An Ampitheatre for Cross-Cultural Literacy: The State of Canadian Education (Dialogue Summary and Analysis)
Much of the knowledge we carry with us into adulthood is formed through education. Although residential schools no longer exist in Canada, their “negative impacts on self-concept, parenting, social cohesion, and the intergenerational transmission of language and culture remain” (Ball 455). Therefore, the impact and importance of education must not be underestimated. If First Nations voices continue to remain absent from Canadian literature then perhaps it is time to create an amphitheater for them to be heard within the Canadian education system. In the video, “What I Learned in Class Today,” First Nations students attest to a prevailing atmosphere of ignorance, misunderstanding and stereotyping in the classroom. An intervention is required in the Canadian education system so that First Nations voices can be heard. First Nations culture is foundational to Canada and therefore it is critical that First Nations students and teachers alike can feel safe and unarguably represented in the classroom. We asked:
- How can the Canadian education system be improved to address the higher student drop out rates among, and the comparatively lower educational attainment of First Nations students?
- How can understanding of First Nations culture be better fostered in Canadian youth to ensure a better-informed Canadian adult populace?
- What is the picture of First Nations culture that current Canadian curricula portray?
- How can the damage of residential schools be addressed to make contemporary schools more welcoming to First Nations students and their parents?
- How can we ensure that First Nations voices are being heard in the Canadian education system?
Our group researched how an intervention in the Canadian education system can address the absence of First Nations voices from Canadian literature. Initially we focused on the education of elementary school aged students. However, through the examination of a wide range of perspectives on the current state of the Canadian education system we became aware that change needs to happen on every level of education in Canada to create a culture of understanding. Our research and discussion with our partner group, Terra Communico, led us to determine that First Nations perspectives should be incorporated holistically in all levels of education to ensure a cross-cultural literacy where First Nations stories are heard. Terra Communico is seeking to introduce an amphitheater in that it serves as:
“a stage for not only the written and spoken word, but for music, and art, and movement…This is a place of translations where we can make media and messages accessible and understandable for all Canadians. We will use social media, visual, audio, novel and traditional approaches to translate meaning into common ground where all Canadians can learn, meet, and understand one another.”
This is precisely the kind of education atmosphere we would like to see in Canada. With help from Terra Communico we discovered that the concept of an amphitheater as a place of sharing and common ground is a perfect metaphor for the change necessary in Canadian schools.
Although we studied a wide variety of sources we found that one of the recurring issues facing the Canadian education system is addressing the trauma caused by the residential school system. Any form of intervention in Canadian literature must therefore be sensitive to the history of colonialism and its effects in Canada. We also discovered that current curricula tend to generalize, limit, and stereotype First Nations experience.
Inspired by our partner group, Terra Communico, we began sharing our own experiences within the Canadian education system. On her blog, Crista Koo reflects on her experience within the Canadian education system and concludes that “I learned a hell a lot about Europe and hardly anything about Canada…and why is it that it took me so long to learn about Canada when I live in Canada?” Crista’s assessment of the education system resonated with all of us. We realized that despite our varied backgrounds, we share the common experience of a limited education of First Nations history, traditions, and culture. Rather than educating us on the history of the land we live on, the history lessons we received were biased colonial perspectives. We discovered the following about the current educational climate in Canada:
- The education system is failing to address aboriginal people as a foundational part of Canadian culture
- Courses with First Nations content are frequently optional and they are often oversimplified or taught from a colonialism-biased perspective
- Teachers often lack the resources to teach issues like the residential school system
- Canadian citizens are grossly ignorant about First Nations Canadians and their current situation
In early 2014, the federal government announced a new aboriginal education plan that claims to recognize “aboriginal control over schooling.” The proposed legislation “promises to give First Nations control of their education system and enables the incorporation of language and culture programming in the curriculum” (CBC News). Yet as Vivian pointed out in our dialogue, “It is always important to stay critical to what the government says they will do, and what is the actual reality of such proposed attempts to ‘back pedal’ previous regressive policies.” Accordingly, the proposed legislation has encountered opposition from protestors who argue that they have not been consulted in any future plans and that the preemptive announcement “shows the level of consultation that First Nations across Canada get” (CBC News).
The BC Teachers’ Federation is also continuing to strive for positive change within the education system:
…changes are being made to improve the success rate for Aboriginal students. We continue the dialogue with locals and Aboriginal communities. The voice of the Aboriginal people is heard and will continue to be heard. The Aboriginal Education Program works with teachers to improve the success rate of Aboriginal students, and supports Aboriginal teachers in their professional development. The BCTF will continue to find ways to improve conditions that will assist teachers and schools by providing high quality professional development programs (3).
While steps to improve the representation of First Nations people in the Canadian education system are therefore being taken by dialogue such as that between the federal government and the Assembly of First Nations, and that between the BC Teachers’ Federation and their teachers, it is not enough. We were inspired and encouraged by educational approaches that are being incorporated in pockets across the nation. Jamie pointed out that there are schools such as Elijah Harper Smith Elementary School that “creat[e] a (physical) space…that respects the trauma of residential school survivors (which includes the children and grandchildren of residential school attendees).” Elijah Harper Smith Elementary School was designed “to eliminate some of the characteristics of residential schools – there’s lots of light, it’s all carpeted…there are no real corners in the building…[and] the ‘open concept’ applies to family of students (who are welcome to come and go in the classroom)” (Jamie). As outlined by Hyslop, School District 57 in British Columbia has implemented initiatives to improve aboriginal education:
Aboriginal Learning Team Grants, offered to classes or schools that want to work on a project or aspect of the curriculum that ties into aboriginal culture or teaching methods, like learning about medicine plants with an elder.
“We’re looking at ways to be able to integrate aboriginal pedagogy and perspective into the classroom. So when a teacher is looking at their curriculum, how can they look at it with a lens of aboriginal perspectives as well?” asks Shelly Niemi, the district’s aboriginal education department manager…
…Another initiative has been to assign different aboriginal learning focuses to all five of their school “families”: a high school and all of its feeder schools.
The focuses include culture and language, elders and indigenous knowledge, rediscovery of traditional environmental knowledge, restitution and restorative practice, and youth leadership.
There are also schools in BC like Chief Atahm school, “one of the handful of specialty schools for First Nations students in the province and…the oldest language and immersion program in B.C.” (Baluja). Schools like Chief Atahm are considered “aboriginal focus[ed] school[s and offer] a curriculum infused with cultural references” (Baluja).
To conclude, there are many strategies for taking action or “intervening” in the future of Canadian literature. In order for Canadian literature to have an inclusive, relevant voice, all Canadian voices must be heard. The sharing of individual stories begins with education. To intervene on behalf of the future of Canadian literature First Nations perspectives must be incorporated at all levels of education to ensure a more informed Canadian populace. In the Middle Ages, “institutions of higher learning divided knowledge not into the sciences and the arts…but into house law and star law…and for each they composed stories and songs, which in due course became the great books and the great truths of that culture” (Chamberlin 238). We propose that the Canadian eduction system should be restructured so that First Nations perspectives on subjects like science, language, history, music, and other categories particular to First Nations cultures, are taught alongside Euro-Canadian perspectives. As Duncan said, rather than aboriginal classes being offered as optional, First Nations history, as part of the “mosaic of different cultures and traditions [that Canadian society truly is, should be] integrat[ed]…wholly into all education systems [to ensure that] the emphasis on colonial conquest and combat can be balanced out.” What better way to foster understanding than to take away the “option” of hearing First Nations perspectives?
First Nations cultures should not be confined to a few units of social studies but they should be incorporated into as many subjects as possible. As Jenny recommended, we suggest that the Canadian education system should “work in conjunction with Aboriginal communit[ies] to come up with ways to help improve the system…[by] working together the local school boards can learn from the Aboriginal community on how to incorporate their history into the current curriculum” in a way that First Nations communities approve of. Our investigation of education on and of First Nations peoples across Canada illuminated inspiring success stories and suggested techniques that might be successfully applied to all of Canada’s educational institutions. Moving forward, some steps that can be taken to incorporate First Nations perspectives in Canadian educational institutions, and some potential issues to address through further research are:
- School architecture that acknowledges and seeks to avoid the trauma of residential schools
- School policies and syllabus structures that take First Nations teaching practices into account such as a more communal approach that involves families in education and that explore more hands on teaching practices
- An increase of First Nations teaching resources for teachers: this might include more teacher courses and workshops on First Nations perspectives, books such as Fatty Legs, and even consultation and welcoming of elders into schools to aid with education
- As Duncan pointed out in our dialogue, “better education material [is required] on local, provincial, and national history of all groups…[to establish] common ground locally, regionally, and nationally. I mention the import of local history because First Nations are an incredibly heterogeneous groups – and sweeping statement[s] about the beliefs and culture of one group may educat[e] the Canadian people…but at the expense of the diversity among First Nations.”
- First Nations learning, traditions, and culture should be integrated into as many aspects of the Canadian education as possible to ensure that Canadians understand First Nations cultures as foundational to the national identity
Students are presently only hearing half of the story. The longer First Nations voices and perspectives are left out of the curriculum the more likely we are to lose invaluable stories. By losing the history of Canadian experience we are inflicting damage to the future of Canadian Literature. Our goal echoes that of our partner group, in that through an intervention in Canadian education, we “hope that a representative literary canon can be formed for Canada. One that is informative, holistic, and paves common ground” (Duncan, Dialogues). Once First Nations perspectives, traditions, and cultures are incorporated into the education system, the assumption that “aboriginal people aren’t here” will be eradicated and the “Us and Them” mentality quashed. It is time to put an end to the homogenization of perspectives on Canadian history, and it is time to put an end to the colonization of First Nations stories. It is not appropriate to depict pieces of First Nations culture under the guise of being inclusive, only to disseminate more of the same Euro-Canadian perspective. Canadian education must reflect First Nations voices and allow First Nations stories to be told. The education system should be an amphitheater for the mosaic of experience that makes Canada a country worthy of being called home.
“Aboriginal Education: Is There a Way Ahead?” Indian Residential School Resources. 2014. Web. 12 Apr. 2014.
“Annotated Bibliography.” Gillian, Jenny, Lauren and Sam. ENGL 470. 2014. Web. 17 Apr. 2014.
Assembly of First Nations. A Portrait of First Nations and Education. 3 Oct. 2012. PDF File. Web. 4 Apr. 2014.
Ball, Jessica. “As if Indigenous Knowledge and Communities Mattered: Transformative Education in First Nations Communities in Canada.” American Indian Quarterly 28.3/4 (2004): 454-479. JSTOR. Web. 4 Apr. 2014.
Baluja, Tamara. “First Nations School in B.C. Passes Traditional Ways on to Next Generation.” The Star.com, 23 Nov. 2012. Web. 3 Apr. 2014.
BC Teachers’ Federation. Aboriginal Education Program. BCTF, 2013-14. PDF File. Web. 1 Apr. 2014.
Canada. CMEC Summit. Strengthening Aboriginal Success. By Kelly Lamrock. Www.cmec.ca, 29 Feb. 2009. Web. 19 Apr. 2014.
CBC News. “First Nations to get more control over education, Ottawa says.” CBC News Canada. 7 Feb. 2014. Web. 1 April 2014.
Chamberlain, J. Edward. If This is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories? Finding Common Ground. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2004. Print.
Chief Atahm School. 2013. Web. 19 Apr. 2014.
Crey, Karrmen and Amy Perrault. “What I Learned in Class Today: Aboriginal Issues in the Classroom.” The First Nations Studies Program, UBC. Web. 4 Apr. 2014.
David, Daniel. “Thomas King, Still Not the Indian You Had in Mind.” The Globe and Mail. 19 July 2012. Web. 19 Apr. 2014.
Hammer, Katie. “More Families are Deciding School’s Out – Forever.” The Globe and Mail. 10 Sept. 2010. Web. 17 Apr. 2014.
Hyslop, Katie. “Raising the Grade on What BC Kids Learn About Aboriginal People.” The Tyee. 10 Sept. 2012. Web. 4 Apr. 2014.
Kirkness, Verna J. “Aboriginal Education in Canada: A Retrospective and a Prospective.” Journal of American Indian Education 39.1 Special Issue Part 2 (Fall 1999): 14-30. PDF File. Web. 4 Apr. 2014.
Koo, Crista. “3.1: Multicultural in White.” Oh Canada: ENGL 470 Course Blog. 7 Mar. 2014. Web. 18 Apr. 2014.
Oke, Chris. “Welcoming School Features Innovative Courses.” Yukon News. 22 Dec. 2007. Web. 18 Apr. 2014.
Smith, Robyn. “‘Fatty Legs’: A Residential School Story Kids Love.” The Tyee., 30 Jul. 2012. Web. 5 Apr. 2014.
Smith, Teresa. “Canadians think Government is too Generous with Aboriginals, Poll Says.” Postmedia News. 30 Jun. 2012. Web. 4 Apr. 2014.
“Student Blogs.” ENGL 470A Canadian Studies Canadian Literary Genres. UBC Blogs, n.d. Web. 19 Apr. 2014.
Terra Communico. ENGL 470, 2014. Web. 15 Apr. 2014.
“The Five Foci.” Aboriginal Education Department, School District No. 57. Feb. 2014. Web. 4 Apr. 2014.