Decolonizing Education: Not an Indian Problem

By Rochelle Starr

Recently, Dr. Marie Battiste, a graduate of Harvard University (M. Ed.) and Stanford University (Ed.D), and M'ikmaw professor of education at the University of Saskatchewan, came to the University of Alberta’s north campus as a distinguished visitor. During Dr. Battiste’s visit, she offered numerous workshops and presentations to undergrads, faculty, graduate students, and citizens of Edmonton. Battiste’s message, as I was privileged to learn during an interview with her, identifies the Eurocentric framework that underpins the educational system as continuing to have damaging effects for everyone, impacting teachers, administrators, and students, non- Indigenous and Indigenous alike.

Dr. Battiste explained that Eurocentrism creates difference, deficiency, and dependency.  Essentially, Eurocentrism is where our society gauges its perception of normalcy from a European perspective, while also imposing such normalcy as the supreme way of being.  Eurocentrism is embedded in our society and institutions, ie. educational institutions, and we are often unaware of its presence and influence on us.  It informs the general culture, the everyday language, and the media, and cements an innate sense of the superiority of European-derived cultures and peoples.  However, it is important to note that Eurocentrism, also referred to as “white supremacy” is a social construct.  Examining Eurocentrism, or white supremacy is not an attack on people of European descent; rather it is a deconstruction of false notions of power based on race.

Dr. Battiste outlined how her work focuses on helping Canadian citizens and pre-service teachers to understand the social context into which Indigenous peoples have been forced, and how this Eurocentric framework found within our educational institutions has created inequities and disparities amongst students and communities, even though our educational system prides itself as being an equitable one.  The context within which Aboriginal people endure the educational system is an example of how the Eurocentric framework ensures the myth of superiority of one race at the expense of the well-being of another by creating false concepts of differences, deficiencies, and dependency in comparison to the ‘white’ defined ‘norm’.

Dr. Battiste urges all Canadians to examine our own assumptions, histories, thoughts, beliefs, and privileges as a way of becoming consciously aware of how Eurocentric frames have influenced us all as individuals and as a society.  This process of self-examination is a way to contest complacency and complicity that support ongoing ignorance and racism of Eurocentrism.

Dr. Battiste cautions that undergoing such a process of self-reflection sometimes brings painful feelings like guilt, anger, denial or un-acceptance. In one of her recent talks, Dr. Battiste explained, “One of the things I have come to learn over time is that it’s a gradual process.  Stages of understanding and acceptance don’t necessarily come without a whole lot of anguish.  When we begin to learn how particular historical events display Canadian complicity with layers of violence against peoples, such as is shown with the establishment and maintenance of Indian residential schools, these learnings become painful sites for people to go. These histories are not descriptions of national pride – so it’s a difficult process.”

Dr. Battiste’s discussion during her visit at the U of A were reflective of the title of her newest book, Decolonizing education: Nourishing the learning spirit.  Decolonizing education, significantly not “decolonizing Aboriginal education”, points to the fact that we need to reframe our current education system as a whole.  It also implies that there is a significant problem with the education system, and it isn't an Indian problem.  The Eurocentric framework of education will continue to be problematic; we will not solve inequities, nor injustices by those means that are currently in practice in our institutions and educational systems.