With abundant resources, time is right for schools to include Indigenous perspectives, educators say

Many Indigenous educators are supporting non-Indigenous peers in building their knowledge of residential schools and colonialism, and sharing Indigenous perspectives. But as Canada marks its first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, the journey is just getting started.

More educators ready to tackle difficult conversations after focus on 'folklorama'

Isaiah Shafqat, a Grade 11 student and Indigenous student trustee for the Toronto District School Board, calls the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation 'a major opportunity for meaningful change.' (Natalie Kalata/CBC)

At a sunny outdoor assembly held at a Toronto high school on Wednesday — the eve of Canada's inaugural National Day for Truth and Reconciliation — Grade 11 student Isaiah Shafqat was happy to see Indigenous drumming woven throughout a program that included Indigenous and non-Indigenous students and educators speaking about residential schools.

"This will show students that there is more than just trauma associated with Indigenous being and that it is joyful and beautiful," said the Mi'kmaw student, who is the Indigenous student trustee for the Toronto District School Board.

"Students are more than willing to learn."

Since the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at the sites of several former residential schools across Canada earlier this year, there's been wider recognition of how little most Canadians have been taught about residential schools or Indigenous history, lives and perspectives.

In late May, the MPs unanimously passed legislation to create an annual National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, which Canadians mark for the first time on Thursday. The bill received royal assent on June 5 after it was unanimously endorsed in the Senate.

Against this backdrop, many Indigenous educators are supporting non-Indigenous peers in building knowledge about residential schools, taking a broader look at colonialism and sharing Indigenous perspectives. The goal is to present students with a more inclusive, honest portrait of Canada, but the journey is just getting started.   

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Winnipeg educator Bobbie-Jo Leclair and colleagues in the Louis Riel School Division recently noted the shift they've seen in how Canadians are now looking at history and how Indigenous perspectives are reflected.

Until recently, "people really just wanted the folklorama, the arts and crafts, the dance, the song, the music — but nobody really wanted to address the colonial history," said Leclair, a divisional vice-principal in Indigenous education.

"What's amazing today is that we are able to have those conversations that we've never had before."

Leclair — who is Nehiyaw from One Arrow First Nation in Saskatchewan through her father and Métis on her mother's side — said she recognizes that many teachers and school leaders never fully learned about colonial history as students themselves.

All the same, she said, they can't delay incorporating Indigenous perspectives into their classrooms. There is an incredible array of both professional development and classroom resources available today, as well as clear points in the existing curriculum where they can be included, she said.

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To move forward in reconciliation, students need to learn both colonial and pre-colonial history — and there are natural spots from kindergarten through Grade 12 where teachers can introduce these lessons, says Bobbie-Jo Leclair, a vice-principal in Indigenous education for the Louis Riel School Division.

If children start learning about the Indigenous nations in their local community during the primary years, for example, it lays the groundwork for addressing harder conversations in subsequent grades — such as when in Grade 5 they're slated to learn about first contact between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, Grade 7 when they tackle human rights, or in Grade 12 when they read about missing and murdered Indigenous women, Leclair said.

"I always reassure teachers: 'It's OK that you don't know, but it's not OK for you not to teach it,'" she said.

"Our students are waiting for us to take those steps. How long do we let them wait before we have the courage to talk about these types of things?"

Faster movement, more teacher education needed 

Indigenous education has made strides in recent years, with Indigenous communities increasingly involved in creating resources and writing curriculum, said Linda Isaac, national director of Indigenous education, equity and inclusion for Canadian educational publisher Nelson, which is based in Toronto.

It's a far cry from what she remembers from childhood. "I sat there in the Grade 8 classroom reading that I was a savage, and that's what the curriculum was telling Indigenous people and teaching non-Indigenous children," she said.

"We are, I think, dealing with Indigenous issues in a better way in the curriculum, but there's still way more work that needs to be done."

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Teaching students about Indigenous lives and history earlier on and improving what teachers know about the topics are both necessary, according to Nelson Education's Linda Isaac and Steve Brown.

A member of Alderville First Nation in south-central Ontario, Isaac works at Nelson to boost Indigenous voices in textbooks, readers, digital educational resources and professional learning materials that are used by teachers in every province and territory.

The Under One Sun series, for example, introduces students to Indigenous histories, cultures and perspectives in a contemporary context. It also provides teachers with grade-appropriate guidance and support on different topics, including residential schools, treaty education and reconciliation.

Educators must respond to societal shifts that have occurred even within the past five years, said Nelson president and CEO Steve Brown.

"Five years ago, language that was used to explain what was going on in Indian residential schools and the atrocities that took place was much less direct and specific than it is today. So when you wait to change those things on a publishing cycle, you're losing a generation," he said.

"Society still is very largely ignorant. And whilst [knowledge is] increasing, there's a long, long way to go to reach the levels that this country needs to be fair to Indigenous communities, generational survivors, as well as the population at large to understand the stain [of residential schools] on this country's history."

'I don't expect that it's going to change overnight'

Isaac, who spent more than 30 years as an educator and principal before joining Nelson, believes key steps toward reconciliation include more robust Indigenous education from kindergarten to Grade 3.

She also wants to see a significant boost to teacher education — not only exploring the past, but also repairing the damaged relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.

Isaac says she knows these changes can't happen in a day.

"[Reconciliation] will take generations. I don't expect that it's going to change overnight with my children or my grandchildren," she said.

Although Isaiah Shafqat didn't learn about Indigenous history and culture or see his heritage reflected in his elementary classrooms, he said teachers have improved at "centring Indigenous voices and perspectives in the curriculum and the ways they teach" since he's been in high school.

"This is a major opportunity for meaningful change. Now that we all know the truth, we can all act together to create healing and reconciliation."

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools and those who are triggered by these reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

With files from Deana Sumanac-Johnson, Nigel Hunt and Natalie Kalata