Friday, September 21, 2012

On Surviving

My very second post on this blog, What's at Stake ( ), was published way back in 2010 and talked about the rash of recent suicides in my family and nearby communities and took a look at the larger issue of First Nations suicide and what was being promoted to help deal with these issues.

Why bring this up?

On January 3rd, 2012, the first day back to school from the winter holidays, I went into the photocopy room at Hope Secondary School and broke down.  I finished out the day and left.  Shortly thereafter, I was diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety.  I started seeing a counselor and entered a work & wellness rehab program.  There was evidence to suggest I was ready to throw in the towel on everything.  

Looking back, I can see some of the first indicators that something was wrong.  I stopped reading books.  I stopped attending movies.  I would drive to the theatre, sit in the parking lot until the movie started and then go home.  I rented movies and returned them late, unwatched.  I told myself it was because I was so busy being a teacher and activist, traveling to teach teachers about Aboriginal youth, attending Aboriginal education committee meetings, blogging and engaging on social media.  I would catch up eventually.

As an FN support worker, and later a special education teacher and FN case manager, I worked often with at-risk youth.  I've put together a lot of meetings to set up supports.  I was able to ask Are you okay?  I wasn't able to recognize that something was wrong in me.

Since January, life has been terrifying.  I withdrew from everything to focus on getting better.  It has been less than great.  I know I am getting better but I have a long way to go.  Those that follow my Twitter, or Facebook, know I have been exercising (and that I find it to be a miserable experience).  I have a long way to go.  I have a stack of books I want to read but I can't yet.  I try and fail repeatedly.  I have gone to the movies more often again, which is wonderful.  I love reading.  I love movies.  Over the last month, I have become very ambitious as far as my side project film stuff is concerned (though not much has been accomplished yet) and I have done a lot of blogging recently, as you are no doubt aware.  I don't sleep well.

Why, um, are you telling me all this?

I share this with you because, being a teacher of Aboriginal ancestry, one of the very few (too few), I find that being a teacher carries a lot of responsibility that I have wondered if others have to shoulder.  I am a role model.  I shared with you once the story of the time my uncle told me how proud he was to see me pursuing my Masters degree because "no one has ever tried to do what you are doing before."

It is very daunting to think about that responsibility.  Sometimes I wish there was so many of us, teachers of Aboriginal ancestry, or even Aboriginal people with Masters degrees, that I could fail and not feel like I was letting down Aboriginal people.  I have preached to students that we resist assimilation and colonization, not by retreating into our reserves, closing ourselves off; we resist by succeeding.  We resist by  excelling in the western world without giving up who we are.  We resist by surviving and thriving in both worlds.

I have lamented that teachers of Aboriginal ancestry have to give up a part of ourselves to be teachers in the public education system.  I don't resent that because our students deserve a better life than we had.  It's why we do what we do.  We teach, we share, we take the hits so our kids don't have to.  We are the role models that our kids need, until they can take over and be so overwhelmingly great wthat we can fade into the background.

Getting to the point... anytime soon?

Depression hurts. Depression can kill.  It sneaks up on you and can blindside you in a photocopy room.  Only in hindsight might you see the hints and clues.  

  • Thirty percent of First Nations people have felt sad, blue or depressed for two or more weeks.(First Nations Regional Longitudinal Health Survey, 2005)
  • Suicide and self-inflicted injuries are the leading causes of death for First Nations youth and adults up to 44 years of age. (A Statistical Profile on the Health of First Nations in Canada for the Year 2000, Health Canada, 2003)
  • First Nations youth commit suicide about five to six times more often than non-Aboriginal youth.
    • The suicide rate for First Nations males is 126 per 100,000 compared to 24 per 100,000 for non-Aboriginal males.
    • For First Nations females, the suicide rate is 35 per 100,000 compared to only 5 per 100,000 for non-Aboriginal females. (Canadian Institute of Child Health, 2000)
  • Suicide rates for Inuit youth are among the highest in the world, at 11 times the national average
(From )

I spend a lot of time trying to not be another statistic. I'm terrified of being just another Indian, but I keep falling into the traps. I am a statistic, though I didn't fall so far as to actually attempt suicide.

So many factors can influence your health, including your mental health. These factors are commonly known as the Next link will take you to another Web site determinants of health and include such things as how much money you make, how much education you have and your relationships with family and friends. For instance, supportive relationships with family and friends can make you feel cared for, loved, esteemed and valued, and as a result, have a protective effect on your health. (World Health Organization, 2003)


Historical determinants, such as the legacy of residential schools, are believed to have shaped the mental health of Aboriginal people. A research project commissioned by the Aboriginal Healing Foundation found that 75 percent of the case files for a sample of Aboriginal residential school survivors contained mental health information with the most common mental health diagnoses being post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse disorder and major depression. (Research Series, 2003)

(From )

Our students are our children.  They struggle like we do and feel the same loss and legacy we struggle with.  I am sharing my personal story for the same reason I share so much here and with my students.  As young people facing a world that often feels like it doesn't like Aboriginal people, our students need to see and know people, of Aboriginal ancestry, who have faced what they face, struggled with the same challenges they experience.

And they need to know they can survive it.

Value your students.  Make sure they know they are valued.  I struggled for a long time trying to understand how someone could feel so hopeless that they saw no other choice but ending their lives.  I don't believe I reached the point where that was my only option, though I will admit it crossed the mind.  It pushes in, very much uninvited, whether you want it there or not.  Depression doesn't just hurt, it tries to hurt you, actively campaigns against you.

As our students need to see Aboriginal teachers teaching and Aboriginal people being doctors and lawyers and police officers, they also need to see Aboriginal people surviving.  I am a long way from thriving but I think I will definitely survive this.  

So, as Thomas King would say: 

Take this story, it's yours.  Do with it what you will, forget it.  Use it as a starting point to have a conversation about mental health and suicide.  Use it as a cautionary tale.  Please don't use it against me, I know the risks of sharing this type of story.  Just don't say that you would have viewed the world around you differently had you only known this story.  You know it now.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Are we Indigenizing or Decolonizing?

Indigenize : "to cause to have indigenous characteristics or personnel"
( Merriam-Webster)

To Decolonize is to undo colonialism. (

One of the questions I am struggling with lately in the discourse over Aboriginal Education is: Are we Indigenizing the public education system, or are we Decolonizing it? By indigenizing, I see in some schools Aboriginal awareness days, artwork, support workers and the odd Elder or resource person coming in to present. Is that all there is? Are we addressing the need to decolonize our classrooms, transforming our thinking to allow for real change to take place?

I think indigenizing is a good start, but it is just a beginning, an affirmation that is needed to acknowledge the traditional territories and peoples around our schools and make these buildings welcoming to a dispossessed demographic. Decolonizing is the transformative change that is necessary to make our schools, and, by extension, society accepting and truly inclusive of Aboriginal people and the Indigenous experience. We need to unlearn how we have learned in this system and explore other ways of knowing and pedagogies.

The choice schools in Prince George and Vancouver are good beginnings in this exploration in decolonization. Their attempts to reposition the worldviews and perspectives in presenting the curriculum is one example of what decolonization may look like. I hope it is successful. We, as educators, however, need to encourage everyone to explore their understanding of the Indigenous.

This is very much an incomplete thought.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

...But I'm Honouring You!

Team Names... Logos... Mascots...
Where to begin?  There is an ongoing controversy going on in the Ottawa area regarding a local football team known as the Nepean Redskins.  Some First Nations people are urging the team to change the name as it is racist in its representation of Native peoples.  The argument against this request have ranged from it isn't racist, it isn't intended to be racist and it is intended to honour.  I don't know about you but I don't feel honoured with the name redskin.  I know in my area, we have a hockey team called the Chilliwack Chiefs that have a logo that features an Indian head with a headdress and a mascot called Chief Wannawin.

This has been bugging me for a long time but I have had no idea how to address it.  I am concerned about the fact that these are still around in the non-education setting, but I am also alarmed by the fact that there are still schools in this country, in this province that do not have a problem using team names or logos that appropriate a stereotyped image or understanding of a First Nations person or ideal.  This is not an honouring.
The usual image depicting the stereotypical Indian head with a headdress is not an appropriate image to be using in the representation of the team sports that are present in the school.  but the decision to use the image of the Indian in the headdress is one that is alarming and symbolic of a bygone ideal in Canadian society.

But no one has complained about it

This absence of contempt does not preclude the dangers that this symbol represents to those communities and to Aboriginal people in general, and our students in particular. The usual image is an image of a First Nations man that does not exist on the west coast. The headdress is an honour in many Plains Nations and not from this area. Its representation makes generalizations about the Aboriginal communities as a whole. It is also an image that firmly plants Aboriginal people in the past, ensuring that our students are not witness to representations that are contemporary and in line with their lived experience. It also allows non-Native students to create a false sense of understanding of what an Aboriginal person is.

Whether or not the intention to offend is present or not, the image is one that harms our students and their sense of identity. Whether they understand this or not is irrelevant, First Nations people have been forced to internalize harmful representations before and the ongoing misrepresentation of Aboriginal people only furthers the damage that is done to the First Nations identity and sense of self. It dehumanizes our understanding of ourselves and it harms and disrespects.

It is time to retire these harmful representations of First Nations people so that we can take the journey to reconciliation together. Our children deserve better and that starts with removing harmful misrepresentations. 
"When someone says you are hurting them by your action, if you persist- then the harm becomes intentional."- Barbara Munson
What can you do about it?
***All photos are from the Internet except for two which are from me or a friend of mine. If the photo belongs to you, please let me know so that I may properly attribute, or remove if necessary.  Thanks.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Random, Semi-coherent Moment of Doubt

I've been conflicted of late about the usefulness of my blogging and advocacy of Indigenous education, both online and in person. Does it matter?

I was recently struck by several different items in the news, as well as some personal communications, that have been troubling the mind. My recent mania (?) about the Levant and Bieber commentaries and a few offline interactions have left me wondering about the effectiveness of advocacy. Even with social justice advocates I have found myself having to defend a position or way of being, repeatedly, eventually having to abandon the conversation with the thought that they just don't get it, and I lack the necessary skill to explain it.

Or is the challenge of a different sort entirely? I know in my commentary regarding the above mentioned people I have been attempting to maintain an educational focus; in the unexplained personal contacts, the issues were Aboriginal with only a slight connection to education (though I could link very easily). The problem, however, appears to be the response to the issues put forth. I was impressed that I received a response from the BC Ministry of Education regarding my open letter, but it was a form response that didn't really say anything I wasn't already aware of, and didn't address my specific concerns. Am I preaching to the converted? Are the unconverted just paying lip service if they are even paying attention?

Is this where the ally comes into the picture? Will I always be viewed as having an agenda when I speak about Aboriginal issues? Will I always be frustrated by open minds who just don't get it when I try to explain the concept of what the Rez means or the fact that expecting our youth to change to fit into the Ed paradigm is inherently unfair? Do my discourses need to be presented to the unconverted by allies to be considered acceptable?

I value allies. I am forever grateful that they go out and make the case for Aboriginal Education. I worry that no progress will be made until the allies have convinced the rest to change because at least the allies are being listened to.