What gets us worked up in education, and what doesn’t: The TRC and our schools

Today is the UN’s International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, which seems like as good an opportunity as any to write about what kids in schools learn about Indigenous issues here in Canada.

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An incident in the last week of school this year underscored this issue for me. As a local education blogger, I’d been asked by a daytime radio show to comment on kids’ math and reading scores in our province. The interview came about because a council of local CEOs and other business-types had recently gone to the media with concern that some high school graduates’ math and reading skills seemed to have declined over the past few years.

I brought up a number of reasons why I thought this might be, based on my experience in the system: high class sizes and complex class composition in upper grades, a spike in student anxiety and other mental health issues, and the pervasive effect of poverty on learning, for example.

The interview made me think, though, about which educational issues tend to get more “serious” media attention, and which ones don’t.

A case in point: this story about math and reading made the news because a bunch of business mucky-mucks decided it was urgent. This despite the fact that they presented no data to make their point; just their own internal observations that literacy and numeracy skills are a problem. Stephen Emmerson, CEO of a plastic packaging company, spoke on the radio about how grads seem to have trouble estimating and multiplying in their heads, and said that scores on his company’s standardized test have gone down of late. (For the record, I’m not necessarily disputing their conclusions, narrowly framed though they are.) The next day, the minister of education publicly replied to their concerns.

Now, compare the preceding situation with this one. Just a few weeks earlier, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released the summary report of its findings on the 130 years of Indian Residential Schooling in Canada. That report lays out in painful detail the damage done to Aboriginal people and society by the schools, and by Canada’s colonial, genocidal policies generally.

In the report there are 94 recommendations for action in order to set right Canada’s relationship to Aboriginal people and their nations. (That’s the “reconciliation” part.) Of these, several relate directly to our education system, for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. For example, recommendation 8 reads:

We call upon the federal government to eliminate the discrepancy in federal education funding for First Nations children being educated on reserves and those First Nations children being educated off reserves.

and number 10 says:

We call on the federal government to draft new Aboriginal education legislation with the full participation and informed consent of Aboriginal peoples.

The recommendation also stipulates several important educational principles to be included in such legislation, such as culturally appropriate curricula, parental and community control, and the teaching of Aboriginal languages (all of which have been demanded by Aboriginal peoples since at least 1972).

Recommendations 62 through 65 deal with educating non-Indigenous peoples on the legacy of colonialism and residential schools. 62 and 63 relate specifically to public schools:

62. We call upon the federal, provincial, and territorial governments, in consultation and collaboration with Survivors, Aboriginal peoples, and educators, to:

i. Make age-appropriate curriculum on residential schools, Treaties, and Aboriginal peoples’ historical and contemporary contributions to Canada a mandatory education requirement for Kindergarten to Grade Twelve students.

ii. Provide the necessary funding to post-secondary institutions to educate teachers on how to integrate Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods into classrooms.

iii. Provide the necessary funding to Aboriginal schools to utilize Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods in classrooms.

iv. Establish senior-level positions in government at the assistant deputy minister level or higher dedicated to Aboriginal content in education.

63. We call upon the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada to maintain an annual commitment to Aboriginal education issues, including:

i. Developing and implementing Kindergarten to Grade Twelve curriculum and learning resources on Aboriginal peoples in Canadian history, and the history and legacy of residential schools.

ii. Sharing information and best practices on teaching curriculum related to residential schools and Aboriginal history.

iii. Building student capacity for intercultural understanding, empathy, and mutual respect.

iv. Identifying teacher-training needs relating to the above.

These recommendations are concrete, specific and feasible. They address Canada’s most enduring, most shameful social-justice issue.

So where are the calls from Important People to revamp Nova Scotia’s education system by implementing the recommendations of the TRC? Where are the op-eds, the radio features, the official government pronouncements?

It’s true that the state of education on Aboriginal issues in Nova Scotia has progressed in recent years. Many students across the province of all backgrounds take a Mi’kmaq Studies course in grade 10. It could be argued that we’re doing better than some other provinces.

But we still have a way to go in making sure teachers are adequately prepared to teach about Indigenous issues, and that the Mi’kmaq Studies course gets the respect it deserves. Ph.D. candidate and former teacher Pamela Rogers illustrates in this paper how perceptions of the course as less academically rigorous can prevent it from reaching its objectives.

Teaching about the true nature of colonialism – its basis in theft, deceit, violence and dehumanization of Indigenous peoples; and its enduring legacy of inequality and racism – can be uncomfortable for some students and teachers. In the wake of the TRC, however, there’s no excuse for it not to be a priority in our schools.

It seems at least as important as being able to measure materials for a plastics factory.

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