Earlier this past year, while attending the annual Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) Chiefs Assembly, as a guest of my good friends Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler and Deputy Grand Chief Derek Fox, I sat and listened to one of the Chiefs share the current state of affairs for many of his community’s young people. The community is along the west coast of James Bay, well-documented in the national spotlight for many challenges, ranging from clean water, housing, education, relocation, and not surprisingly children’s mental health and addiction services (all common realities for many remote First Nation communities). I found myself quite caught up in the way with which the Chief spoke, both in eloquence and content. However, what really struck me was his reference to what he and his community had determined they needed to do for a group of young boys who were quite simply, struggling. He had asked for them to be taken out onto the tidal flats, “the land” if you will, with a couple of older hunters and to experience goose hunting during the annual spring migration. To many living in the more urban confines of our larger cities and communities the idea of going 100 kilometres out on the land and removing oneself for a week of hunting for snow and Canada geese would be “for someone else to enjoy.” This especially during an unpredictable time of the year for weather, and without almost certainly any amenities that many take for granted.
I remember as a young boy myself, living on the southern part of James Bay, and watching the clouds of geese fly over coming down from the Arctic, and being mesmerized by the sounds and the sights. I don’t recall what day of the week it was, or week of the year, and can certainly not remember with clarity what I learned in class on any particular day...but I do recall the feeling and freshness of spring, standing on the shoreline of the Moose River, feeding into James Bay.
I also recall the feeling of exhilaration, fresh cool air, blue skies and being outside.
On this particular day however, the Chief was sharing the experience and immediate impact of the goose hunting trip. He shared with the assembly of all NAN Chiefs that even though the needs of the group of young boys were more complex and challenging than any singular trip to the coast on its own could resolve, he also was quick to add that some of the boys were smiling, energized, and willing to learn from those who had learned before them. They did this without technology, cellphones, social media, or the intrusion of highly addictive influences; they probably felt alive as generations of other youth before them had, participating in this annual spring ritual and being with their families.
Photo Credit: Sean Monteith
As the Director of Education for a geographically large district school board in Northwestern Ontario for the past six years, in an area of the country where there is more water than land, and where even to this day there continue to be more dirt roads than paved highways, I often felt that public education was benefitted by what nature provided. That is to suggest, that while classroom instruction commonly occurred in pedagogically traditional settings, teaching and learning outside of the classroom and on the land presented limitless opportunities for everyone. Moreover, I have always been struck by the impact being out on the land or water could have on young people. How that revitalization and feeling of exhilaration that I used to feel myself could replay itself time and time again, and at low cost but high value. How simply being removed from daily realities and the affects of intergenerational trauma, addiction, and afflictions of so many complicated environments could temporarily be interrupted by being out on the land? It also reinforced to me that faced with the enduring legacy of Residential Schools, identity and self-esteem, many Indigenous students could and would benefit more than average by simply being “outside.” It didn’t seem that novel of a notion that engaging as many kids as possible, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, could bring a levelled sense of equity through land-based teachings and experiences. No equity barriers, no high cost registrations or equipment, and little to no prerequisite requirements, other than a willingness to give a sense of value to non-traditional learning environments.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Recommendations, and “Calls to Action” specific to education, include a number of explicit identifiers that zero-in on funding discrepancies between provincial and federal systems. The TRC Recommendations identify that giving control of education priorities to First Nation leaders and communities can provide a necessary reconnect for Indigenous youth with their culture, their history as a people, and for many a sense of value. Within the broader context of public education, the recommendations also included an even more necessary move to an accurate recounting of contact (not just history as it has been portrayed in the colonial sense but history of the more immediate impact), Treaties, and the legacy of forced removal of generations of young people into government-sanctioned and church-operated schools across Canada. In other words, not just what Residential Schools were, where they were, and why they existed; but also what were the intended consequences and ultimately unintended consequences on the First Community of this country? There were after all, approximately 150,000 Indigenous students that attended the colonial school system, and for over a century-and-a-half, across Canada. We still don’t even know to this day the names of thousands of First Nations children who died at Residential School and never returned home to their families; the impact devastating to the children themselves, but also to entire family and community structures.
For everyone in public education and across the country, we need to assess why that impact continues to be manifested every day in our schools. It is not by coincidence that Indigenous students continue to lag behind other student groups, in terms of academic performance, achievement, and of course graduation from high school. They also are overrepresented frequently in incidence rates of discipline in our schools, referrals for behaviour interventions, statistically higher in terms of rates of addiction, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, poverty, involvement with Child and Family Services and the youth justice and correctional sectors. The list goes on.
As one public Director of Education, among Director colleagues across Ontario, I think it is safe to say that there have been times over the years when I have questioned in amazement, how some Indigenous students are able to succeed in our system at all. And yet more and more do each semester and with each graduation, bringing a remarkable demonstration of resiliency that gives cause to even the most experienced educator to pause in admiration at how well some students are actually doing.
Indigenous Education, both in the federal system of First Nation operated schools and in the public education system it could be argued, is approaching a critical point in Canada’s history. Some will contend that we have reached a tipping point already; there is no going back to the traditional curricular approach to a Eurocentric style of teaching and learning. Utilizing elders for cultural teachings, that not only inform both Indigenous but also non-Indigenous children, should cause us to rethink both what kids learn and also how they learn it. By engaging in land-based teachings, which more and more elementary and secondary schools are providing, it could be argued that school boards are not only creating unique learning opportunities, they are bringing a sense of pride to Indigenous youth. This happens among their peers so that they and others can see and feel value in their own lives.
For the generations of young people who endured a Residential School system that did everything but put their needs ahead of formalized detached structures designed to dehumanize, it’s amazing many First Nation families still look to education as the great leveler of the field. From a system that determined what the children wore, how they looked, where they lived, what they ate, and how they talked and prayed, surely in 2019 we can be willing to reconsider how we provide supports and environments now for young Indigenous children. That can’t be too much to ask. Indigenous education can be adapted and moderately nuanced with a child-centered principle, so that what we do and how we do it orbits around the communities and experiences of Indigenous youth, ultimately bringing a feeling of self-valuation. I would argue that giving First Nations children a sense of value, of opportunity and a demonstrable equity of hope would go a long way to curbing destructive cycles of self-harm and despair. Giving choice to Indigenous parents about where their children attend school, such as what Ontario has done with its recent regulatory change under the Education Act establishing guidelines around Reciprocal Education Agreements (REAs), is a genuine effort at redefining education in that province. It might allow greater opportunities for district school boards to partner with First Nation schools, and provide unique experiences for all students fortunate enough to benefit from cultural and land-based teachings.
Whatever the future holds for Indigenous education in Canada and in First Nations, one thing should be clear; change has arrived for how we teach, what we teach, where we teach and who is involved in the determination of all this. As Grand Chief Fiddler commented to me earlier this year, “Residential Schools were intended to remove our children from their communities, from their homes, from their culture; and they were intended to destroy First Nations people. They did succeed in removing our children, but they did not succeed in destroying our culture; the least we can do is learn this history and accept a shared future together.”
Looking at Indigenous education differently, providing accurate and visceral accounts of our shared history for all students and staff, utilizing traditional land-based opportunities, and with an eye towards ensuring that there ultimately is no graduation gap will be the best tools of reconciliation we in public education can use.