British Columbia·Class Disrupted

Schools grapple with adding Indigenous content in tumultuous year

There has been a big push to weave Indigenous content into B.C. students' course work this past year in the midst of all the ups and downs of a teacher shortage.

This year, grade schoolers delved into lessons about residential schools and reconciliation

Sarah Humchitt, 19, graduated from Britannia Secondary School in Vancouver where she helped some teachers include First Nations content into the curriculum. (Sarah Humchitt/Facebook)

There has been a big push to weave Indigenous content into B.C. students' course work this past year in the midst of all the ups and downs of a teacher shortage.

But at the classroom-level, the delivery has varied as many teachers who are new to the profession or the content grapple with how to deliver it to students in an appropriate and meaningful way.

Student Sarah Humchitt, 19, of the Heiltsuk First Nation, grew up in Bella Bella, B.C. She found herself pressed into service as a teacher at Britannia Secondary School when she moved to downtown Vancouver.

"The teachers kind of didn't know how to teach it," said Humchitt.

"I felt a little pressured. But on the plus side I felt a little excited. People are going to be finally learning about how I was raised and how I grew up.

"There's a lot of prejudice against First Nations for being just drinkers and drug addicts and stuff."

By 2016, lessons focusing on Indigenous history and culture are slated to be implemented province-wide. This year, most grade schoolers learned about First Nations history, including residential schools. (Kelly Tuohey)

A few years ago, the province announced plans to augment curriculum in schools to include new content focused on diversity and Aboriginal issues.

For decades in B.C. classrooms, there was often little more than a few pages of lessons about Indigenous history in school textbooks. 

Residential schools and reconciliation

By 2016, lessons focusing on Indigenous history and culture were supposed to be implemented province-wide.

By next year, the ministry expects that all 540,000 students in all grades will be learning from the modified curriculum in all subjects — with embedded Indigenous perspectives.

But district administrators say the reality in the classroom often depends on the instructor's confidence with the material, developed with First Nations input with a goal to embed Aboriginal knowledge and world views' into every subject.

This year, grade schoolers delved into lessons about residential schools and reconciliation.

B.C.'s Education Minister Rob Fleming said the new Indigenous content is already in place across much of the province from kindergarten to Grade 9.

Next school year, mandatory content will be phased into higher grades.

Teachers are given the freedom to apply the approved content in a variety of ways, ranging from discussions to hands-on projects. Some are demanding more training and support to know how to do this.

For some teachers, Aboriginal history isn't well known.

"I think that in the absence of support for teachers there is certainly a nervousness around making a misstep or not doing it in way that is not appropriate," said Vancouver Elementary Teachers' Association president Chloë McKnight.

Change is slow

Jo Chrona, curriculum coordinator for the First Nations Education Steering Committee (FNESC) said systemic change is notoriously slow. Chrona suspects that is because some teachers are nervous about what to teach.

"There are teachers who are at the place of fear. They want to do it. They want to do it well and they are afraid to make a mistake, so they are asking for support," said Chrona.

And many districts have inexperienced staff in the wake of a hiring spree of thousands of teachers following a 2016 Supreme Court ruling that ordered class sizes to reduced.

Fleming said the changes will take time.

But he says Alberta, Ontario and western European countries are already looking to B.C. for advice on how to implement lessons on Indigenous history.

He admits the new content has sparked some debate, but says, overall it's gone "extraordinarily" well.

Students have a more nuanced view.

An unidentified student and educator enjoy the day at a school in the Gold Trail School District 74 in B.C., which includes Ashcroft, Lillooet and Cache Creek, and has more than 60 per cent Indigenous students. (Kelly Tuohey)

Humchitt, who graduated Grade 12 last year, says in her classroom she felt a bit put on the spot when, during a class, a teacher asked if the students agreed with efforts in Canada to make amends to First Nations for past wrongs. One boy disagreed.

"He said 'well, that's in the past, it's not affecting the now,'" she said.

"I ended up explaining that sometimes the past leaks into the now," said Humchitt.

She told the class how the Potlatch Ban — a law passed in the 1880s that banned  Aboriginal cultural practices such as the traditional gift-giving feast called a potlatch — and residential schools affected her now 85-year-old great grandmother.

Many First Nations were restricted from speaking their languages or practicing traditions so in turn these skills did not get passed down through the family.

Humchitt wishes she could speak to her great grandmother in her traditional language, but it's been all but lost.


  • A previous version of this story said Sarah Humchitt graduated in 2018. In fact she graduated in 2017.
    Jun 22, 2018 4:13 PM PT


Yvette Brend is a Vancouver journalist.