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Rights + Justice

A Reconciliation Warning from an Abbotsford Classroom

A Grade 6 assignment on ‘positive’ residential school stories was no outlier for BC’s schools.

By Nick XEMTOLTW Claxton and Jason M. Price 27 Nov 2020 |

Nick XEMŦOLTW̱ Claxton is an assistant professor in the University of Victoria school of child and youth care and elected Chief of Tsawout First Nation. Jason M. Price is an associate professor in UVic’s Faculty of Education. Both are former school trustees.

News of an Abbotsford, B.C. Grade 6 teacher’s assignment asking students to “write at least 5+ positive stories/facts from the residential schools from three different websites” spread virally this week.

We both witnessed our family members who are residential school survivors react to the accounts. It triggered them.

To honour their pain, we want this incident to serve as reminder of the rewarding but long and perilous journey we have left to travel together to be truly reconciled as people and nations.

In short, this incident is a telling example of the cultural, political and pedagogical faultlines that continue to persist in K to 12 schooling and teacher education in Canada.

Sadly, we were neither shocked nor surprised by this incident, or the many others like it that we know of. We have long experienced the same attitudes and values, the same instinctive need felt by many, mostly dominant culture teachers to “balance” and “tell both sides” of the residential school story. We’ve seen it in teacher education classrooms, school board meetings, school classrooms, professional development for teachers and conversations with academic colleagues.

As parents of Indigenous children who, until recently, attended B.C. public school, we have been personally impacted by racism in the schools. While we would like to think that the Abbotsford “assignment “only slipped through the cracks,” in our experience there are significant gaps between rhetoric and reality in implementing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action in the school system.

Schools do not exist in a social, cultural or political vacuum. We need to remember they mirror our society. This incident came as a provincial inquiry investigates racism in the B.C. health-care system and shamelessly racist anti-Indigenous comments appear on social media. Examples of documented police violence against and failure to protect Indigenous peoples (including disproportional imprisonment) abound, and issues surrounding missing and murdered women remain unresolved.

To their credit, school board officials and the principal in Abbotsford quickly apologized for the assignment and expressed their “disgust” with the assignment and their continued support for “reconciliation.” The normally slow to react, now former education minister Rob Fleming, also expressed disappointment with the assignment and restated the province’s commitment to “reconciliation.”

While they all apologized, they effectively excused this red flag incident as non-representative, a one-off, as an individual mistake. They attempted to calm the waters by projecting an image of a school system and teachers all paddling away in a calm sea of “reconciliation.”

Unfortunately, educational leaders are reluctant to admit what every researcher of school reform or institutional, pedagogical and curricular change in the history of Canadian schooling knows; reforms in schools face choppy seas, headwinds and doldrums during what can be a never-ending journey. When it comes to reconciliation, and meeting the demands of the TRC Calls to Action in classrooms, we have a lot of paddling and reorienting to do in B.C.

Despite the development of many exemplary resources, materials and learning experiences by a large group of dedicated and innovative Indigenous educators and their settler allies across the province, and exciting examples or pockets of best practice, much remains to be accomplished in implementing the spirit and letter of the Calls to Action in B.C. schools and classrooms.

To be fully realized, reconciliation must be accepted as an intentionally disruptive process. Reconciliation demands that students, teachers, administrators and their family members gain a new understanding of Indigenous peoples and nations and their historic and contemporary experience. Most importantly, they must act on that understanding, independently and collectively, to develop and nurture new social, economic, political and spiritual relationships with Indigenous peoples and nations, built upon a foundation of mutual respect, understanding and active reciprocal engagement.

The task of replacing the long dominant forms of pedagogy and the historic cultural and curricular “truths” of educational leaders and workers is considerable. They have, after all, been educated in the curriculum and canons of the past. In our experience many of the teachers and administrators in B.C. are deeply rooted in ideas of the settler state, and largely — and surprisingly — unfamiliar with and resistant to counter-narratives.

Journalists, researchers and all educational stakeholders must not view reconciliation as just another systemic educational reform effort. Reconciliation is so much more and demands so much more.

In eduspeak, school administrators, teachers and some academic colleagues often speak of infusing Indigenous education into the existing system.

Reconciliation and the TRC Calls to Action transcend being treated as curriculum infusions or add-ons. Instead, they need to be viewed as indictments that call for the fundamental reimagining and reconstruction of schooling in Canada. The well-meaning descriptive bromides or catchphrases educational leaders use to describe their reconciliation efforts often demean and diminish the scope and depth of the difficulties and challenges faced by administrators, classroom teachers and educational assistants truly seeking reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and nations.

Anyone interested in the peaceful future of B.C. or Canada should look for more research that will critically explore the effectiveness of the implementation of the TRC Calls to Action in schools through Indigenous research lenses and make recommendations for ways forward. They can also expect to see more examples of teacher resistance, avoidance, subversion and demeaning the content of reconciliation. Even beyond those that have been extensively documented in decades of previous research on arguably less demanding and divisive curricular and pedagogical reform efforts.

Finally, we want to encourage school leaders and teachers across B.C. to explore and expand their working understanding of reconciliation and creatively and courageously revel in its reconstructive nature. And to develop a B.C. approach to the TRC Calls to Action and reconciliation that is less about signalling support and more about substance in the classroom.

As Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, has said, “Education is what got us here and it is what will get us out.”

We hope we are wrong, but we expect it to take a very long time.  [Tyee]

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