Elementary education is one common experience we all share as Canadians—Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal—and even that is not so common as far as the experience goes.
Many students, most notably Aboriginal students, may disengage from that “mandatory” relationship with one another at school as early as junior high. For many Aboriginal students, the lack of information about, and value of, Aboriginal people in our education systems and curricula is too much, and they leave school very young.
That same lack of acknowledgement of—much less respect for—Aboriginal people in our schools means most non-Aboriginal students, teachers, and parents don’t really understand how significant this is or why it even matters to them.
Why reconciliation affects us all
The only other commonality that we share in Canada from coast to coast to coast, no matter what our cultural heritage, is that we all live on First Nations or Inuit traditional territory or on Métis homelands. If we are not indigenous to Canada we are visitors, some long term and some newer arrivals, but we all owe a debt of gratitude and respect to the Indigenous people of this land.
Reconciliation in the context of education begins with the basic courtesy of acknowledging the peoples upon whose land we learn. The respect will grow from there.
What role will you play?
As educators, we have the honour and the opportunity to shape the views of children during their time spent in school. We can facilitate the understanding of truth and the development of respectful relationships in our classrooms. School administrators have a responsibility to support teachers in this important work and expand upon it by fostering respectful relationships to the greater school community and an acknowledgement of Indigenous place.
There’s a lot to consider: the importance of teaching the truth about Indian Residential Schools, acknowledging and respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis culture and history, enacting social justice, and engaging in reconciliatory actions. Teachers are often perplexed about where to begin.
When discussing the importance of the 94 Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, even the most dedicated teachers often ask, “What can I do with my students to get started?” The task is huge, the journey will be long, but that’s okay.
This is not a short-term project: this is who we are as neighbours, colleagues, school mates, and families in community. We have the privilege of living during a time when we can redefine what has been the darkest part of being Canadian.
We can’t put this off until someone else comes up with curricular outcomes and measures of success.
3 simple actions
There are some fairly easy things that each of us can do in our schools and our classrooms to inspire our children to seek truth and live reconciliation:
- Verbally acknowledge traditional territory: Work with students to seek out what would be the best way to acknowledge the traditional territory where they live and upon which their school stands. Start every morning by making a statement of acknowledgement in your classroom and have students take turns doing the acknowledgement. Better yet, have students request that whomever does the daily school announcements begin with an acknowledgement of the people of the territory. School assemblies, gatherings, and staff meetings should all begin with this verbal acknowledgement.
- Fly the flag: Every school has at least one flag pole in front of its buildings. For the most part, the flags that are honoured are those of Canada and the province. Every single school in Alberta is located on Treaty 6, Treaty 7, or Treaty 8 territory. As a start, we can fly the flag of our respective treaty areas. From there, your school may decide that it should also fly the flag of the Métis Nation, a local First Nation, or a neighboring Inuit community if you are teaching in the north of Canada.
- Visually acknowledge truth, territory, and people: Upon entry to any Canadian school, it should be clearly indicated that the members of that school community acknowledge the wrongs in our history perpetrated through education and that they recognize the people of the territory. This could be done by displaying Canada’s statement of apology to former students of Indian Residential Schools (available online) near a visual representation of the Aboriginal people upon whose traditional territory we live.
These “little things” open the doors to what may lie ahead. They are things that we experience every day as we spend our time together in schools. They begin conversations, and from there the journey to reconciliation will grow.
Charlene Bearhead is the Education Lead for the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, University of Manitoba. She received her bachelor of education degree from the University of Alberta in 1985, after which she attained permanent professional teaching certification in Alberta and Manitoba. Bearhead sees Reconciliation Education as the key to respectful relationships in Canada.