Jo-Ann Archibald remembers her experience as a Stó:lō First Nations member in Chilliwack public schools in the 1950s to late 1960s as one that required straddling two completely different worlds. But the world of school rarely acknowledged Indigenous people or culture.
“When I got to high school, there was a little bit about ‘Indian people,’ but it was always negative,” said Archibald, who retired last month as an education professor from the University of British Columbia after 35 years.
“It was the ‘Indian problem,’ or it was history and it was the ‘fierce Indian people’ fighting the British or the French. So there was nothing ever to be proud of.”
Yet Archibald went on to become one of the few Indigenous graduates from the University of British Columbia’s teacher education program. She dedicated her teaching career in the public school system, and eventually at UBC, to including Indigenous culture, language and ways of knowing into the curriculum.
Archibald held a number of leadership positions at UBC, and in collaboration with other faculty and administration she helped change how the province’s biggest university engaged Indigenous communities, supported their students, and prioritized Indigenous content in every subject area.
Archibald sat down with The Tyee to discuss just some of what’s changed in Indigenous education since she graduated teachers’ college in 1972 (we couldn't fit everything Archibald accomplished into one article) and why it’s important for everyone — Indigenous and not — to keep Indigenizing education.
On developing Indigenous-led school courses:
My first job was in the North Vancouver School District, and they were interested in developing some curriculum [in 1972] that was related to Squamish people. So I was on the committee to start that. At that time it was a rather innovative approach, because there wasn’t that much happening [with Indigenous curriculum] in the public schools.
In 1976 [while teaching in Chilliwack], the Coqualeetza Cultural Centre started documenting a lot of their [Stó:lō] culture and language, because it had been oral up to this time. And that work became part of the [public and band] elementary school curriculum that was used in Chilliwack, and I would say in the province that was among the first [Indigenous-created curriculum] to really start as a comprehensive curriculum in the elementary grades. There were units in each grade level from Grades 1 to 7.
On her graduate studies experience:
There was nothing in the [Masters of Education] program that was Indigenous. It was all western, mainstream stuff. But I would always try and look at it from an Indigenous perspective, and always did my assignments on Indigenous topics.
It was about 1989-90 when I went into my PhD. I found ways to make my own learning meaningful. I chose to go into these programs knowing they wouldn’t have much Indigenous [content]. But I figured if I wanted to stay working at UBC, I needed to have the doctoral degree.
I think that helped motivate me as I continued working with UBC, to make institutional change. That’s been probably my consistent theme of what I do: try and change the university or the kindergarten to Grade 12 system to make the systems more responsive, respectful of Indigeneity.
On her involvement with NITEP — then the Native Indian Teacher Education Program, now known as UBC’s Indigenous Teacher Education Program, for Indigenous students who want culturally relevant teacher training:
The opportunity arose to work with NITEP students [in 1981]. I really enjoyed my interactions with NITEP. I always wished that I had gone through that kind of teacher ed program, because it was Indigenous and there were Indigenous people, and you could be in your home community.
I became the director of NITEP [In 1985]. My goal was to keep on strengthening the Indigenous component, through the coursework, through expanding the field centres [satellite campuses near or in Indigenous communities], to just making sure that we could have community-based centres. That was the principle: whenever a new field centre was started, we always worked with the Indigenous communities [and elders] of the area.
I always felt that NITEP students — the majority were women with children — were very committed to improving their lives and their communities, and doing that as a teacher. So I always was amazed by what they were able to persist in, because they experienced what I did, but even more intense because many came from rural communities.
I think that’s why with the program we’ve tried to provide support. [Students] would help each other with childcare at times, as needed, help support one another, and then we had potluck dinners, social gatherings — to help them feel more at home.
On the available supports for UBC Indigenous students in the 1980s & 1990s:
In 1987, Verna Kirkness started what was called the First Nations House of Learning. Eventually the First Nations House of Learning provided more student services, especially when the First Nations Longhouse was opened in 1993. But until that time, it was only NITEP [and UBC Faculty of Law’s Indigenous program].
In 1993 I became the director of the First Nations House of Learning. I still did a little with NITEP, but my energies were focused on the wider university at that time, and providing the student services in the longhouse.
On changes she helped introduce at UBC, first as director of First Nations House of Learning:
The grade point average for entry into faculties was very high, and when you looked at what happened to Indigenous students in high school, the graduation rates probably would have been in the 50 per cent range.
And some are older learners and they have work experience. We convened a committee of Indigenous faculty and the university admissions, and we set about establishing an Aboriginal admissions policy.
Another important aspect was work with the other deans, associate deans within the faculties on: ‘How can we increase not only the [Indigenous] students, but [Indigenous] courses or programs?’
Then as associate dean of Indigenous Education:
[In the mid 2000s], the faculty of education was in the process of revising its total teacher ed program. [A mandatory Indigenous] course was always talked about. There was interest among more faculty members to ensure we had the Indigenous course.
Also at the time, the BC Teachers’ College, the teacher accreditation body, were recommending a three-credit or equivalent Aboriginal ed course in each teacher ed program. That also helped reinforce why we needed Aboriginal ed, but I know we started the program at least a year before that accreditation change happened.
I was able to work [along with other faculty] to establish a peer support program for graduate students we called SAGE [Supporting Aboriginal Graduate Enhancement]: a province-wide network for any graduate student doing Indigenous research.
Then we started an annual Indigenous grad student conference, and that’s been going on for 15 years.
I helped to establish some new Indigenous methodology and education courses for masters and doctoral students, and put together a proposal for a new masters in Indigenous knowledge, and [a] doctoral program in Indigenous education, which I hope is still working its way through being approved.
I’ve helped contribute to increasing the number of Indigenous faculty members. Because that’s another area that I think has been lacking — very few Indigenous tenure-track faculty members. In education, we started out at four [Indigenous faculty members], and got to 10.
On what changes are still needed:
We need to do a lot more in K-12 with teachers to get them better prepared to know more about the impact of colonization, to understand how that has impacted generations of Indigenous people. And to think about how might they start to work with Indigenous families and communities, how might they include more Indigenous knowledge in their practice.
We have now 11 per cent of the K-12 population that are Indigenous, and it will increase. We need to do better as far as the graduation rate.
I believe the post-secondaries have really taken on Indigenizing the academy, and have taken up a lot of the reconciliation, wanting to talk more about how to address the [Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s] Calls to Action. We need to have many more Indigenous faculty members. We need to go through the whole system: K-12, undergraduate and graduate in order to have more faculty members.
At the same time, we have to keep educating non-Indigenous faculty members, so that they can be more responsive in how they teach. And they can do it knowing they have no Indigenous students in their courses: it’s for everybody. It’s part of who we are as Canadians.