/ Saulteaux)
Fraser-Cascade School District