Two sisters from Vancouver Island say their First Nations heritage led to them feeling alienated in the B.C. school system, unsupported by both teachers and students throughout their high school experience.

Selena and Valeen Jules, 17 and 20 respectively, are members of the Nuu'chah'nulth First Nation. Neither had many friends while in school, and both say they felt a lack of encouragement from their teachers, despite a passion for learning.

Selena's experience led her to drop out before graduating, and Valeen remembers several examples when teachers' behaviour left her feeling like an outsider.

The sisters spoke out about their experiences as part of Everyday Racism, a week-long series on CBC Radio's On the Coast.

First Nations history minimized

In one in-class incident, Valeen says her teacher brought up the recent stabbing death of a young First Nations mother in her community. 

Valeen, who was 14 at the time, says the teacher blindly assumed she knew the victim.

"She directed that conversation towards me," Valeen told On the Coast guest host Michelle Eliot.

"All I could say was 'No, I don't know who that was.' And I remember leaving that classroom and later crying about it as if I did know who she was, and trying to connect with her life."

Valeen also remembers how the history of the First Nations people was glossed over, how the horrors endured by First Nations youth in residential schools in the 20th century were reduced to less than a page worth of an entire social studies class.

"The textbook literally only had two short paragraphs about residential schools, and that was our Indigenous section," she said.

Unique needs and culture

Selena had a similar experience.

"What they put out there for our history is just Caucasians' point of view, and they don't ever really have another point of view or somebody else's story," she said.

Selena never felt like she fit in, switching schools three times before dropping out.

Tyrone McNeil is a member of the Sto:lo Tribal Council, and the president of the First Nations Education Steering Committee.

He sees systemic racism in that there is little recognition in B.C.'s school system of Aboriginal students' unique needs and culture.

'Racism of low expectations'

"The system allows teachers to give up on our kids. The system allows the teachers to have no expectations for our kids," he said.

"It's about modifying and reshaping that system so it's more inclusive of First Nations, but it is done in a way that educates all those involved about who we are as First Nations people."

The president of the B.C. Teachers Federation agrees with McNeil.

Glen Hansman says the alienation of First Nations students is a longstanding, system-wide problem, referencing a B.C. auditor general's report from 2016 that identified a what it called a "racism of low expectations."

"The educational gaps are not the fault of the students, it's the fault of the system as a whole," Hansman said.

"We need to all endeavour, regardless of our role, to make sure that the persistent educational gaps and the day-to-day lived experience of Aboriginal students in our schools, in all regions of B.C., is much ameliorated."

More First Nations content in schools

Despite the large amount of work still to do, Hansman says progress is being made, especially in districts along the Sea-to-Sky corridor.

In the school year beginning September 2015, curriculum material covering residential schools was made available to B.C. students in Grades 5, 10, 11, and 12.

And for the school year beginning September 2016, First Nations content was integrated throughout the curriculum, in all subjects, for students in kindergarten to Grade 9.

Similar changes will happen for Grades 10 to 12 next year. 

Students as individuals

Selena says it's a matter of paying attention to the students as individuals.

"The truth is everybody has their own way of learning," she said.

Despite her previous experience, she says her love for learning remains. She wants to finish high school, and plans to re-enroll in September.

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