Headdress controversy points to bigger problems, First Nations educator says

A Montreal teacher's decision to hand out construction paper headdresses on the first day of classes points to the need for improved curriculum and awareness within the Quebec education system, a First Nations educator says.

Improved curriculum, awareness needed within the Quebec education system, expert says

Headdresses have been the subject of controversy, most recently at a Montreal school. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

A Montreal teacher's decision to hand out construction paper headdresses on the first day of classes points to the need for improved awareness and curriculum within the Quebec education system, a First Nations educator says.

"This is one small part of a larger conversation that needs to happen," said Orenda Boucher-Curotte, co-ordinator of the First Peoples' Centre at Dawson College.

"I'm slightly concerned that people who don't understand how this is offensive are then going to teach children about Indigenous people."

On Monday, the first day of classes after the summer break, two teachers at Lajoie elementary school in Montreal's Outremont borough were wearing First Nations headdresses and giving paper ones to the children to wear in the schoolyard.​

Boucher-Curotte​ said using headdresses in such a way trivializes Indigenous people. 

"We have a caricature in our heads of what Indigenous people are and we use headdresses as a symbol," she said. 

Teachers meant well, parent says

Sarah Dorner, who has a child at the school, said the teachers had good intentions. 

But she said the activity trivialized an important cultural symbol and that students would be better served by learning about Indigenous culture and history.

"I'm disappointed," she said.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended more First Nations education in Canadian classrooms, and this is a case where the need for that shows, she said.

This photo was taken Monday at École Lajoie and posted to Facebook, leading to calls for cultural sensitivity training within the school. (Jennifer Dorner/Facebook)

A spokeswoman for the Marguerite-Bourgeoys school board told CBC News that the headdresses were worn so children would know which "family, or class, to go to."

Both teachers have backgrounds in anthropology and history, and they are introducing Indigenous history into the curriculum at the Grade 3 level, said Gina Guillemette.

Guillemette said the school board apologizes if the activity offended anyone. 

Curriculum falls short, expert says

Boucher-Curotte, who also teaches at McGill University, said she has found that students from Quebec, unlike those from Western Canada, lack a solid understanding of First Nations history and culture.

She said Quebec needs to improve its First Nations school curriculum.

"They know about us from history books, but they don't know that we're part of the fabric of Montreal or the fabric of Quebec," she said. "I want to see action happen."

Montreal's largest English language school board, the English Montreal School Board, brings speakers from Aboriginal communities into classrooms.

"Of course, [Aboriginal issues] are taught in history books, but really not at the elementary level," said the board's spokesman, Mike Cohen.

He said teachers also benefit from the speaker.

"The teachers of course are there as well," said Mike Cohen, spokesman for the EMSB, "They get to benefit from the expertise."