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Re-educating Canadians

Friday February 17, 2012
While times are changing, the majority of Canadian school children still have their first exposure to Native people through elementary school textbooks, like the images above, that show First Nations from centuries ago in a way very few Native people today can identify with.
Some schools, however, are taking the lead on bringing Aboriginal teachings, worldviews and lessons into the classroom. At Dennis Franklin Cromarty high school in Thunder Bay and the two other Northern Nishnawbe Education Council (NNEC) schools, students are taught traditional skills like the preparation of deer hides, left. Traditional languages and cultures are also emphasized. Norma Kejick, the executive director of NNEC, says from what she has seen other school boards across Ontario have a long way to go towards bringing an accurate depiction of First Nations people into schools.

Connie Walker, from the Okanese First Nation in Saskatchewan, was in high school before she encountered Aboriginal people in her school’s history classes. Yet even then the image of First Nations being taught to her and her classmates was a static picture from the 17th and 18th centuries, of Plains Cree people hunting buffalo and living in teepees. She could not recognize herself, her family or her community in those lessons.
Since then Walker has gone on to a successful journalism career at CBC, featured on programs like The National and Street Cents. But it’s her latest project, producing the documentary 8th Fire about the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Canada today, that has her thinking of re-educating Canada on the reality of being a First Nation person.
“I don’t remember anything about First Nations history until I was in Grade 10 native studies class,” Walker says. “Even then it was a very archaic view of what it meant to be First Nation.”
Walker notes that things are changing on the education front, as shifting demographics mean more First Nations children are entering schools across Canada. She also points to increased efforts by schools and education departments across the country to include First Nation history and worldviews into textbooks and lesson plans. Yet she was still struck during her research for 8th Fire by how little the general Canadian public knows about Native people.
“We’re just not taught,” she says. “And I think that has to be the first step.”

Working for the children

Norma Kejick of the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council (NNEC) knows just what Walker means. The education director says her organization has done its part in bringing Aboriginal culture, language and teachings into the three schools it is responsible for in northern Ontario. Yet the challenge remains in getting those kinds of teachings, plus additional resources, into all Ontario schools and at an earlier age, she says.
“The history of First Nations people should be taught in elementary schools,” Kejick says. “I think it is so important that mainstream society learns about native people early in life. That would eliminate a lot of the racism and ignorance that people have towards native people.”
In NNEC-run schools, students encounter a range of traditional teachings in the classroom. There are Ojibwe and Oji-Cree language courses, First Nation literacy lesson plans that encorporate native writers and artists, resident Elders in the schools and cultural workshops such as drumming, drum-making and other crafting lessons.
Kejick said NNEC knows how important it is for the students – many who have come from northern reserves to attend high school in larger urban environments – to keep up with the lessons and teachings they would have received from their parents and grandparents in their home community.
Yet when she attends workshops and meetings with other school boards across the province, Kejick realizes how little of the things NNEC includes in school are found in other Ontario schools.
“When I listen to what a lot of other school boards are doing, native issues are not even in the schools except for in Grade 11 or 12 native study courses,” she says.

Provincial education
ministries hear the message

While programs like the one operated by the NNEC work in specific regions with high First Nation populations, broader initiatives covering all Canadian schoolchildren fall under provincial jurisdiction. And like all province-run programming, some jurisdictions do better than others when it comes to incorporating Aboriginal issues, history and worldviews in school curriculum.
Many researchers over the past decade point to Saskatchewan as a leader in the field. The province was the first to actively look into misrepresentation of Aboriginal people in school curriculums in the early 1980s, and the first to set up a First Nations and Metis education advisory committee in 1984. Since then Saskatchewan has released of a number of reports and action plans, and cites “major achievements” in identifying the unique needs of Metis and First Nation children and in getting teachers to embrace lesson plans and other curriculum that include Aboriginal perspectives.
Manitoba also has taken strides towards implementing more Aboriginal history and cultural issues into schools. Last year the province became the first in Canada to test run a pilot lesson plan on Residential Schools. Four schools ran Residential School lesson plans as part of Grade 9 social studies and Grade 11 history during the fall 2011 term. An analysis of those programs is being done now, and if everything went well the province will expand the Residential School lessons into all schools to start the fall 2012 school year.
Ontario is slightly behind its two western neighbours, although work has started across the province. In 2011 Ontario established a Minster’s advisory council on First Nations, Metis and Inuit Education, to help the province implement its Aboriginal education policy framework from 2007. Ontario has also been working over the past two years to revamp its school curriculum, making social studies, history and geography and native studies classes more inclusive of Aboriginal perspectives.
Yet in all three provinces high school native studies courses remain electives, and school boards retain the ability to choose whether they want to provide the classes to students.
In Saskatchewan the provincial First Nation and Metis Education Provincial Advisory Committee, in a recent report, cited that lack of mandatory native study classes as a major problem.

The urban Aboriginal

In Canada’s biggest city, First Nations people are few and far between. Yet some native people do live there, coming either from nations that have lived in southern Ontario for time immemorial, or from Indian bands far to the north, drawn to Toronto by the promise of the big city life.
For both of those reasons – the scarcity of Aboriginal people in the city, and the few who do call Toronto home – Cindilee Ecker-Flagg’s work as manager of the Aboriginal Education Outreach Program (AEOP) has taken on increased importance.
The program works to bring current First Nations issues and Aboriginal history into elementary and high school classes, providing students – many with little to no knowledge of First Nations people – with real-life experiences of native people, culture and teachings.
In the past decade, Ecker-Flagg says the reception from students and teachers towards the program’s lessons has shifted dramatically. Ten years ago, she says, AEOP instructors were met with ignorance and indifference. Now students and staff have become receptive to the lessons her program teaches.
“The students and even the staff were often not prepared for the information we were sharing,” she says of the program’s work a decade ago. “They were not aware of it, so they had a lot more struggles dealing with stereotypes and perspectives of who we are.”
Ecker-Flagg attributes the positive change to the fact that more Aboriginal people are making their voices heard, and also the increase in appropriate media representation of First Nations people and issues.
She also credits the schools and school boards for bringing in programs like hers and working to provide modern textbooks and lesson plans that reflect more accurately the realities of First Nations people.
“A lot of the materials and textbooks that have been in the schools previously have not been very supportive,” Ecker-Flagg said. “You’re seeing a shift with the schools that they’re bringing in that more current textbooks, current Aboriginal scholars and people who are from Aboriginal Nations that can speak to these things directly.”
Connie Walker also now calls Toronto home. She says that people in the city often mistake her for Filippina or Spanish. But even with so few native people living in Toronto, all around her she sees the attitudes towards First Nations shifting in a positive way, however slowly – even in the CBC where a decade ago there were only a handful of Aboriginal employees, and now there are dozens.
“The end goal is being better neighbours,” Walker says. “That means respecting each other. And in order for us (as First Nations) to be celebrated for our communities and our culture and our people, we need to have a lot of education and awareness about the different kinds of peoples and communities.”

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