Using First Nations icons in school 'not culturally safe,' says educator Ron McLester

Using First Nations references in classrooms as part of a push to educate young students about Canada's indigenous history may be a commendable goal says one educator, but if it isn't done with authentic cultural context it is "inappropriate."
Mohawk College's Ron McLester, with a wampum belt he made. McLester is the college's director of aboriginal education. (Jay Robb/Mohawk College. )

Using First Nations references and aboriginal cultural icons in mainstream Ontario classrooms as part of a push to educate young students about Canada's indigenous history may be a commendable goal says one educator, but if it isn't done with authentic cultural context it is "inappropriate."

Ron McLester says he was excited to hear an interview on CBC Kitchener-Waterloo with a teacher who was using First Nations traditions to teach her students, but when he learned the teacher herself wasn't First Nations, he thought the whole thing was "a bit odd" and it struck him as a potential example of cultural appropriation.

"What I think the problem is, is having a non-indigenous person using traditional indigenous knowledge in a way that may not be culturally safe or be approved to be authentic by the community," said McLester, the director of aboriginal education at Mohawk College in Hamilton, in an interview with Craig Norris on The Morning Edition Friday. "I think this is inappropriate." 

McLester, who lives in Kitchener, contacted CBC after hearing an interview with an elementary school teacher who uses some aboriginal cultural touchstones such as a medicine wheel to help students go through transitions. The teacher has been noted for honourable mention from the Toronto Star, which presents a Teacher of the Year award. 

But McLester says that the medicine wheel and smudging ceremonies are cornerstones of Anishinaabe culture. The wheels are an important spiritual concept, and even in some cases, actual physical monuments. One well-known medicine wheel is found in Bighorn National Forest in Wyoming. 

Ontario's push

Ontario's online resources for teachers state that "expectations are being incorporated into many areas of the elementary and secondary curriculum to help teachers bring First Nation, Métis and Inuit histories, cultures and perspectives into the classroom."

The provincial education ministry offers dozens of documents online about expectations, curriculum and suggested methods.

"I think there's a lack of understanding. So I support the essence of what this individual is doing, it's not meant to be negative to her as an individual," McLester said. "It surprises me...that there's an award being considered for using this stuff by a non-traditional person, given that our traditional people do this." 

'Bread and wine'

"I think there is a misunderstanding. I would never go into a classroom as a aboriginal man and take in some bread and wine, talk to students about the Holy Eucharist or communion and then walk them through that ceremony," he said. "I don't think that would be appropriate, I know I would be uncomfortable doing that, I think parents would probably not be comfortable with me doing that, and I highly doubt I would win an award for it."

McLester said that there are lots of resources for non-indigenous teachers to use, and encourages them connect with indigenous community members for help, and to build relationships with them.

"Don't connect only once, it's a lifetime to learn about smudging's a lifetime to learn about the medicine wheel. Those things need to be respected the same way any knowledge base would."

"The way forward is together," McLester said. "We share the world, we share the Earth, we share the air, so the future's together. So let's do it in a way that is respectful."