'There's no quick fix': Advice for teachers struggling to properly integrate Indigenous content into classes

Posted: January 25, 2019
Last Updated: January 22, 2020

Numbers translated into Ojibwe in an immersion class at Riverbend School in Winnipeg. (CBC)

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Unreserved host Rosanna Deerchild sat down with three educators to explore the burdens placed on teachers - and how they can learn to feel confident in what they're teaching. The panel also took questions from teachers and offered advice.  18:04

This segment originally aired January 27, 2019.

When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released their Calls to Action in 2015, many of them addressed education. 

More than three years later, school boards, divisions and administrators are still trying to implement more Indigenous outcomes within their curricula. 


But the majority of work falls on the teachers themselves — many of whom have little connection, knowledge or a clear framework to teach the material properly.

When Unreserved asked teachers to share their challenges around integrating Indigenous content, we received a deluge of emails, tweets and Facebook messages. To talk more about the issues raised by the teachers who wrote in, we brought together a panel to respond to those questions and offer a little advice.

Carolyn Roberts is Coast Salish and is the principal of Xwemelch'stn Etsimxwawtxw — or, in English, The Capilano Little Ones School in Vancouver.

Colinda Clyne is Anishinaabe from Kitigan Zibi and is the curriculum lead for First Nation, Inuit and Métis Education with the Upper Grand District School in Guelph, Ont.

Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is an associate professor at the University of Manitoba. He also teaches teachers across Canada about education and reconciliation at professional development days and conferences.


Unreserved host Rosanna Deerchild sat down with the three educators to explore the burdens placed on teachers — and how they can learn to feel confident in what they're teaching. 

What is the main thing that you hear from teachers [who want to integrate Indigenous outcomes into their curricula]? 

Clyne: I think the main thing that teachers say, over and over, is that they don't know what they don't know. The next step on that is that they are afraid of getting it wrong. And so we have so much work to do in helping the teachers understand things that they did not get in their own elementary or secondary education.

Roberts: When we're asking educators to teach something that they don't know and that they don't understand, we have to give them the tools and the understandings for it. We need to take the time first to educate the educators so that they have a strong understanding of why it is that this kind of work is important for them.


  I think there's probably no one more up for the task. They need to be empowered and resourced, but I believe in teachers. I always believe in teachers.  - Niigaan Sinclair

Sinclair: The challenge is, how do we create human beings that are competent? That is truly what I think Indigenous education is so crucially giving to young people — it makes them understanding of, fundamentally, what does it mean to be Canadian? What does it mean to have an inherent relationship with Indigenous people, and how do we live together? Those things go into every part of a school.


Imagine, for a moment, you ask a Grade 12 student what was the most memorable part of your school experience. None of them are going to say Romeo and Juliet, none of them are going to say algebra. It's not that those things aren't important.

What they are going to say is relationships with my friends, with my teachers, the band trips, the hockey team, whatever it might have been. It's relationships that we teach at schools, not curriculum.

These are all things [that] we teach young people. You can [teach] residential schools, for example, at any grade level. But you obviously don't teach kindergarten students about violence and genocide in. Here's what you teach them: you teach them about how important parents are. What does it mean to share? What does it mean to have love? 

Then, they're prepared for the conversation of when those things were taken away. 

(Lisa MacIntosh Photography)

Another complication, of course, is that education is under provincial or territorial oversight, which means application of this varies greatly across the country. In Manitoba and B.C., there are directives to weave content across subject areas. But in Ontario, the changes being implemented are just in history and social studies. How is this affecting teachers and students in Ontario?


Clyne: It's very problematic that [in Ontario], the only curricula that's been updated to include Indigenous content is social studies and history because it's just feeding into that idea that we are peoples of the past, rather than the present. and so we really do need to look at how are we weaving it [in] like other provinces. 

Roberts: The worry that I have, for when people ...  start to look for curriculum or ideas to bring in, they'll find something on Pinterest or they'll ask somebody else, 'Oh what did you use?'

In one of our middle schools ... everybody was teaching this social studies unit on the medicine wheel, yet none of the teachers could tell me where the medicine wheel came from and what culture it came from. Here in B.C., we have many, many different nations with lots of different types of traditions and cultures and I think that it's really important for the people who are teaching in this particular area and any particular area to know the people around them and what makes them unique as an Indigenous person.

Tracey Salamondra sent us this tweet:


Are there any suggestions from the three of you for summer or flexible online professional development resources?

Clyne: The one thing I always tell teachers ... is that they can do professional development in their pajamas. They can do something like watch Angry Inuk ... Tanya Talaga has Seven Fallen Feathers. You can listen to her Massey lectures. There are lots of ways to learn how, just in your own house.

Carolyn: There's also the MOODLEs (Modular Object-Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment) that you can do online through the University of British Columbia and I think the University of Alberta.

They have MOODLEs where it teaches you the history of Canada. You can also do that from your pajamas in your home.

What is something teachers and educators listening from anywhere can do to take a step further into doing this work?

Roberts: For me, it comes back down for them to understand the history of the place where they live. So whether it be the history of the first peoples that are there, whether it's the colonial history that's there, but [you need] a full understanding and a grasp of the importance of knowing this information because it's where you live.


There's lots of things that people can do but it's going to take time. They really have to understand and know the history. 

(Submitted by Carolyn Roberts)

We're hearing the challenges that teachers are facing in trying to fit this curriculum into an already full curricula. Why should teachers bear the burden of this?

Sinclair: There's nobody more capable of doing it than teachers. That's the first answer that I would have. I mean, over half the [TRC] Calls to Action related to education — and whether that be education in schools or education in workplaces — ultimately have to do with education.

(Submitted by Niigaan Sinclair)

What that says is how big the task is, but also how teachers — by the mere fact that they are teachers, meaning they are hopeful people who believe in the knowledge of young people — [are] training young people in such a way and empowering them to change the world.

I think there's probably no one more up for the task. They need to be empowered and resourced, but I believe in teachers. I always believe in teachers.

Q&A edited for length and clarity. For more, listen to our full interview with Carolyn Roberts, Colinda Clyne and Niigaan Sinclair.