British Columbia

'Am I colonizing this curriculum?' Teachers share challenges of getting new Indigenous curriculum right

The B.C. government is rolling out a new curriculum with Indigenous perspectives and culture woven into it and, for some non-Indigenous teachers, delivering the content authentically and accurately can be an intimidating challenge.

CBC Series Beyond Beads and Bannock takes an in-depth look at Indigenous curriculum in B.C. schools

Heather Deering, left, and Lesley Gunning, right, are two B.C. teachers who are learning to teach the new Indigenous curriculum. ( Jean Paetkau/CBC)

The B.C. government is rolling out a new curriculum with Indigenous perspectives and culture woven into it and, for some non-Indigenous teachers, delivering the content authentically and accurately can be an intimidating challenge.

For Heather Deering, a teacher with the Parksville School District on Vancouver Island, being aware of the historical weight of what she's teaching is always at the back of her mind.

"Every day, when I'm teaching, I look and I say, 'OK, am I colonizing this curriculum or am I decolonizing the curriculum?" she said.

She teaches the B.C. First Nations 12 and English First Peoples courses and often turns these questions she's asking herself back to her students.

Beyond the big picture questions, though, there are also smaller everyday challenges to teaching a new curriculum like the fear of getting something wrong.

"We're all scared that we're going to make mistakes," Deering said. "[That] I'm going to pronounce something wrong or I'm going to not know the correct language."

The CBC series Beyond Beads and Bannock features the University of Victoria digital archive of old Canadian textbooks that include inappropriate and racist images of Indigenous people. (UVic/Pia Russell)

'So much learning to do'

Deering isn't alone when it comes to fears around misrepresenting an Indigenous cultural practise or violating protocol.

That's where Jean-Paul Restoule, a professor and the chair of the department of Indigenous education at the University of Victoria, comes in.

He helps non-Indigenous educators become more comfortable and competent in Indigenous curriculum

"It's a difficult thing because there is so much learning to do. That's usually step one," Restoule said.

"I like to encourage teachers to become co-learners with their students in a spirit of inquiry-based learning … To say, 'I don't know this stuff either. Let's learn it together.'"

The B.C. government is rolling out a new curriculum with Indigenous perspectives and culture woven into it and, for some non-Indigenous teachers, delivering the content authentically and accurately can be an intimidating challenge. 6:45

Leadership from local First Nations

One of the ways teachers are gaining confidence is by working closely with local Indigenous groups. 

"We are incredibly lucky to have the leadership and guidance from the local First Nations," said Lesley Gunning, who works with the Langley School District.

"That looks like an Aboriginal Education Steering Committee of the groups in our area, which includes Métis​ people, as well as First Nations people. They guide us. They inform us." 

In the Langley school district, the steering committee asked for a focus on language revitalization and that became a priority.

"It's so important for the local community to say, 'this is a priority. This is what we would like to see,'" Gunning said.

Chelsea Prince, the vice-principal of Salmon Arm Secondary, pointed out that it's not just teachers who may feel pressured with questions about the new curriculum.

"Sometimes, students of Indigenous ancestry feel like they are expected to have all of the answers," Prince said.

"That's one thing that I really do see quite often, and there is that question of cultural safety for them, that they don't want to be the spokesperson for Indigenous content."

Beyond Beads and Bannock is an in-depth look at the Indigenous curriculum in B.C. schools. The series runs on CBC B.C. radio, TV and digital Sept. 3-8.

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