When Lisa* graduated from teachers college with a specialization in social studies, she wanted to teach her students about indigenous issues. But even as a new graduate, she feels inherently uncomfortable broaching indigenous content with her students.
In the duration of Lisa’s professional training, only one week was allotted to explore hundreds of years of aboriginal histories, cultures and perspectives. This didn’t come close to deepening her own knowledge of indigenous content, she says, let alone prepare her to carry that knowledge forward into a classroom of students.
“I think if we had taken the time to look into the curriculum, I would have felt better teaching it in the classroom,” she says. She adds that her one-week crash course didn’t include coverage of residential schools or discussions of Canada’s colonial legacy.
Lisa left teacher’s college with the task of introducing her students to indigenous content in a respectful and robust way, yet was given very few resources and experiences that could prepare her to do so.
This problem is not a new one. Although curriculum surrounding indigenous histories, cultures and perspectives does exist, the depth of its application in the classroom depends entirely on the comfort level of the teachers delivering it.
The educational research organization People for Education conducts annual surveys of Ontario’s teachers to gauge what subject matter educators have the least comfort exploring within their classrooms.
Annie Kidder, the organization’s executive director, says that despite the province’s efforts to enrich curricular content on indigenous topics there is a troubling gap between educational policy and the reality on the ground.
“You can have curriculum that says this is mandatory; it’s there in name, but its application depends on our teachers’ level of comfort teaching or understanding it,” she says. “Our research into what subject matter teachers have the least level of comfort indicates that indigenous perspectives, cultures, histories are areas where they consistently report not having that comfort.”
A provincial problem
Despite this identifiable gap, the latest survey data conducted by People for Education indicates that only 47 per cent of secondary and 29 per cent of elementary schools offer professional development training and support for teaching staff surrounding indigenous education issues.
When translated into the reality of teaching, these statistics mean that many teachers, such as Lisa, are left to navigate indigenous curriculum on their own.
“I think the thing now, is that maybe teachers are afraid to teach that unit because they don’t know too much about it,” says Lisa. “There are so many topics out there that are so sensitive, in terms of social justice issues, but you need to talk about them and you need to bring them out. I think that was my biggest struggle.”
In 2010, York University professor Susan Dion and a team of researchers released Decolonizing Our Schools, a report revealing that teachers’ own discomfort and anxiety when it comes to teaching aboriginal content was a sizeable barrier to its application in the classroom.
The study involved in-depth interviews with a mix of teachers from across the Toronto District School Board. Many participants reported an apprehension toward teaching indigenous content borne from feeling under-prepared, under-resourced and lacking in the appropriate time and support to present content to students.
Many teachers expressed concerns over misrepresenting aboriginal cultures through their teaching practices. Some even voiced their fears of being judged for mishandling aboriginal content or unknowingly participating in cultural appropriation of indigenous cultural practices.
Another common response from teachers and principals was that without a large number of indigenous students in their classrooms, aboriginal education was felt to be unnecessary at their schools.
For Julia Candlish, director of education for the Chiefs of Ontario, it is important for educators to realize that this discomfort translates into a widespread problem that isn’t just felt by students and peoples within indigenous communities.
“All teachers need to include all of these components when they’re teaching their classes,” she says. “This is all part of the reconciliation and educating the general public about the history, the social concerns, the residential schools, the ’60s Scoop, and including all of that information for all students. That discomfort should not be holding anyone back from teaching these components within the curriculum.”
The crux of the problem is not a lack of content, says Candlish. It’s the lack of confidence in the educators who are meant to deliver it.
Dr. Suzanne Stewart, special advisor to the dean of education at OISE, explains that in order to foster reconciliation through education there needs to be a ideological shift surrounding the way society understands the blended histories that make up Canada’s past.
“It’s about normalizing and explaining to people that we’re not teaching indigenous history; we’re teaching Canadian history. We’re seeking to have students and society understand that we’re all in position and relation to Indigenous lands and Indigenous peoples. That it’s part of the Canadian context,” says Stewart.
Working towards Re-education
In response to these problems, the Toronto District School Board’s Aboriginal Education Centre is working to bridge this knowledge gap.
In 2015, the Aboriginal Education centre launched its Knowledge Building Experience Program, aiming to enrich and deepen knowledge and understanding of indigenous culture and issues for TDSB teachers and staff.
Co-ordinating principal Barbara-Ann Felschow says the program embodies entirely new strategies to reach all teachers and staff in a way that highlights both the accessibility of indigenous education issues and its importance as a pillar of education for all students and teachers.
Since 2006, the Aboriginal Education Centre has worked to enhance understanding and knowledge surrounding indigenous histories and cultures at Toronto’s schools. Yet despite their efforts, Felschow said that their initiatives lacked the direction and commitment from Toronto District School Board schools that the centre needed to make lasting change. She added that the centre’s new three-year program evolved from identifying these challenges and designing a program that would engage with every school and teacher across the city’s massive school board.
The program organizes participants according to existing groupings of schools, or “school families,” in the TDSB. The goal is to reinforce communities of knowledge support between teachers and the team at the Aboriginal Education Centre.
“The idea was that as a family, your experience and your exposure is not just with a classroom teacher — it’s with everyone that has a connection to that school community,” says Felschow.
The mandatory training involves in-depth workshops on residential schools and the ’60s Scoop, culturally relative and responsive teaching practices, land-based and status treaties as well as mental health and wellness training explored through student experience.
But the training goes far beyond seminar discussions and resource packages.
Participants also work alongside community elders and traditional knowledge keepers through what Felschow calls simulation experiences. The simulations are based on experiential knowledge practices and take participants through narratives of cultural genocide, residential schools and marginalization through an indigenous lens.
According to Joanne Dallaire, an elder and counsellor working with the centre, the simulations had the most profound impact on program participants. She points to one exercise, in which participants were given dolls to care for throughout the afternoon, as being particularly memorable. Elders and simulation leaders would share their personal stories about surviving the ’60s Scoop, an era when thousands of aboriginal children were taken from their families and put into residential schools across the country. She described the emotion that filled the room as the elders cast a light on their horrific memories of the residential school system and the devastating effects that it had upon their families. She remembers watching as elders approached to collect the dolls at the end of the simulation and the way the participants tightened their hold and were reluctant to let them go.
That was the moment she said they truly started to understand.
Dallaire’s role is to help program participants navigate their anxiety toward aboriginal education in a productive way that helps them to understand where this discomfort comes from, and ultimately, how to move past it. She describes the knowledge building experience as a not only a process of re-education, but one of healing for all participants involved.
For Dallaire, the program’s greatest strength is its ability to bring participants together through human experience.
“There are a lot of similarities in the human story,” she says. “I think that’s one of the things that the training exercise does is it brings you up to that human level and places these histories and cultures in something that everyone can relate to and respect.”
After concluding its first successful year, the Aboriginal Education Centre trained 2,500 teachers, administrators, principals and superintendents. The hope is that unlike previous attempts, this program will successfully accomplish lasting change surrounding teachers’ attitudes toward indigenous education.
“It’s a journey, and it would be misrepresentation to say we’ve arrived. If we say we’ve arrived, we wouldn’t strive to keep moving forward,” says Felschow. “We’re not there yet, but we have a strong desire and a passionate commitment to getting there.”
For Dallaire, the program seems to be a crucial step in a promising direction.
“This experience is one of the most powerful and most effective I have witnessed. I really think that there are ways that teachers can adapt this program to fit the emotional intelligence of little ones, intermediates and high school students,” she says.
She added, “You just have to find that human connection.”
*As a teacher with the Toronto District School Board, Lisa was only comfortable speaking honestly and frankly about the lack of preparation and support she was given to teach indigenous content if her identity could remain anonymous.
Brittany Spencer is a master's candidate at the Ryerson School of Journalism. She has covered issues surrounding prescription drug addiction and harm reduction drug strategies as well as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action regarding education and Canadian journalism.
This story originally appeared online as part of a Ryerson Journalism School project on Truth and Reconciliation, and is reprinted here with permission.
May we have a moment of your time?
Our public funding only covers some of the cost of producing high-quality, balanced content. We depend on the generosity of people who believe we all should have access to accurate, fair journalism. Caring people just like you!
Get Current Affairs & Documentaries email updates in your inbox every morning.