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Rights + Justice

How School Trustees Can Lead on Reconciliation

Some districts have worked to support Indigenous students' success while others lag. School boards can make the difference.

Tegwyn Hughes 18 Oct

Tegwyn Hughes is a Victoria-based journalist focusing on health, politics and equity. You can find her on Twitter @tegwynhughes.

School board election campaigns across B.C. saw a lot of attention focused on gender and sexuality inclusion and "parents’ rights." But some candidates made reconciliation a major part of their platforms, and now comes the test. As newly composed school boards take up their duties across the province, experts say trustees who care about Indigenous students' success can be vital to help them succeed.

The B.C. Education Ministry has been working to implement calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act.

The province added Indigenous knowledge and perspectives to its curriculum in 2019, and starting in the 2023-24 school year, high school students will have to complete four credits in Indigenous-focused coursework to graduate.

But a lot of the tangible progress towards decolonizing education and uplifting Indigenous students happens at the school district level, and Indigenous education leaders say a lack of provincial direction has created an unbalanced landscape for learners.

District-level Indigenous student success is uneven

Each school district in the province has access to provincial resources — both funding and policy frameworks — to help it collaborate with local First Nations and other Indigenous community members. However, what they do with those resources is up to them.

School boards can get funding for "equity scans" that help administrators create strategies for supporting Indigenous students. Most districts have entered into some form of education enhancement agreement or local education agreement with nearby First Nations communities.

Boards of trustees also can, and often do, go beyond provincial programs to ensure schools have additional cultural and learning resources.

Trustees can allocate extra funding towards professional development, cultural clubs and ceremonies, among other initiatives.

However, it’s up to individual school districts to decide how much they want to prioritize building relationships with Indigenous communities and enhancing student education.

That’s created a lack of equity and accountability for school boards, says Amy Parent (Noxs Ts’aawit), an associate professor in Simon Fraser University’s faculty of education who was recently appointed the school’s Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Education and Governance.

Parent is Nisga’a from the Nass Valley of northwestern British Columbia on her mother’s side, and French and German on her father’s side.

The province isn’t doing enough to hold boards accountable, she said. “I don't see that there's a huge level of accountability,” she said of the province. “Their solution to any type of assessment or oversight for Indigenous education, in my opinion, is minimal.”

Since the province started tracking student completion rates in 1998, Indigenous students have consistently underperformed compared to their non-Indigenous peers.

Completion rates measure the percentage of students who graduate from high school within six years of beginning Grade 8.

And while completion rates have improved for all students over the past two decades, the education system hasn’t been able to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous learners.

In 2021-22, six-year completion rates for Indigenous public school students ranged anywhere from 42 to 93 per cent across 56 districts, with an average completion rate of 72 per cent. In comparison, non-Indigenous student completion rates ranged from 76 to 100 per cent, with an average completion rate of 92 per cent.

Some districts have made a concerted effort to increase student success over the past decade. The Sea to Sky School District, for example, saw its six-year completion rates for Indigenous students grow from 56 per cent in 2010-11 to nearly 85 per cent a decade later. In New Westminster, the rates ballooned to 93 per cent from 62 per cent in the same time frame.

Other districts, meanwhile, are still lagging — and Indigenous education stakeholders say a lot of the blame rests on elected school boards.

Some districts lagging, despite ongoing agreements

On Vancouver Island, the Greater Victoria School District oversees 48 schools, serves around 18,000 students and has a $268-million budget.

The district has historically struggled to meet Indigenous student needs.

Ellie Dion is the Songhees Nation’s education liaison, working with families and schools to support K-12 student success. She is Québécois and grew up in Wabanaki Territories. Her spouse is Lekwungen, Quw’utsun and Lummi, part of the Albany on Songhees with ties into the Williams and the Thomas.

Speaking in her capacity as a member of the Songhees Nation’s education services team, Dion says the community’s relationship with the district has seen its fair share of challenges. Specifically, she points to the implementation of the nation’s local education agreement, renewed in 2020, which she says isn’t progressing the way it should.

The guiding principles of the agreement state the nation’s students will receive high quality education and feel safe and free from racism in schools. It also dictates the nation and school district will communicate frequently to share data and discuss policies.

Dion says the nation isn’t receiving as much information about students as it should, nor is it being consulted about important policy decisions.

“We should have a better pulse of our students, we should be able to be more responsive,” she said. “Unfortunately, that’s not where we’re at with the implementation.”

Despite first signing a local education agreement with the Songhees Nation over two decades ago and ongoing collaboration with other local Indigenous communities, the Greater Victoria School District has some of the lowest six-year completion rates for Indigenous students in the province. Rates for Indigenous learners are at 60 per cent, and have only increased by 11 per cent since 2010-11.

Dion says Indigenous students in the region have diverse needs that aren’t being addressed by the current learning framework.

“There is systemic racism within the school district that reflects on graduation,” she explained. “We still have trouble around low expectations for students. They are still pushed through the system… without necessarily ensuring they have the literacy and numeracy skills.” Dion explains that through its local education agreement with the district, the nation pays for additional services for its youth. If the district is not meeting the terms of the education agreement, she says the nation's money is being misused.

“We’re not just concerned parents. The Songhees Nation is a sovereign nation, and they want that sovereignty to be reflected in education.” Dion adds current trustees haven’t effectively involved Indigenous community partners in decisions, and she’s had concerns about their professional behaviour.

In May 2021, a district budget survey asked parents to choose which of three goals they thought needed the most investment: supporting all learners’ personal and academic success; supporting Indigenous learners’ personal and academic success; or supporting all learners’ physical and mental well-being.

That same month, a member of the district’s Indigenous Ad Hoc Committee resigned because he said a budget presentation suggested proposed cuts to music programs were due to a lack of Indigenous student participation.

And by August, the board’s chair had stepped down — after being asked to do so by the Songhees Nation, Esquimalt Nation, Métis and urban Indigenous community — because of district missteps.

Dion says she’s lost confidence in the current board and hasn’t seen the level of consultation she’d like on issues impacting Songhees students. Schools near the Songhees Nation desperately need seismic upgrades and recent population projections used to plan school growth didn’t take Indigenous housing realities into account.

“It could be an exciting time here to empower local nations to be a driving force in education. And we have yet to see that,” Dion said.

‘School trustees control the entire governance system’

SFU’s Parent says while some districts are showing progress, a lot of their success remains superficial.

In June, Parent acted as the principal investigator in a report commissioned by the Maple Ridge & Pitt Meadows School District to explore how it could deepen Indigenous education and equity. Parent says even in a district like Maple Ridge & Pitt Meadows — which has fairly high completion rates for Indigenous students and has made commitments to improving education and equity — massive gaps remain.

Some of the report’s recommendations include strengthening professional development for teachers, dramatically increasing communication with Indigenous stakeholders and giving local First Nations the choice to appoint representatives to the school board. Parent explains trustees are the main caretakers of district-wide initiatives concerning Indigenous student success.

“School trustees control the entire governance system,” she said. “They drive the policy… they also target financial priorities and can [make] significant decisions in terms of impacts on Indigenous learners.”

While Parent says she’s seen an increase in educators and trustees working hard to support reconciliation, a lot of the progress that’s been made so far is still surface-level.

“The majority of Indigenous education in British Columbia and the way it's carried out by school districts is still very tokenized,” she says.

Parent also takes issue with the metrics used to define success for students, including Indigenous students, saying a focus on numbers alone isn’t equitable.

“Indigenous students are still being compared to non-Indigenous students and that's an incredibly unfair comparison,” she said. “What we don't see being measured is the impact of colonialism and the impact of ongoing systemic racism, and what that can do to Indigenous students and their families.”

‘What's my role? How do I help?’

As an Indigenous educator and school trustee, John Chenoweth has observed the conversation about reconciliation in B.C.’s education system and says board members should have more than a basic understanding of what needs to be done.

Chenoweth is a member of the Upper Nicola Indian Band in the Nicola Valley and has been a school trustee in the Nicola-Similkameen School District since 2018. He’s also a member of the British Columbia School Trustees Association’s board of directors.

“We're probably beyond the infancy stage of really understanding, ‘What does TRC [the Truth and Reconciliation Commission] mean to me as a trustee?’” he said. “Trustees are becoming more and more versed in that, but of course, every four years, we're going to have some new blood in the system with the elections.”

Asked how incoming trustees should go about building relationships with the Indigenous communities they serve, Chenoweth believes that asking and listening are key.

“The one thing that we as a system must do is to ask the Indigenous community how we can support that community in rebuilding language, culture and what was lost through residential schools,” he explained. “We know identity only comes from the community. So what's our role as a system to support that community to do what it needs to do?”

Many non-Indigenous people think it’s “not their place” to have discussions about language, culture and residential schools, he says. In reality, Chenoweth believes having those conversations and being visible goes a long way.

“I work in a post-secondary system and some colleges will ask, ‘How do I make the relationship with our community?’ I'm like, ‘Do you have a car? Go visit’,” Chenoweth said. “Same thing with school districts. In my view, every educator, every person that works in a school… you had better be quite visible in the communities so that people know you.”

Chenoweth also reiterates the foundational role education plays, and has played, in the relationship between settler governance structures and First Nations. He says trustees are responsible for helping to deepen that relationship.

“[Former TRC chair and senator] Murray Sinclair said, ‘Education got us into this and education will get us out’,” Chenoweth said. “As trustees in this province, we do have a very, very strong responsibility to find balance in our system.”

“We need to run fearlessly into this and say, ‘What's my role? How do I help? Give me a shovel, because I'm ready to go and dig at this’.”  [Tyee]

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