Dr. Pamela Toulouse looks “Beyond Shadows”

By Philippa Wolfe
October 25, 2013
Untitled Document

At the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF)’s President’s Forum on First Nation, Métis and Inuit education held in July 2013, we were reminded that the shadow of colonial effects, in the form of conscious and unconscious systemic racism, still hangs heavy over our efforts toward making a difference in the lives of Indigenous students. The shadow limits Indigenous peoples’ access to essential resources, threatening their quality of life, and pushes them into the marginalized, distorted image of a troublesome warrior. Moving forward from this colonial shadow starts in all classrooms, and should include cultural experience with Indigenous leaders, critical thinking activities, and collaboratively developed pedagogy that reflects Indigenous culture and encourages Indigenous self-esteem.

Social action will be critical in making these changes. Stakeholders—administrators, teachers, and policy makers—must take on the understanding and commitment necessary to enable students and Indigenous communities to take the lead. Student power was highlighted recently by the Project of Heart, where non-Indigenous students formed authentic relationships of mutual understanding with Indigenous communities in Canada. In Australia, community-driven education strategies for Aborigine and Maori students (PDF) have also been fruitful. Developing these strategies, and bringing Australian ideas into a Canadian context, points to strong leadership, high expectations, respect, professionalism, and collaboration to advance Indigenous students’ success.

Paramount to understanding is a respect for Indigenous contributions to society, an acknowledgement that was largely squashed in the complex history of settlement. We can build awareness through engaging with local Indigenous groups, exploring local resources, and identifying culturally appropriate resources. Through honesty and openness, and a commitment to change, non-Indigenous peoples can become authentic allies. This will help build a foundation of trust and inclusiveness in schools, allowing for Indigenous culture to be respectfully represented.

Such trust must exist to understand the needs of Indigenous groups and build relationships, fostering more successful education and cultural safety. Students need welcoming environments, and curricula and resources inclusive of Indigenous culture, language, and history. They require meaningful student-teacher relationships and openness between the school and the Indigenous community. We can develop these elements by encouraging positive teacher attitudes (through resources and professional development opportunities), roles of responsibility in the home, and proper access to tools for academic success, mutually benefiting both the school and home.

Parent and community engagement in this process demands patience and understanding. The parent’s voice is critical to a community’s capacity for student success, and can be fostered through an involvement plan understood by both parents and teachers, like that undertaken by the Alberta School Boards Association (PDF).

Teachers can engage their students’ additional support systems by participating in local activities, customs, networks, and languages. This commitment is helpful in understanding risk factors, and linking with organizations that can help teachers meet these challenges and provide a nurturing environment for their students.

Teachers’ dedication is central to Indigenous student success. Teachers must question their own beliefs and pre-conceived notions, and partake in specific training in Indigenous education. Administrations and boards must be both supportive and a part of these efforts, and explicitly say so in policies. Non-indigenous teachers can learn from Indigenous teachers, making allies to combat racism and thinking ‘outside the box’ to integrate Indigenous culture into otherwise assimilative systems and curricula.

The CTF has a demonstrated commitment to change in education. Canadian teachers must therefore claim their right to embrace the true history and culture of Indigenous peoples in their curricula. Understanding the background of Indigenous peoples is a vital part of Canadian education, especially in such a transformative time for Indigenous people. Resources to help teachers implement these changes include:

We must share truth with pride and positivity. Indigenous knowledge in the curriculum is concretely tied to Indigenous student retention. The value of respect built into Indigenous communities is one we can extend into inclusiveness of Indigenous communities in our schools. Through this respect, we can create truly equitable education environments built upon collaboration, understanding, anti-racism and advocacy. We cannot afford for Indigenous students to continue to be marginalized. As Canadians concerned with social justice and leaving behind an earth of which we can be proud, we must commit to providing Indigenous students, as well as non-Indigenous students, with the tools they need to achieve their dreams and take pride in who they are.

Download full report: Beyond Shadows. First Nations, Métis and Inuit Student Success (PDF).

Philippa Wolfe worked in communications at the Canadian Teachers’ Federation as a summer student. She’s a fourth year student at the School of Journalism, University of King’s College in Nova Scotia.

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