A new curriculum in B.C. has set the stage for bolstering Indigenous content in classrooms, but some teachers say they are at a loss how to teach it.

Leila Lattimer teaches in the Sea to Sky school district and has also worked in Nanaimo as an Aboriginal enhancement worker.

She says while she feels supported and well equipped to teach students about Indigenous people, she can understand the challenges of not having the proper resources at hand to do a good job.

"It's chronic underfunding of resources for schools across the board. When you create a new content area, you need to back it up and money always seems to be an issue," she said.

The newly elected B.C. government recently announced $50 million in capital funding to provide resources for supporting students from kindergarten to Grade 12. However, it did not state exactly how that money would be spent  and if any of it would make it into teachers hands to impart Indigenous content to students.

At this point, the curriculum is not reviewed by school boards before entering classrooms, but some districts have what are called either Indigenous enhancement workers, or, as is the case in Surrey, helping teachers. These support workers help to build Indigenous content in classrooms. 

"We review resources and find what is a good authentic resource," said Nadine McSpadden, a helping teacher for Aboriginal learning services.

"When I see terms like "squaw" used [in the class], it makes me feel that the teacher doesn't know that there are better resources out there, and it's also sad that a student has to read that work and be retraumatized."

Nadine McSpadden

Nadine McSpadden works with Surrey School District as a 'helping teacher.' She and others work to build Indigenous content in classrooms, reviewing and green lighting appropriate and respectful content. (Nadine McSpadden)

McSpadden says she helped to redesign the curriculum to "eradicate the text books and resources that tend to stereotype Aboriginal people."

Authentic Indigenous content

On its website, the B.C government explains the importance of accurate Indigenous education in schools and lists appropriate resources to use.

The BCTF also lists appropriate resources for teachers and points to other sites of publishers where teachers can order books to boost their knowledge.

However, president Glen Hansman says, without adequate funding, introducing new resource material is a challenge.

"Unfortunately, the biggest barrier to new material being used on classrooms is often financial. Given tight budgets, school districts and schools are more likely to buy replacement copies for the two to three missing or damaged books they might have each year, rather than buying multiple class sets of a new title." 

At the Crossroads

This textbook version is from 1998 and is used in Social Studies and Humanities courses in grade 9 secondary school classes today. (Angel Sterritt)

And some teachers are still grappling with how to teach Indigenous issues, given many were not taught about residential school or colonization, for example, in high school or even in university. 

Many Indigenous people who CBC spoke to for this story and who have graduated from the public school system say they were taught about Indigenous people as if they were frozen in time. Many texts books from the 90s do not show Indigenous people as living today in a modern context, only as pre-contact historical beings.

McSpadden says teachers have to step out of their comfort zones and be willing to face the reality that not many of us are as informed as we ought to be. 

"You don't have to be an expert in this," she said.

"Part of reconciliation is saying to the kids, 'I don't have a background knowledge of Indian Residential Schools because it was never taught to me, but we can learn together,'" she said.

McSpadden emphasized that parents coming forward and sharing concerns with outdated curriculum can lead to significant changes that she says are needed in the B.C. curriculum.

On September 30, teachers, students and parents across B.C are wearing orange shirts to honour residential school survivor Phyllis (Jack) Webstad and remember the stories of other survivors and their children.  

This story is part of Angela's Sterritt's new CBC column, Reconcile This that tackles the tensions between Indigenous people and institutions in BC.  It airs every other Wednesday morning in B.C. on CBC's Radio One morning program. Listen to the entire segment below with theme music by Ian Campbell, A Tribe Called Red and Lee Rosevere.

Reconcile This