Reconciling the School System

Written by: Sofia Watt Sjöström, Lives for Literacy Intern

As I’ve mentioned before, the residential schools took the concept of education and used it for devastating ends. Today, many Indigenous people have reclaimed education, using it as a tool for both community and individual empowerment. But there are also ways in which the broader education system can and should change. I think most people who went to High School in Canada will get this. I mean, ask yourselves: to what extent did you learn about Indigenous peoples in history class? How did you learn about them? What do you know about the Indian Act, beyond the fact that it exists? Have you heard of the Sixties Scoop? Did you learn anything about the array of social and economic inequalities faced by Indigenous peoples today? 

Maybe you’ll find that your answers to these questions are satisfactory. All I know is that mine weren’t – at least not until I began to explore these issues outside of the classroom. I love my High School history teachers, and I think they presented Indigenous peoples in a positive light. But there was so much we didn’t really cover. It wasn’t in the textbook; it wasn’t on the exam; we didn’t have time to learn anything additional. 

I still think that my teachers made a greater-than-average effort to teach us these things. They were just bound to their curricula. So, in order for things to get better, we need change to come from individual Profs and students, yes, but also systemically, across the board. We need a textbook revolution. We need this to span all disciplines, not just history (Battiste 93). After all, Indigeniety is not some sort of artifact, so we mustn’t relegate it to the past. Indigenous communities are alive, complex, and changing, today. Each one has its own “complete knowledge system,” which includes everything from art and folklore to philosophy and science (Battiste 87). It is time that we began to take this knowledge seriously. It is time that we gave it the time that it’s worth, respectfully, without gawking. 

Photo by olia danilevich on Pexels.com

So, how do we do it? How do we reconcile Education with Reconciliation? First, we must challenge our own Eurocentric, colonial, racist, etc. biases, at every step along the way. Today’s education system is not, in fact, value neutral. Historically, it was designed to allow for the domination of a particular discourse, whether explicitly, or subtly through what is emphasized and omitted. Schooling allowed for European languages and traditions to dominate at the expense of Indigenous ones – and continues to do so today (Lunny 4). Even now, Indigenous perspectives are foreign, extracurricular, add-on, or untested material (Battiste 83) … Just as women’s voices have so long been kept out of the ranks of “great” literature, so, too, Indigenous voices are marginalized. In both cases, of course, it is beginning to change – but the change is far from systemic. Individual success stories are on the rise, but we have yet to see widespread “economic prosperity and social justice” (Battiste 83-84). 

As an individual, you can start by questioning the curriculum – or teaching it with a grain of salt. Yes, it’s easier to teach by the book. However, [t]heory is not innocent” (Lunny 4). Just giving your students the chance to think about that – how their textbook is not a neutral collection of facts – is a start. Although the term “critical thinking” gets thrown around a lot these days, I’d argue that it is one of the most integral parts of a good education. I mean, surely, we can agree what education shouldn’t be: rote memorization, propaganda, and assimilation. So, what should it be? The opposite: individual empowerment. 

What does empowerment look like? Well, there’s not a single answer to that question. But I think that a good starting point is getting students to think for themselves. 

So, challenging Eurocentrism could be good not only for the sake of Reconciliation, but for learning in general. Yet to really reconcile Education with Reconciliation, we need to do more than question what is taught. We also need to actively teach Indigeneity – in a respectful and comprehensive way. We need to “Indigenize”. 

As I mentioned earlier, this means bringing Indigenous knowledge into all disciplines. It also means seeking out Indigenous voices. The Mi’kmaw scholar Marie Battiste once said “Nothing about us, without us” (Lee). I’ll acknowledge that there is something ironic about me relaying this, writing as a non-Indigenous person, but it must be said. In my experience, connecting with Indigenous people was a gamechanger. Suddenly, Indigeneity became personal and real; I couldn’t distance myself from it anymore. That is why I’d recommend a personal experience like Circles for Reconciliation, or bringing guest speakers into your class. However, it’s also possible to get a lot out of media. Books, movies, articles… There’s so much out there to explore. And, if I might add, don’t be afraid to bring in voices from a variety of sources, even (or especially!) if they disagree. 

Photo by: Alex Wong

Of course, we also need more Indigenous faculty (Battiste 92). This is not about sanctioning token individuals for the sake of ‘diversity,’ but incorporating Indigenous voices in a meaningful, permanent way. This will require hard work, not just at the hiring stage, but even more so, through “effective support, mentoring and valuing” later (Battiste 92). Affirmative Action is a bit more complicated than we like to admit. In this case, I believe it is important to affirm that there is space for Indigeneity in academia – an environment that has historically alienated, if not downright, antagonized, Indigenous points of view (Battiste 92). The controversial part – seeking specifically Indigenous hires – may be necessary, but is useless without effective systems of support.  

In the classroom, certain discussions may take a turn. As a teacher, I think you have an obligation to call out racist or otherwise problematic behaviour. These behaviours are not part of healthy debate, for they can be actively discouraging to students who feel targeted or unheard. However, I must admit that it is tricky to effectively call students out. After all, you don’t want the student in question to feel censored. That is why people encourage setting “ground rules for your class discussions,” to prevent these situations from occurring at all (Lunny 8). Creating a safe space for students to talk freely, but respectfully, must be one of the most ambiguous yet essential parts of a teacher’s job. However, though Indigenous students should feel welcome to share, there should be no pressure, either (Lunny 9). It would be inappropriate to expect them to be “Native informants” for the rest of the class (Lunny 9). 

In sum, there are many changes to be made if we want to make Education compatible with Reconciliation. First, we need to question the doctrines which we have unwittingly been taught; then, we need to actively listen to Indigenous points of view. There’s more to it than that, but one thing is clear: it is vital to keep an open mind. In my next article, I’ll discuss how Reconciliation can be applied more specifically within professions. I’d argue that lawyers, doctors and politicians have a particular duty to know their stuff.

Acknowledgements:

I also want to thank Professor A. Khatchadourian from Marianopolis College for her insights, recommended readings, and help!

Works Cited

Battiste, Marie, et al. “Decolonizing Education in Canadian Universities: An Interdisciplinary, International, Indigenous Research Project”. Canadian Journal of Native Education, 26 (2), pp. 82-95. 

Lee, Deborah, et al. “Data Conversations – Indigenous Data and its Discontents”. University of Saskatchewan: Blogs, 20 October 2020, https://words.usask.ca/ceblipblog/2020/10/20/dataconversationsindigenousdata/.

Lunny, D., Maisonville, D., Marquez, J., Racevičiūtė, R., Steenbergen, C.,
Viqar, S., & Young, R. (2017). Decolonizing pedagogy: Guiding principles
for CEGEP teachers
. John Abbott College, August 2017.

About the Author:

Sofia is an incoming McGill Law student, passionate about writing and justice. She feels that it would be relevant to state that she herself is non-Indigenous. Although she has done research and interviews to inform this series of articles, she wants to acknowledge the limitations of her point of view. However, she believes that Reconciliation is an issue that concerns all of us, non-Indigenous and Indigenous both.

Published by livesforliteracy

A non-profit organization dedicated to eliminated illiteracy, and raising awareness of the beauty of education. Primarily based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Lives for Literacy members come from all regions of the world! We are leaders who have a strong dedication and commitment to changing the world!

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