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Beyond 'Teepees and Igloos'

Reconciling with First Nations begins in the classroom.

By Sandra Shields 6 Apr 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Sandra Shields lives on a farm in the Fraser Valley with photographer David Campion. Their first book won the 2003 Hubert Evans Prize; Where Fire Speaks looks at how development arrived for one African tribe. Their second book, The Company of Others, explores the power of caring relationships in the lives of people with disabilities and their families and friends.

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Deroche Elementary students help carver Tom Patterson create a post for their school. Photo: David Campion.

[Editor's Note: Two years ago, the government of British Columbia and First Nations leaders laid out a vision for a "New Relationship," spurring initiatives aimed at "closing the gap" between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal British Columbians. This is the second article in a four-part Tyee Solutions Reporting Fellowship series by Sandra Shields, who is looking at steps being taken in her home community of the Fraser Valley. To learn more about Shields, her series and Tyee fellowships, go here.]

Cedar shavings pile up and kids cluster around as carver Tom Patterson coaxes the rough shape of a bear cub out of one end of an 11-foot log. The sidewalk behind Deroche Elementary School is serving as Patterson's makeshift carving studio for six weeks while he carves a house post for the school's front entrance. Lunch break brings a steady flow of students; after a few weeks Patterson already knows most of their names. He swaps stories and cookies with the stream of young onlookers and lets those who are keen try their hand at carving.

I came to Deroche Elementary to find out what kids today are learning about Aboriginal people. The question seemed fundamental to the idea of a new relationship. My own 1970s education taught a version of Aboriginal culture and history that ran to little more than teepees, igloos and the fur trade. That truncated account supported the story mainstream Canada still likes to tell itself over beers after work. Since beginning this project, I've heard variations on it from valley rednecks and urban sophisticates alike. The story goes that before the settlers arrived there weren't many people here and they weren't really using the land. The government created reserves and gave Aboriginal people the benefits of technology and education. Usually the conclusion is some twist on how it all happened a long time ago and Aboriginal people should get over it.

In questioning Stó:lo leaders about the new relationship, one of the themes that kept recurring was the need for ordinary British Columbians to better understand what happened here. In the literature about reconciliation, the point is made repeatedly that shifts in worldviews are part of the process. I was in South Africa during the heady days when Nelson Mandela was president and the oft-heard refrain was that hope for a shared future lay with the children. By venturing into Deroche Elementary, I hoped to get a feel for the story the next generation of British Columbians will be telling.

Inner-city in the country

In many respects Deroche is like an inner-city school in the country. "We draw from five trailer parks and two reserves," principal Murray Butt tells me one afternoon in the library. "A lot of our kids come to school not ready to start school." The school runs a breakfast club, has a pre-kindergarten program, an Aboriginal support worker, and "puts a real focus on literacy and numeracy right off the bat."

Murray Butt brought his high energy and ready smile to Deroche Elementary six years ago. Soon after he arrived he was asked whether a weekend visitor to the school would find any clues to tell them how unique the student body was.

"Fifty per cent of our students were Aboriginal," Butt says, "and there was nothing in the school that reflected that." The staff put the goal of raising awareness of Aboriginal culture into the school's growth plan, but it was a meeting between Butt and Johnny Williams, a parent from the nearby Scowlitz reserve, that really got the ball rolling.

Williams was an Aboriginal support worker in the Abbotsford school system and was able to guide staff in making culturally appropriate choices. "We were lucky to have a person with his skills to help us," Butt says. Williams connected the school with a Stó:lo artist and soon there was Aboriginal artwork on the walls. The school's logo was redone with an Aboriginal design and emblazoned on T-shirts worn proudly by kids and teachers.

Although there was some initial uncertainty from a few non-Aboriginal parents, often it was the result of misunderstandings such as when one mom thought the Halkomelem words her child was learning were replacing French lessons, and generally staff has been able to allay concerns.

Resources for teaching Aboriginal content have expanded exponentially in the last 15 years. In November, the province released a 200-page guide for including Aboriginal culture in every subject from art to math. As well, teachers have access to Aboriginal presenters from the community who come into the classroom to share traditional knowledge about subjects as wide ranging as carving, making bannock and learning about local plant life.

All kids benefit

"We make sure there is an opportunity every term for doing something that is related to the culture," Murray Butt says. In the past, Aboriginal students were pulled out of class for cultural learning and staff at Deroche felt it was important to change that. "We do it for all of our kids, we don't want just the Aboriginal students to benefit from learning about the culture," Butt says.

Each school district has an Aboriginal coordinator. In his work at Deroche, Murray Butt has the support of Colleen Hannah, Aboriginal principal for the Mission School District. Hannah endorses the inclusive approach favored by staff at Deroche. "If we pull our Aboriginal kids out," she says, "even if they're getting a good understanding of the culture, the other kids feel they're missing out. When it's something they've all done in class and the other students think it's cool, then the Aboriginal kids feel more pride in who they are."

Judy Dallin is the coordinator of Aboriginal education for the Langley School District. "I think a huge part of what cultural presenters do when they go into the classroom is undo stereotypes," she says. "That's what breaks down stereotypes between any cultures is people getting to know each other."

Changing attitudes

The Xá:ytem Longhouse stands on the site of an ancient Stó:lo village not far from Deroche. As well as welcoming tourists from around the world, Xá:ytem runs hands-on culture programs for school kids. Since the programs began in 1995, about 120,000 Lower Mainland students have arrived in yellow school buses to visit the sacred transformer stone perched on the hillside, tour the pit houses, try their hand at Coast Salish weaving or sift for artifacts, and gain a feel for the rich history that has unfolded here for thousands of years.

"I feel like I'm watching attitudes change," director Linnea Battel says. "We've even had feedback from superintendents of schools that send a lot of students to our program saying there's been a visible reduction in racist incidents over time."

Battel grew up in Mission, attended residential school and then entered a public high school. "My brothers fought their way through high school and so did my sons," she says. "That was 25 years ago and nothing had changed at that point. But my grandchildren have had a way better time of it. They were going through school when the culture started to be celebrated."

Indigenous science

Arts and social sciences were the first areas where Aboriginal content was incorporated, but increasingly, Aboriginal perspectives are being included in curriculum for every discipline. Dr. Lorna Williams from the St'at'yem'c First Nation holds the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Knowledge and Learning at the University of Victoria where she is also the director of Aboriginal Teacher Education. In 2002, while she was head of Aboriginal Education with the provincial Ministry of Education, Williams drew attention to the fact that very few indigenous students were enrolled in the high school science courses needed for university.

"Graduation rates were going up," she says, "but what was that graduation leading to?"

In partnership with the ministry, another UVic professor and more than a dozen graduate students, Williams is currently working on a research project to develop ways of teaching science that incorporate indigenous knowledge and its insights into the rhyme and reason of the natural world, especially the intimate local perspectives it offers.

"Our goal is to make science relevant for Aboriginal students," Williams says. At the same time, she points out, "Traditional ecological knowledge offers a holistic view of the natural world; and it is a perspective that is in line with cutting-edge scientific research." In a world beset by environmental challenges, it is the kind of knowledge that is increasingly relevant for every student.

Broader understanding

A broad-based inclusive approach to Aboriginal content in the curriculum means that students of every cultural background are learning more about indigenous culture than ever before. In an e-mail, Education Minister Shirley Bond explains that, "All students benefit from having a greater understanding of Aboriginal perspectives. They learn more about where they live and who their neighbors are and they have an opportunity to broaden their understanding about some of the issues facing Aboriginal communities."

Each of the Aboriginal educators I spoke with were passionate in making the point that in learning about Aboriginal culture and knowledge, all students are learning the history of the place that they call home.

While a growing numbers of teachers are coming on board, Mission's Colleen Hannah says that in her experience, Deroche is on the leading edge. She finds that many teachers still have little experience with Aboriginal culture and can be uncomfortable incorporating it into lessons.

And, of course, all the support materials in the world mean nothing if they're not being taught. "I think people are afraid," Hannah says. "It takes a lot of conversations to get them to understand where we've come from, our history." She points out that many teachers themselves grew up with the same abbreviated account of indigenous history that I was taught in school.

When did things change?

"Up until 1994, First Nations weren't involved in decision making for education in the public school system," Gwen Point says. Earlier that morning I had joined the Stó:lo history class she teaches at the University College of the Fraser Valley. Once class was over, we sat down for a wide ranging conversation and one of the things Point explained was why B.C. schools began including Aboriginal content in their curriculum.

It happened in the mid-1990s. "That was when the Minister of Education targeted Aboriginal funds indicating that school districts must have informed consent from Aboriginal families to spend Aboriginal funds," Point says. "That changed the way business was done in school districts and for the first time Aboriginal people had a say."

Point grew up on the Chehalis reserve east of Deroche. "I wasn't successful in school," she says, "not because I wasn't a good student, I liked school, but I couldn't handle the racism and discrimination." She worked as a hairdresser until returning to university to become a teacher. In 1993 she joined Stó:lo Nation as the manager of education and spent the next decade working with schools from Hope to Langley, helping them broaden their curriculums and better support Aboriginal students.

"Chilliwack was the first school district to come on board and spend their money on Aboriginal education, language, culture and on support services," Point says.

"Has it made a difference?" she asks. "Yes it has. You think those students," she says, referring to the Aboriginal students in her UCFV history class, "would be in their first year of college if things hadn't changed?"

Driven by First Nations

Aboriginal education in Canada took a decisive move away from the assimilation policy of residential schools in the early 1970s with the release of the Indian Control of Indian Education report by the Assembly of First Nations. At the time, graduation rates for Aboriginal students were below 20 per cent.

Shortly after the report came out, Stó:lo academic Dr. Jo-Ann Archibald began her career as the sole Aboriginal teacher in North Vancouver. "Curriculum from an Aboriginal perspective was almost non-existent then," she says, "and the involvement of Aboriginal people was a lot more minimal."

Today, Archibald is associate dean for Indigenous Education at UBC and acting director of UBC's Native Indian Teacher Education Program. She echoes Gwen Point in making it clear that the changes in education policy were driven by indigenous people. "It started very much with a political awareness and political movement," Archibald says. "There was a civil rights movement in the '60s and cultural revitalization in the '70s."

There was resistance to including more Aboriginal content. Archibald lists off the typical arguments: "People would say: 'We only have one Aboriginal child, why should we do it for one child?' Not thinking that it's good for all children. Or they would say: 'Well if we do it for Aboriginals, we have to do it for every other culture,' which fails to recognize that Canada was built on Aboriginal lands."

Nevertheless, by the mid-1990s, the province had committed to ensuring that the money spent on Aboriginal education ($47.5 million in 2006/2007) supported the dual priorities of (1) providing better instruction about Aboriginal culture, language, and history, and (2) improving the performance of Aboriginal students.

Ongoing crisis

Just before Christmas, the Ministry of Education released its annual report on the performance of Aboriginal students showing that graduation rates in 2005/2006 dropped one percentage point to 47 per cent. That's compared to a completion rate of 79 per cent for all B.C. students.

"We have to recognize that Aboriginal education is in crisis," Jo-Ann Archibald says. "We hear it so often it doesn't mean anything anymore. But if in the general population there was an announcement that of all students only 47 per cent completed grade 12, what would the reaction be from the public?"

"A lot more effort is needed in order to keep on having success and we need to expand the people who are involved in making change," Archibald says. "I think we've got a small but growing critical mass of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal educators and community folks and political leadership ready to do something, but we need a more concerted and holistic approach to what we're doing."

She advocates more partnerships among institutions and schools and a move away from the silo approach to funding which sees money for Aboriginal education coming from various branches of the provincial and federal government. "There's been progress made," she says. "We have the start of something, the catalytic action or synergy, and I think if we are more focused, we could be on the brink of major change."

Tomorrow's teachers

It is still possible to go through teacher training in B.C. without learning much about Aboriginal education. At UBC it is included in one core education course but depending on the interest, it might be covered in a single lecture. At SFU there is a module called Indigenous Peoples Teacher Education Module and Aboriginal Focus Teacher Education Module -- Urban Experience. While the smaller teacher training programs at UNBC and UBC Okanagan include core courses on Aboriginal education, similar courses in the larger programs at UBC and UVic are electives.

In September, a task force co-chaired by Jo-Ann Archibald and Lorna Williams, submitted recommendations for changing this. Key among the recommendations was implementing core Aboriginal course requirements for all pre-service teachers and including Aboriginal content as a component within other courses. The task force also stressed the need for more Aboriginal teachers, pointing out that: "Three times the number of current Aboriginal teachers is needed in order for the teaching profession to reflect the population demographics of Aboriginal people."

Both Archibald and Williams commented on the growing number of non-Aboriginal students they meet coming into teacher education who are keen to learn about indigenous culture and history. At the same time, they repeated how critical it is that the system improve its capacity to support people of Aboriginal heritage in becoming classroom teachers. Beyond that, they say, we also need to see more Aboriginal professionals moving into administration, becoming principals, superintendents and school board trustees.

Enhancement agreements between local Aboriginal communities and school districts are another key. Implemented by the Ministry of Education, these agreements target performance and delivery expectations and support strong partnerships between communities and school districts. In December, the province reached the halfway mark in its goal to see enhancement agreements signed in all 60 school districts and Education Minister Shirley Bond notes that districts where the agreements are already in place are reporting "tremendous success."

In Mission, Colleen Hannah has been spearheading meetings with the many local Aboriginal communities involved in creating the agreement. She is excited about the progress made and hopes to see Mission District's enhancement agreement signed later this year.

A new story?

Back on the sidewalk behind Deroche Elementary, the heavy winter rain that fell all morning has stopped and a constellation of kids are circling around carver Tom Patterson. A blond boy asks if he can have a try and Patterson shows him how to hold the chisel while two Aboriginal boys watch intently. A few minutes later, Patterson leads all the kids in a cheer for first boy, then hands the chisel to a student from the Scowlitz First Nation. When his turn is over, the kids all cheer again.

In following the line of inquiry that brought me through the doors of Deroche Elementary, I discovered that, in the main, the push to include more Aboriginal content in schools came from Aboriginal leaders, teachers and parents, many of whom had attended residential schools and knew first hand the consequences of having their language and culture rendered shameful. They wanted their children to receive an education that was respectful of their culture and reflected the richness of their history -- which, of course, is the history of the place where we all now live. One of the results of their efforts is that non-Aboriginal kids are also learning a story about Aboriginal culture and history that goes well beyond teepees and igloos.

Despite a skiff of fresh snow, the sun is shining brightly on the March morning when school officials join parents and grandparents from Deroche and the Leq'á:mél and Scowlitz First Nations for the raising of the new house post. The students sit at the front of the gymnasium, struggling to keep their excitement in check as a drum is played and a traditional song is sung.

This year 60 per cent of the students at Deroche Elementary are of Aboriginal heritage. Enhancement agreements, integrated curriculum, teachers with greater cultural awareness, these are all steps in the right direction. It remains to be seen how many of these young faces will be walking across the stage to receive their high school diplomas in 10 years time, but on this bright morning, seeing how proud and excited all of the kids are, I find myself feeling cautiously hopeful about the future of relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal British Columbians.

Next Friday: Reconciliation in the forests?  [Tyee]

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