Now that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission final report has again exposed weaknesses in the education of aboriginal people in Canada, some Northern education advocates say the solution is a process called "decolonization."

Karla Jessen Williamson is an Inuk from Greenland and an assistant professor of educational foundations at the University of Saskatchewan.

"Decolonization for me is looking at what the Inuit generations have done previously before we entered into the colonizer's mindset," she said.

Karla Jessen Williamson

'A true Inuit thing to do is to be able to put the kids [outside] with the elements to learn about their place.' (Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC)

"It's about looking at how we are a proud people, able to sustain ourselves in the Arctic and then how we can interpret that into the institutional forms of education that we have today."

Williamson says decolonizing education means continuing to emphasize Inuit language skills as well as doing more to incorporate land-based knowledge, both practical and spiritual, specific to the region students live in.

She agrees much of that work has already started, but says the fact that children continue to spend the majority of their school time sitting indoors is a indication of a colonized mind set.

"A true Inuit thing to do," she explains, "is to be able to put the kids [outside] with the elements to learn about their place."

Ahead of the curve

Of the 94 "calls to action" issued by the TRC, seven deal directly with education. They included closing the funding gap between aboriginal and non-aboriginal students as well as developing culturally appropriate curricula — including the protection of Aboriginal languages.

Paul Quassa

Education Minister Paul Quassa says Nunavut has strong language protection laws, and added the study of residential schools to the Grade 10 curriculum in 2013. (Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC)

Nunavut's education minister, Paul Quassa, says in some regards the territory is ahead of the curve. Nunavut has legislation protecting Inuit languages, and in 2013, the department added the study of residential schools in their Grade 10 curriculum.

Quassa says that's because, unlike most other indigenous peoples in Canada, Inuit still make up the majority of the population in Nunavut and have achieved a relative degree of self-governance.

"That's why we negotiated the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement." Quassa said "To get back to our culture, to retain our language and to ensure that Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (Inuit traditional knowledge) is respected."

Lessons to learn

Heather McGregor is a Ph.D. graduate who spent part of her childhood in Iqaluit. Her thesis on decolonizing Nunavut's school systems was published earlier this year.

During her research, she looked at three aspects of how Nunavut has approached developing their own education system.

  • The role of elders in preserving and incorporating Inuit traditional knowledge into the Nunavut school system;
  • Development of an internal curriculum based on collaboration between Inuit educators and long term northerners, and:
  • Leadership training designed specifically for Nunavut principals.

What Nunavut has accomplished in terms of education is unique, said McGregor, yielding many success stories that should be considered by southern school systems wanting to incorporate a greater aboriginal content.

But she also cautions that schools cannot replace traditional ways of sharing knowledge between parents, grandparents and children. Her research found that when Inuit introduce traditional knowledge to western-style school, that knowledge is changed and altered.

"Schools are institutions," McGregor said. "They come from western systems and western ways of understanding and organising knowledge and there is a lot of work to be done in figuring out how schools could be done differently."