Charting progress on Indigenous content in school curricula

Some provinces and territories have made strides in including Indigenous knowledge and history in school curricula but in others, teachers say they're left to push forward on their own.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission told educators to 'remedy the gaps' in knowledge that perpetuate racism

How much a child learns in the classroom about Canada's Indigenous Peoples varies across the country. (CBC)

Some provinces and territories have made strides in including Indigenous knowledge and history in school curricula but in others, teachers say they're left to push forward on their own.

In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released its final report with calls to action to make age appropriate curriculum about residential schools, treaties and the lives of Indigenous people past and present mandatory in schools, and for education ministers to maintain an annual commitment to this, including teacher training.

The report's executive summary said education is the "key to reconciliation."

"Much of the current state of troubled relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians is attributable to educational institutions and what they have taught, or failed to teach, over many generations," the report said.

"Education must remedy the gaps in historical knowledge that perpetuate ignorance and racism."

All provinces and territories now include the history of residential schools in their curriculum, but not all of it is mandatory, nor is it extensive.

The process of including Indigenous history and perspectives into school curricula has been slow and there is still more work to be done. CBC Indigenous looks at the progress in a few provinces and one territory.

'Quite intense' revisions in B.C.

Looking at how British Columbia's Indigenous content in the curriculum has changed from five years ago, Jo Chrona, director of the First Nations Education Steering Committee, said it's been an improvement.

In 2015, in response to the TRC, the province updated its curriculum to include more First Nations knowledge and learning, with a commitment to roll it out province-wide in 2016.

"It's been quite intense in that everything has been opened up and revised in a relatively short period of time," said Chrona.

Photo shows a smiling First Nations woman
Jo Chrona is the curriculum co-ordinator for FNESC and helped create the first provincial Indigenous curriculum for B.C. classrooms. (Jean Paetkau/CBC)

Kindergarten to Grade 9 changes came into effect in 2016, and this September all courses in Grades 11 and 12 will use the revised curriculum.

Chrona said beyond the province's curriculum, students are learning about Indigenous cultures in the classroom through collaboration with local First Nations.

Yukon goes local

To the north, school boards in Yukon are using the B.C. curriculum as a model, adding in the unique perspectives of First Nations from the territory. 

"I think the most important part is incorporating local First Nations culture into the classroom," said Andrew Noble, vice-principal at Ghùch Tlâ Community School in Carcross. 

He said it's vital there's an understanding by teachers of the intergenerational trauma from residential schools and how it affects the lives of students. 

Creating a safe space for students by bringing elders and knowledge holders into classrooms is a proactive step that Noble's school is taking. 

Although not Indigenous, Noble said he appreciates the complex history between schools and communities following the legacy of the residential school system.

No curriculum changes in Manitoba

In Manitoba, the curriculum hasn't really changed.

Teachers have access to two supplementary resources; one from 2003 for teachers to help students understand Indigenous perspectives in Manitoba and a language-focused document to guide Indigenous language programming in the province.

"They have these resources to access. But the problem is, because they're not embedded within the actual Manitoba curriculum, often times they are not used," said Bobbie-Jo Leclerc, Indigenous education consultant for the Louis Riel School Division in Winnipeg.

"It really is up to how the teacher wants to use them."

Bobbie-Jo Leclerc is the Indigenous education consultant for the Louis Riel School Division in Winnipeg. (Submitted by Raman Job)

She said she knows of several school divisions in Manitoba that have introduced an Indigenous education support team which involves consultants, language teachers and classroom support teachers to create more Indigenous content. 

Leclerc said in her school division they have bilingual teachers who teach Ojibway language for all students K-Grade 3, adding there's an increasing capacity for students who want to learn a language. 

'Still waiting' on 2nd round of revisions in Ontario 

Last year, Ontario's new Progressive Conservative government abruptly cancelled the second session of planned Truth and Reconciliation curriculum rewrites days before they were set to take place. 

In 2016, the previous Liberal government had committed to updating course content for elementary and secondary levels, working with residential school survivors and Indigenous partners. The first round of revisions focused on Grade 4-6 social studies, Grade 7-8 history and Grade 10 history. 

The second round would have seen more Indigenous content in social studies for Grade 1-3, Grade 9 geography and some high additional school courses.

"We're still waiting to find out when that's going to be revitalized," said Jodie Williams, co-chair of the First Nations, ​​​​Métis and Inuit Education Association of Ontario and Indigenous education lead for the Dufferin-Peel Catholic School Board. 

Despite cancelling the second session of revision work, the Ontario government maintains it is committed to enhancing connections between the curriculum and Indigenous Peoples' experiences, perspectives, knowledge and ways of knowing.

In an emailed response to CBC News, a spokesperson from the Ministry of Education said that in September 2018, curriculum revisions made Indigenous course content mandatory for students in Grade 4-8 and Grade 10.

These were the revisions developed under the previous government.

The statement continued, "To support this work, the ministry will continue to work with Indigenous partners to co-design an approach to strengthen Indigenous content and learning across all subjects, courses and grades, including Indigenous languages." 

No mandatory Indigenous content in Quebec

There is not yet mandatory Indigenous content in the curriculum in Quebec. 

"A lot of what ends up being integrated into the curriculum comes from the teachers themselves," said Curran Jacobs, Indigenous resource teacher at the NOVA Career Centre, an adult education school in Châteauguay, Que.

"It's up to the teachers to be creative in some cases ... like in English courses for example it's a lot easier to inject Indigenous content because they're learning how to read and write and speak."

Jacobs also said it's a school-by-school basis with what Indigenous content is being taught.

A lot of what ends up being integrated into the curriculum comes from the teachers themselves.-  Curran Jacobs

The school she works in and the high school next door have a lot of students who are Indigenous, so there is more desire for Indigenous knowledge to be brought into classrooms. 

Lack of guidance or support for non-Indigenous teachers on how to teach Indigenous perspectives is a challenge, according to Jacobs.

"I think there's a lot of fear and uncertainty about not doing it the right way, and so there's no real guidance from the ministry and from some administrators because they aren't sure how to navigate it either," said Jacobs.

Curran Jacobs is an Indigenous resource teacher at the NOVA Career Centre in Châteauguay, Que. (Submitted by Curran Jacobs)

Jacobs said she believes one thing that can be beneficial is for schools to build relationships with the communities around them.

"It's a hard door to open, but once that door is opened for communication between Indigenous communities and non-Indigenous, then I think we can really move forward with trying to revamp this curriculum and seeing our students learning more."

In an emailed statement from the ministry of education in Quebec, a spokesperson wrote that all of the schools under the Cree School Board and the Kativik Ilisarniliriniq School Board in Quebec's Inuit communities offer language programs, adding that these are local initiatives. 

"No current language or aboriginal culture is prescribed by the ministry at primary and secondary level," said the spokesperson. 

Treaty education in Nova Scotia

In January 2015, Nova Scotia committed to incorporate treaty education into the public school curriculum and across all grade levels. In October of that year, the provincial government signed an agreement with the Mi'kmaq of Nova Scotia to start the work.

A document, titled Treaty Education Framework for Curriculum Development, was created to provide direction for integration of treaty education into curriculums. 

Teachers, elders, the Mi'kmaq school board and public schools collaborated on the framework for primary grades to Grade 12 in early 2016, with age appropriate content for each grade level.

Jacob Gale, director of Mi'kmaq Services with the Nova Scotia Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, said the framework helps bring in more Indigenous content and resources into classrooms each school year.

Jacob Gale, a former Grade 5 teacher at Enfield District School worked with students on an inititive about reconciliation last year. He is now coordinator for Mi'kmaw edcuation and services with the Halifax Regional Centre for Education. (Submitted by Jacob Gale)

"This year we have a plan that every school in Nova Scotia will have Mi'kmaq resources," said Gale.

They're also working on addressing non-Indigenous educators' nervousness around teaching content they didn't learn themselves. 

"I think one of the challenges that teachers face is their comfort level. It's important for us that we're able to help bridge that gap or help them feel more comfortable in what we call cultural confidence," said Gale.