Colonization and government assimilation have had devastating impacts on Indigenous education in Canada. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC, 2015, preface Vl) has determined that “reconciliation requires a new vision based on mutual respect. After all, reconciliation is not an Indigenous problem; it is a Canadian one”. This paper will use an Indigenous lens perspective to explore the ongoing practice of educational challenges Indigenous and non-Indigenous people experience in Canada through cultural ignorance and suggest a strategic plan in an attempt to improve the educational experiences of Indigenous and Non-Indigenous students, teachers, parents and communities in Ontario.
Contrary to governmental belief, Indigenous children were previously educated. Indigenous instruction was taught by parents and Elders. Ceremonies encompassed their physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual development. Indigenous education incorporated the three Ls of Looking, Listening, and Learning while storytelling provided cautionary tales to avert negative behaviour. Many residential students grew up without parental support and therefore did not develop interpersonal and relationship skills to teach their own children (Legacy of Hope Foundation, n.d.).
Formal education was becoming increasingly important to Indigenous peoples in order to cope with the influx of Europeans invading their lands. They recognized this new way of life would necessitate the skills of reading, writing and math for their children if they were to have a meaningful relationship with the Europeans. During the 1820 – 1830’s the Methodist Native schools were operating at an instruction level much higher than the non-Native schools in Europe and Canada. Schools were extraordinary in their use of Native educators, bilingual language, and the Pestalozzi approach to learning that resembled Native knowledge teachings (MacLean, 2005). The goal was to prepare Indigenous peoples to become teachers and provide strong leadership skills, the schools had the full support of the Indigenous peoples through labour and monetary donations to help finance the schools and 7% of male Ojibwa adults went on to become teachers. (MacLean, 2005).
Unfortunately, the success of Indigenous education was not going to last. In 1833 the Methodists were increasingly struggling financially to maintain the schools and Britain agreed to finance the schools but wanted control of how they would operate (MacLean, 2002). Native children were to be assimilated into the dominant society by government and religious orders in order for them to become “self-supporting” because of the Buffalo becoming extinct. Schools objected the native way of learning and parenting abilities were questionable because native parents did not believe in reprimanding their children, only verbal reprimands were implemented and therefore they must be removed to be properly educated (Morrissette, 1994). Anthropology was a new concept at the time and what is described as “culture” today was described as character and habits that could be changed quickly (MacLean, 2005). The mandatory church attendance taught the children to be ashamed of their traditions and cut off all their hair and forbade them to speak their language (Morrissette, 1994).
My Great Aunt Nellie Ningewance attended the Pelican Residential school from 1958-1960 at the tender age of 10. On page 38 of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada my Aunt stated that “while they were cutting my hair, I could see my hair falling and I couldn’t do nothing, I wasn’t thinking about myself, I was thinking how upset my mom was going to be and it was my fault” (TRC, 2015). When I read her the excerpts from the book, she responded “Oh my, mercy, oh boy, sliced my heart” and I immediately felt pained for bringing back such a horrific memory for her, one of many that I am sure she had safely tucked away. In another discussion with my Uncle Walter Slipperjack (Nellie’s son), he said that his mother or father had never spoken about those years until recently during an interview with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). “She has not talked much about those years, just that she was scared most of the time and remembers a few friends never coming back from the residential school. My father also attended residential school but escaped after a few months and lived in the bush with his brother and uncle and has never spoken about his experiences”.
Loss of identity has affected a major sector of Native people and will continue to do so as the younger generation look to Elders to teach them. These residential school survivors face extreme feelings of guilt when the need arises to correct their children as it is a reflection of their residential experiences of non-caring and therefore renders them emotionally frozen (Morrissette, 1994).
McIntosh (1990) wrote a journal article entitled White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack where she discusses her revelation that while racism disadvantages others it also puts her white privileged self at an advantage. She understands now that oppression can be done with unawareness and whites learn to believe that their existence is normal and ideal and helping underprivileged people will allow “them” to resemble “us”. As her racial group was being made self-assured, complacent, and unaware, a relative number of other groups were likely being made weak, dissatisfied, and withdrawn. Morrissette (1994) shows an example of this when writing about how the atrocities at the residential schools, in an attempt to assimilate native children into the dominate society, were covered up by shame of abuse felt by the students and political power as questioning the motives of the church was inconceivable at that time.
Even though the government has apologized for their role in the attempted genocide of
Indigenous peoples through the use of residential schools, they continue to use their unearned
advantage to dominate society. As the Assembly of First Nations (AFN, 2001) points out, teaching about Indigenous history can play a large part in closing a rift between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. It can create understanding and empathy and give Indigenous students’ pride in the part they have played in making Canada the great country it is today. The Truth and Reconciliation: Call to Action “Make age-appropriate curriculum on residential schools, Treaties, Aboriginal peoples’ historical and contemporary contributions to Canada a mandatory education requirement for Kindergarten to Grade Twelve students” (TRC, 2015, p. 238). Although this has been adopted in many provinces, it is unfortunate that Ontario’s new government, Doug Ford, has cancelled the curriculum-writing conferences throughout Ontario (Edwards, 2018).
I would like to propose a program in Ontario that may work very well in supplying culturally related opportunities to promote positive relationships and leadership initiatives which can increase engagement. With the aid of researchers, teachers, program developers, and community leaders the implementation of “Local Teacher Exchanges” between on-reserve and off-reserve schools at the elementary level, specifically grades 3-6. This approach would start with acknowledging the negative behaviours as part of the colonization and assimilation policies and allow us to see past these issues and focus on the individual. Many First Nations youth attend school on reserve until grade 8 and then are transferred to provincial schools by bus. Divided loyalties can complicate young people with regards to abiding by rules established by the vary culture that abused their relatives. Young people despair over being labelled an “‘apple’ – red on the outside and white on the inside” when pursuing success in the dominant society and it is suggested that Native community members who have succeeded, assist in the young person’s endeavors (Morrissette, 1994).
A “Local Teacher Exchange” would be a relevant approach for Indigenous students who are already in the provincial system because they would be taught part of their values using a role model that they can look up to, confide in, and count on. Morrissette (1994) reiterates that children need to learn the suffering their parents endured at the residential schools but parents are reluctant and embarrassed, history lessons would help, otherwise children will just feel their parents are incompetent adults. Understanding what their parents went through will bring their relationships closer together but they should be told by people they can relate to. The Indigenous teacher would also be teaching non-Indigenous students about the great contributions Indigenous peoples have made throughout the course of history to help alleviate content missing in the history books and instill some respect towards Indigenous students. The Indigenous teacher could demonstrate cultural activities such as a teaching circle and drum or mask making. The Office of the Auditor General (2005, p. 132) talks about the issue of Indigenous students being several grades behind average when transferring from reserve to public school systems, the Indigenous teacher would be able to gauge what is being taught in the provincial schools and be able to incorporate some of the lessons on reserve to better prepare on-reserve students for provincial transfer.
White teachers in local reserve schools could learn about the specific Indigenous culture in their area to better understand and appreciate cultural differences. According to Higgens, Madden, and Korteweg (2015), common stereotypes of Indigenous peoples make it difficult for white teachers to build relationships with them. For instance, during ‘cultural day’, a white teacher displayed drumming techniques but found Indigenous students the least interested and she became frustrated, which Higgens et al. (2015) determined that frustration to lie with the teacher’s “inability to see Indigenous cultures as plural, dynamic, and evolving as well as differing between individuals, communities, and nations”. Another teacher stated, “I felt hypocritical, who am I to do a good job of incorporating Indigenous perspectives if I don’t know myself?” White teachers’ knowledge of Indigeneity stems from stereotypical images in the media and not from experiences created from “direct relationships and dialogue” (Higgens et al., 2015) which is needed if we hope to build a better relationship with Indigenous peoples. This experience will enable white privileged teachers to more fully understand what McIntosh (1990) is trying to explain in how racism will affect them and how it takes both active forms which is obvious and the embedded form for which they have been taught not to see. Once this has been realized, my hopes will be that they choose to use unearned advantage to weaken hidden systems of advantage as opposed to trying to reconstruct power systems on a broader base. In cases where there are language challenges, a teacher’s assistant could be brought in. The exchange would be for I full school year (September – June) and the teachers would continue to be paid their regular rate of pay. The applicants would be chosen by the respective school boards and their performance monitored by the school principals.
The attempt to try and integrate Indigenous peoples into the dominant society over the last twenty years involved closing the residential schools and relocating Indigenous children away from their families, often against the parents will. The acceleration of this process has left Indigenous parents and children, as well as non-Indigenous parents, children and educational institutions unprepared for integration, or to deal with the many issues created by this process. This must not be a one-way process where Indigenous children are required to relinquish their identities and adopt a new way of living and learning, but to involve both Indigenous and non-Indigenous parents, teachers, students and curriculum. We need to supply teachers with the tools and additional education needed to recognize and understand Indigenous cultures and ways of learning.
Assembly of First Nations. (2001). Indian control of Indian education. Policy Paper. Retrieved from http://www.peopleforeducation.ca/document/indian-control-of-indian-education/
Edwards K. (2018, November 16). Tracking the Doug Ford cuts. Macleans.ca. Retrieved from
https://www.macleans.ca/politics/tracking-the-doug-ford-cuts/#education on November 20, 2018.
Higgens, M., Madden, B., Korteweg, L. (2015). Witnessing (halted) deconstruction: white teachers’ ‘perfect stranger’ position within urban Indigenous education. Race and Ethnicity. Vol. 18, No. 2, 251–276, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13613324.2012.7599 32
Legacy of Hope Foundation. (n.d.). Where are the children. Retrieved November 9th, 2018, from http://wherearethechildren.ca/en/exhibition/
McIntosh, P. (1990). White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack. Independent School,49(2).
McLean, H. (2005). Ojibwa participation in Methodist residential schools in Upper Canada, 1828-1860. The Canadian Journal of Native Studies, 25(1), 93-137.
McLean, H. (2002). A positive experiment in Aboriginal education: the Methodist Ojibwa day schools in Upper Canada, 1824-1833. The Canadian Journal of Native Studies, 22(1), 23-63.
Morrissette, P. (1994). The Holocaust of First Nation people: Residual effects on parenting and treatment implications. Contemporary Family Therapy, 16(5), 381-392. doi:10.1007/BF02197900
Office of the Auditor General (2005). Chapter 3, Section 3.05: Ministry of Education, Education of Aboriginal Students. 2012 Annual Report of the Office of the Auditor General of Ontario, 129-148.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015). (Vol. 1: summary honouring the truth, reconciling for the future) Education for reconciliation, p. 238. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Lorimer.