Thursday, August 30, 2012

With a Good Heart & A Good Mind: Towards a transformation in Aboriginal Education

How do we promote Aboriginal Education in the public education system in BC?  And I mean not just seeking to achieve success for students of Aboriginal ancestry but making Indigenous histories, cultures, experiences accessible to ALL students.

Where to begin?

As educators, we have a responsibility to learn and grow ourselves, to seek to improve our own practice and to look for new ways to improve the learning environment for our children.  There is often resistance to do this when it comes to Aboriginal pedagogies or epistemologies, or accessing learning to improve our own knowledge of Indigenous experience or legacies.  This is not the fault of the teacher, administrator or SEA, rather it is a responsibility that must be held by our Canadian society.  This society has normalized the white-washing of Native history and made it okay for us to ignore that which is outside our own terms of reference.  This can be best viewed by the ongoing situations played out on Twitter and in the media: Ezra Levant's misinformation rants against Native activists, Justin Bieber's misguided quotes, the Nepean Redskins team name "isn't racist but rather a compliment," statements and actions that go unchallenged by most except the most vocal of Native activists online.

As educators, we have failed to get beyond our own understandings and to consider other ways of viewing the world, and other ways of knowing and learning.  This is something that needs to change.  There needs to be a shift in our thinking about Aboriginal education, from just getting Aboriginal students to succeed in our system to understanding Aboriginal education is something that needs to be for everyone so that we understand, we know, we accept.  We need to transform ourselves, as educators.  

Back in the day X'als and the trickster would travel the land and transform it so that it would be the land the people needed.  A land that they could use.  The education system is not a land we can use.  It asks Native students to give up a part of themselves to fit into the system, to fit into society.  A group of people already facing many, many challenges in Canada and we are asking them to choose to give up a further part of themselves.

So, what do we do?

Be leaders in education.  There are Aboriginal voices in the education system but they are few and far between, there is still a gulf between the desire to see a good education and a willingness to stick your neck out by becoming teachers in the public system.  For some Native people, survivors of the residential school system and survivors of the residential legacy, this is akin to selling out.  Placing all the responsibility onto Aboriginal people is unfair, particularly since we have to give up so much of who we are to give back to our people as educators.  That is not say ignore these voices, they have a lot to share, just don't ask them to take on everything.

Educators have a responsibility to become familiar with the Indigenous worldview and the ways in which it is marginalized and demonized.  Whether our students say it or not, even understand it or not, how they are perceived in the popular culture and, by extension, society as a whole, does have an impact on their sense of self and their understanding of where they fit in.  Educators, as leaders, need to take responsibility for challenging those assumptions that are made about Aboriginal people.  Failing to do so gives our students permission to believe those assumptions are acceptable.  

Invite presenters to your staff meeting.  Attend pro-D that focuses on Aboriginal issues.  The Mission school district have brought their administrators to the Charlie longhouse at Chehalis to learn about the local history, culture and experiences of the People of that territory.  Aboriginal issues and Aboriginal learning can be incorporated across the curriculum.  The idea that it can't be integrated because you aren't Aboriginal is invalid.  There are 250 Aboriginal teachers in the public system of BC, waiting for us to catch up is a long wait.  Acknowledge with the students that you are learning as well with them and teach with respect. 

Get on Twitter, ask questions.  There are many Indigenous teachers and scholars on Social media, they are willing to share, willing to join in a conversation.  A good site to start would be, run by Starleigh Grass, a teacher and scholar of Tsilhqot'in ancestry.  Check out the Aboriginal education sites in other school districts, other provinces, Band schools.  Promote and actually run the courses that are in place, despite the numbers.  I know that's hard to do, but if we are to commit to Aboriginal Education, we need to find a way.

Don't be afraid to learn about the different initiatives taking place.  Prince George opened up its Aboriginal Choice school, Nusdeh Yoh (House of the future) and Vancouver is opening up a new Aboriginal focus elementary school this coming year.  Scroll through my blog to see my thoughts on these schools.  There is serious potential in these schools if they are given a chance and function as they are intended to.  The Aboriginal communities are involved in the planning of these schools, they aren't paternalistically imposed from above.  I think Merritt School District has an Aboriginal Academy option available as well, but I'm not certain.

Education has always had the potential to change the world.  If we approach Aboriginal Education with a good heart and a good mind, we can transform it and create a world where we can ALL envision a better tomorrow.  Have a good start up and a great year!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

What are You Doing?

How many of the people who attended the FNESC Aboriginal Education Conference, in Vancouver, British Columbia last November, were school trustees in the BC public education system? How many were superintendents?  How many were Diatrict Principals?  How many were members of Aboriginal communities whom sit on their public school district's  Aboriginal advisory committees?

I have a love/hate relationship with the First Nations Education Steering Committee (FNESC). I live on reserve and have always been suspicious of Aboriginal organizations who are working in my best interest with the blessing of the federal government. Plus I've had ideological differences regarding education with people from the organization. I am not trying to tear them down in this post, however, I am actually praising their work. (I have yet to examine the tripartite agreement they recently signed but I am hearing positive things about it). At any rate, there is a lot of good work done there on behalf of First Nations people in fighting for the right to a good education for our children.

The annual Aboriginal Education conference is an excellent program they roll out each year which brings together hundreds of people from around the province to network, share and learn on the subject of Aboriginal Education and how to improve the system (public, private, reserve) for First Nations and Aboriginal students. Part of that does entail the integration of Indigenous into the system to teach others about the experience.

At the last conference, in addition to a brilliant presentation by Dr. Cindy Blackstock, FNESC presented an excellent panel, bringing together District Aboriginal Principals, from three very different districts, to talk about what they are doing in terms of Aboriginal programs  in their districts. 

I was spellbound.  The programs were thoughtful, innovative and well received (I wish I could detail them but some personal challenges have dominated my time this year and the details have faded from memory). I recall that the three districts had three different circumstances and had designed their programs to meet their specific needs. And they sounded incredible.  

I am grateful to FNESC for bringing them together to share so that we could learn and think.

How many of those leaders of education went back to their districts and reported on the conference? Did they present these ideas to their boards and say, "we should consider some of these or something similar in our district?" Or did they say "I learned a lot," and then left it there?

I sat in on a workshop presented by my colleague and friend, Chris Wejr, recently, on social media and it's power to inspire connections and relationships. He mentioned that ideas not shared are ideas that just stop right there. One of the advantages of social media is that if I share my idea with you, it can evolve and change, and other people can grab it and grow it as well. 

Did the ideas presented at FNESC go beyond that first sharing in the conference room. Were they brought around Board tables or advisory committee tables and talked about?

I want to say I hope so, but I am pessimistic.  I will put this forward though: you are our education leaders. You are our advocates. Aboriginal children face many challenges in Canada, schooling is only one of them. As the school year begins, please remember to respect who they are and where they are coming from. Honour the fact that they are there and they and their family want this education, even if they can't show it the way you would recognize it.  Listen to the child, young or old.  They will tell you what they need. Share with them, learn from them, keep an open mind to different pedagogies and epistemologies. Communicate with those who are trying things to improve our students' worlds. 

And go beyond just listening.

Monday, August 27, 2012

A Response from the Ministry of Education to my Open Letter

On August 16, 2012, i received the following from Trish Rosborough, Director, Aboriginal Education, Ministry of Education, in response to my "Open Letter..." post addressing Minister Abbott.  I can't link to that post here, I'm posting this from a remote site via email.

"Thank you for your email of July 24, 2012, to the Honourable George Abbott, Minister of Education. I am pleased to respond on the Minister’s behalf.
Aboriginal education is important not only for Aboriginal students but also for all students. With recent efforts, the Ministry has put that belief into action.

First, the Ministry has long worked collaboratively with First Nations, often through the First Nations Education Steering Committee (FNESC). Recently, a Tripartite Education Framework Agreement formalized the Province’s practice of consulting with FNESC on matters ranging from provincial education policy to BC’s funding formula, all of which shape the education system for Aboriginal students and non-Aboriginal students alike.

Second, the Ministry has spent a decade working with school districts and Aboriginal communities to develop and implement Aboriginal Education Enhancement Agreements. These agreements are collaboratively developed and most share the goal of increasing awareness of Aboriginal culture, history, and language among all students. Recent annual reports for these agreements spotlight the many experiences provided for students and the many positive results:

A third long-time strategy is bringing Aboriginal content into the classroom. One ongoing method is offering all students courses focused on Aboriginal content, such as BC First Nations Studies 12, English First Peoples 10, 11, and 12, and courses resulting from the 15 Ministry-approved First Nations language Integrated Resource Packages. Another ongoing method is infusing all Ministry-developed K–12 curriculum documents, assessments, and resource materials with Aboriginal culture, history, language, perspectives, and pedagogy. Recently, as part of the BC Education Plan, the Ministry and its partners have also been redefining curriculum and assessment with Aboriginal worldviews and knowledge in mind.

We need to continue to work together to provide an integral Aboriginal education to all students and the BC Education Plan can help. For example, the plan’s commitment to personalized learning is informed by and reflects some of the First Peoples Principles of Learning. Likewise, the plan’s focus on competencies, such as critical thinking and social responsibility, will enable and empower all students to reflect with empathy on the past, present, and potential place of Indigenous peoples in this Province. For these reasons, I believe we are moving in the right direction. I welcome your ongoing contributions and comments. Again, thanks for writing."

I decided just to copy and paste in. I'd love your thoughts on this response. Does it address my concerns? I am surprised by the last paragraph, I haven't seen that reflection of the FPPL, but I could have missed it. I need to learn more about the tripartite agreement before I can comment on that. I will, hopefully write more on this topic when I have had a chance to consider it more. But your impressions are appreciated.


Monday, August 6, 2012

Dear Canada, what is it about me you don't like?

Dear Canada, 

I'm confused. 

You took everything away from us in order to help us. And that worked out great*.  Now you propose to "give" us private property rights, in order to help us. I fail to see how imposing an ideological worldview that is antithetical to the many Indigenous worldviews is going to help improve the challenges First Nations face, much of which is the direct result of the impositions of the past. 

The strip of reserve I live on is quite small and it's on a flood plain. Much of the reserve land in Canada is on the land Canada didn't want. How will having the deed to it improve my economic opportunity?  It means it can be taken away from me too. Without my little scrap of land, how am I an Indian. If the Indian land disappears, don't you declare us extinct, like our brothers and sisters who lost their status and lost the right to their land? Without my land, what happens to your duty to consult with me?  Without this scrap of land, what happens to my history and my family?  

You've already taken my culture and my language and you undermine me everywhere I turn.  You've made it a rule that my children could lose their Aboriginal Rights depending on who I choose as their mother.  You try to tell me what my rights are as an Aboriginal person based on rules you make and change on a whim. Dear Canada, to paraphrase Thomas King, what is it about me you don't like?

* This asterisk means sarcasm, Canada. Just saying.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Frustrating Teachable Moments

Lisa Charleyboy brought this video ( my attention recently in a blog post ( on her site. The piece is a video from Sunnewsnet pundit Ezra Levant and a commentary on the recent Assembly of First Nations election and his perception of privilege enjoyed by the Chiefs in attendance. Lisa pointed out that it flew under the radar of the Native twitterverse because we were distracted by the Justin Bieber brouhaha.

In a sense this is probably true, though I encourage you to look at my posts about that issue and you will see I am not questioning Mr. Bieber so much as challenging the education system to be better. I think that this particular comment was an excellent opportunity to bring attention to the ongoing misconceptions that exist in Canadian society and the lack of proper education available in the curriculum about Aboriginal people in Canada. Mr. Bieber's comment and his lack of acknowledgement of the online reaction and media reaction (at least as far as I know) are merely symptoms of the colonial mindset pervasive in our society and reveals the ongoing need to decolonize the education system and integrate knowledge of the Aboriginal experiences.

Justin Bieber's comment was a teachable moment.

Ezra Levant's commentary is a different matter completely and I am at a loss as how to speak back to it. I do not know why. The argument is, at best, misinformed; at worst it is designed to enflame and divide further an already divisive situation. Your thoughts please, I'm at a loss.