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Advancing Aboriginal Education in Canada : Giving Voice to Our Ancestors Kirkness, Verna J. 2005

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Abstract Advancing Aboriginal Education in Canada: Giving Voice to Our  Ancestors  The history ofAboriginal People in Canada is a story ofsocial injustice. This presentation will describe how Aboriginal People are using education to address these injustices in ways that inform their lives and gain their security as a people. The link to the Ancestors provided by the Elders is crucial to the movement. My very dear good friends, We give thanks to the Creator for bringing us together in a celebration of learning, of sharing, ofjoy and oftrust. May our time together be one of mutual respect and may our mission ofdiscovering and understanding enhance the lives of future generations. They told me to tell you the time has come.  They want you to know how they feel.  So listen carefully, look toward the sun.  The Elders are watching.  (Bouchard, Vickers, 1990) This verse is from a beautiful book entitled The Elders are Watching by Dave Bouchard and Roy Vickers, both West Coast Aboriginal men. In this book, they give voice to their ancestors. Roy Vickers says it is time for change: "Change comes from understanding ourselves, our weaknesses and our strengths. That understanding can be fostered through knowledge ofour past, our cultural heritage and our environment. This priceless wisdom is available from our Elders who like us received it from their ancestors". I am a Muskego Iskwew, a Swampy Cree woman from Ochekwi Sipi in the Interlake area ofManitoba. Throughout my career I have had the privilege of working among many different Nations ofAboriginal people not only in Canada but also in other parts ofthe world. What I have learned is that while our cultures (languages, customs) do vary, we share a similar history that has shaped our traditions, our knowledge and our core values. Weare all 1  influenced by our backgrounds, by our upbringing, our triumphs and our struggles in the place we find ourselves in society. The plight ofAboriginal Peoples ofCanada has been well documented in recent years. The most comprehensive is the Report ofThe Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples released in 1996. The Commissioners began the report with the statement that "Canada is a test case for a grand notion - the notion that dissimilar people can share lands, resources, power and dreams while respecting and sustaining their differences (RCAP, 1996: ix). They report that the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people evolved through the four followong stages: Stage I: Separate Worlds There was a time when Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people lived on separate continents and knew nothing ofone another. Stage II: Nation to Nation Relations FollOWing the years offirst contact, fragile relations ofpeace, friendship and rough equality were given the force oflaw in treaties. Stage III: Respect Gives Way to Domination Then power tilted toward non-Aboriginal people and governments. They moved Aboriginal people offmuch oftheir land and took steps to "civilize" and teach them European ways. Stage IV: Renewal and Negotiation Finally, we reached the present stage - a time ofrecovery for Aboriginal people and cultures, a time for critical review ofour relationship, and a time for renegotiation and renewal. (ReAP, 1996:5) Is it possible to change the course of five centuries ofcontact that has profoundly altered the lives ofgenerations ofAboriginal people? Everyday, we witness the struggles taking place as we try to mend our circle that was and continues to be broken. We aspire to be a whole people again, to regain the rights that we have been denied not only as the First Peoples ofthis land but the rights eqjoyed by the people from other countries who now make Canada their home. One ofthe most insidious forms of injustice that has been perpetrated on the lives ofAboriginal people has been the Indian Act of 1876. The late Chief Joe Mathias of the Squamish Nation in British Columbia, referred to the 2 Indian Act as "The Conspiracy of Legislation" (1986). "The legislation", he states, "speaks to a very clear intention to deprive us ofour land, destroy our cultures and to deny us the right to make decisions about our own well­ being". The Indian Act that has undergone a number of revisions over the years essentially had the effect ofprohibiting "Indians" from acquiring lands, from conducting their religious ceremonies and potlatches, from raising money and prosecuting claims or retaining a lawyer and even from obtaining higher education on threat of enfranchisement. It discriminated even further against Indian women providing that "an Indian women who married a non-Indian ceased to be an Indian within the meaning of any statute or law in Canada". This did not change until 1985. A major revision in 1951 lifted the ban on religious ceremonies and potlatches and no longer considered an Indian child who did not attend school, a juvenile delinquent. In essence, the Indian Act has had the decimating effect of destroying the cultures of our people. Other Acts of the government also limited the rights and freedoms ofour people. The Electoral Franchise Acts prohibited "Indians" from the right to vote in federal elections. This did not change until 1960. The Land Ordinance Act (1870) prohibited "any aboriginees of this continent" from pre-empting any tract ofunoccupied land, unsurveyed land, and reserved Crown Lands while this right was given to any male person being a British subject who was eighteen years old or over. The Land Act of 1888 continued the practice. Subsequent Municipal Election Acts, Provincial Election Acts and Public Schools Acts all prohibited "Indians from voting. These only changed in the last fifty years. These are some of the atrocities that Aboriginal people in Canada have had to endure. The impact has had the profound effect ofdestroying the social fabric of the people who were once the sole inhabitants ofwhat is now Canada. They told me to tell you the time has come They want you to know how they foel So listen carefully, look toward the sun The Elders are watching. Our experience in education has not fared any better. Before contact, Aboriginal people were providing their own form ofeducation. In this 3 traditional educatio~ the community was the classroom, its members were the teachers, and each adult was responsible to ensure that each child learned all he or she needed to survive and to live well. The teachings were based on the peoples' culture and addressed not only the cognitive development but also the spiritual, emotional and physical growth ofthe child. Through these teachings each individual was helped to develop hislher potential as a contributing member ofsociety. The late Nishinabe Elder, Arthur Soloma~ in his book, Songs for the People: Teachings on the Natural Way gives us his perspective on traditional education. The traditional way ofeducation  Was by example and experience and by storytelling  The first principle involved was total respect  And acceptance ofthe one being taught.  And that learning was a continuous process  From birth to death  It was a total continuity without interruption.  It was like a fountain  That gives many colours andflavours ofwater  And that whoever chose could drink as much or as little  As they wanted and whenever they wished.  The teaching strictly adhered  To the sacredness oflife whether human  Or animals or plants.  But in the course ofhistory, there came a disruption  And education became "compulsory miseducation"  For another purpose, and the circle oflife was broken  And the continuity ended.  It is that continuity which is now  Taken up again  In the spiritual rebirth ofour people.  (Soloman, xxxx) 4 ----------------------------~...-~~ The "disruption and miseducation" that the late Elder refers to is the education provided by missionaries and federal and public servants from the 17th Century to the present. This disruption was manifested in policies oriented toward assimilation. Under this system, the greatest negative impact in education was brought about by the residential school policy of 1893 that remained in effect until the 1980s. Dr. Rosalyn Ing, a Cree woman who is a residential school survivor, in her doctoral dissertation, "Dealing with Shame and Unresolved Trauma: Residential School and Its Impact on 2nd and 3rd Generation Adults writes: " There are three generations ofFirst Nations people alive who attended residential schools; many ofthem attended in the 1920s. They were children separated from their parents to satisfY a goal ofassimilation in Canadian Indian Policy where institutionalized racism was practiced in many forms. After separation, and away from parents and communities, Aboriginal languages were forbidden, and most children were punished if caught (speaking their Native tongue( (lng, 1991). Some had needles stuck in their tongues (Chrisjohn, 1997:243) and they suffered many other cruelties and indignities...Schools carried out a program ofcultural replacement so severe that it forced some (many) ofthose leaving the schools to deny their identity as Aboriginal people ... 'It took me years before I could admit I was an Indian, even to myself. In the end, most ofthe children returned from the schools alienated from their communities and unable to fit into Euro­ Canadian society because ofovert racism. Many ofthem had few resources to help them deal with this society because that important spiritual element ofself-esteem was severely compromised or nearly destroyed (lng, 2000:36­ 37). The residential school was notable for its high mortality rate among the students. At the turn ofthe century, an estimated 50% of the children who attended these schools did not benefit from the education they received. They died while at residential school of such diseases as smallpox and tuberculosis. It is believed that many died ofloneliness. Only recently has the quiet suffering ofgenerations ofsurvivors from these schools finally surfaced making us aware ofthe true devastation ofphysical, mental, emotional and sexual abuse suffered under this colonial regime. Colleen Simard, an Aboriginal journalist in Winnipeg, referred to the Indian residential schools as "the black eye ofCanada". The residential school survivors have been calling on the federal government to compensate them 5 for the years ofabuse in these schools. The latest approach ofthe government is the ADR or Alternative Dispute Resolution (alternate to the courts) introduced in 2004. There has been much criticism of this process as being far too slow and costly. As Simard reports, so far $125 million has been spent on administration ofthe ADR system to settle $1 million in compensation; 2,500 residential school survivors died in the first 65 weeks ofthe ADR process and during that time 50 claimants suits were resolved. In a subsequent article in the Winnipeg Free Press on February 23, it is reported that 88-year-old Flora Merrick ofLong Plain First Nation received a settlement of$I,500 that the federal government appealed. The cost ofthe appeal was $20,000. Grand ChiefPhil Fontaine is calling on the government to pay a lump sum payment to each survivor ($10,000 + $3,000 for every year spent at a residential school. He states that this proposal could be completed in five years and save taxpayers $2 billion compared to the ADR. Fontaine called residential schools, "the worst human rights violation in the history of Canada. Education administered by Federal Indian Residential and Day schools and the Public School system has fallen far short ofproviding a meaningful education for Aboriginal people. In a nutshell, missionaries and governments failed in three hundred years to provide an effective educational program for Aboriginal people in Canada. The failure has been attributed to "the historic exclusion ofFirst Nations (Aboriginal) peoples from the formation of formal education that has resulted in a foundation and superstructure that have been biased against First Nations precepts and customs in the curriculum, testing, protocols, and administration ... (CJNE, Vol.21 #1, 1995:182) This type of education for Aboriginal people has contributed to the weakening of Aboriginal society as a whole. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples characterized the current conditions ofAboriginal People compared with non-Aboriginal people as follows: • 	 illness is more common • 	 life expectancy is lower • 	 human problems from family violence to alcohol abuse are more  common  • 	 fewer children graduate from high school • 	 far fewer go to colleges and universities 6 • housing is sub-standard and homes are overcrowded • water and sanitation are more often inadequate • fewer Aboriginal people have jobs • 	 more spend time in jails and prisons  (RCAP, 1992:2)  They told me to tell you the time has come They want you to know how they feel So listen carefully, look toward the sun The Elders are watching The late Elder, Solomon spoke ofthe rebirth ofour people. "It is that continuity which is now taken up again in the spiritual rebirth ofour people". Over the last three decades, the Aboriginal people have made a great effort to mend our broken circle of life. Rebirth has been all around us as we strive to overcome the past and to make the lives better for our people. We believe that the answers to our survival and prosperity lie within us. We are seeking to break from the colonial past ofdependency perpetrated by governments who treated us as "wards ofthe government". We face a monumental challenge to govern ourselves as to do so is a threat to the livelihoods ofthose who make their living administering our misery. We are striving to uphold our treaties, to regain our lands, to control our education, our social and health services, to correct injustices and to determine our future. Education has been at the forefront ofthis movement paving the way to self-determination in 1972 by issuing a policy ofIndian Control of Indian Education. Despite the years ofdisappointment and frustration with an imposed system ofeducation, Aboriginal people continue to believe that education is necessary to function meaningfully and equally in today's society. Our people put forward a policy that addresses our philosophy, our principals, goals and directions. This landmark policy is historic in the sense that it represents the first time that Canada's Aboriginal people collectively took a proactive stand against government policy. Indian Control of Indian Education was based on two fundamental principles: parental responsibility and local control. It recognizes that Indian parents must enjoy the same fundamental decision-making rights about their children's education as other parents across Canada. It promotes the fundamental concept of local control that distinguishes the free political system ofdemocratic governments from those ofa totalitarian nature. 7 Indian Control of Indian Education is a four-point policy "requiring determined and enlightened action in the areas ofresponsibility, programs, teachers and facilities". Responsibility explains the delineating ofthe responsibility between parents and the government. Parents are to have full control ofthe design and implementation ofthe education oftheir children. The federal government is to provide the financial resources as per the treaties and the Indian Act. Programs were to be developed that honoured Indian traditions, history, culture, values and contributions made to Canadian society. The late George Manuel, President ofthe National Indian Brotherhood (now Assembly ofFirst Nations) who led the action to formulate a policy designed to change the face ofIndian education observed that: Indian philosophy ofeducation is in many ways more valid and universal than the one that prevails in educational circles today. Instead ofa one­ sided view ofhistory, we want our children to learn a Canadian history that attaches honour to the customs, values, accomplishments and contributions ofthis country's original inhabitants andfirst citizens, the Indians of Canada. We want our children to learn science and technology so that they can promote the harmony ofman with nature ... not destroy it. We want our children to learn about their followmen (women) in literature and social studies, and in the process, learn to respect the values and cultures ofothers. An Indian philosophy looks at learning and teaching as an integral part of living both for the teacher and the child. It is not a five-hour, five-day a week exercisefor a dozen years or so. It is a lifolong commitment (Manual, circa 1976). The third point dealt with the need for the federal government to provide the resources to prepare Indians (who were grossly underrepresented in the field at that time) as teachers and counselors. Finally, the policy called for improved educational facilities on the reserves. 8 The policy of Indian Control of Indian Education has been in existence for over thirty years. While we do not hear direct reference to the policy in education circles today, what we have/ and are experiencing in terms of efforts being made to make education better for our people is based on that landmark policy. What kind ofa grade would we get ifwe were to assess what has happened in just over thirty years? I believe we have done very well in spite ofthe fact that the government has not acted in good faith. The policy ofassimilation is alive and well in governments, schools and institutions ofhigher learning today. Were it not for the perseverance ofour Elders, parents, organizations, graduates and social activists, we would not be experiencing any positive changes. It is difficult to erase a 500-year-old plan. They told me to tell you the time has come They want you to know how they feel So listen carefully, look toward the sun The Elders are watching. As a direct response to the policy of Indian Control of Indian Education teacher education programs burgeoned across the country as did Native Studies Departments, Native Law Programs and various courses dealing with Aboriginal people that were introduced in colleges and universities. Whether we are speaking ofeducation at the primary, elementary, secondary or post-secondary levels, the greatest challenge has been to design curriculum for and about Aboriginal people that will enhance Aboriginal identity and also provide an appreciation ofAboriginal peoples to the rest of the population. We have worked with Departments ofEducation to prepare appropriate curriculum guides and resource materials in areas ofsocial studies, Aboriginal languages, and other subjects. First Nations schools have made significant advances in having First Nations teachers and appropriate curriculum. Some provinces have completely taken over the education of their people such as the Mi'kmaq in Nova Scotia (real ICIE), others have organized resource centers to serve the provincial education needs of Aboriginal people such as Manitoba and British Columbia (MFNERC, FNERC). Such urban areas as Winnipeg and Edmonton have established all Aboriginal schools. Critical for effective change in all these areas, is qualified professionals. As this is the purview ofuniversities it is, therefore, incumbent on universities to be willing to be flexible in their programming to attract and 9 hold Aboriginal students. One important move is to introduce an admissions policy that would enable more students to enter university. In an article entitled, First Nations and Higher Education: The Four R's - Respect, Relevance, Reciprocity, Responsibility, co-authored by Dr. Ray Barnhardt ofAlaska, we discuss the need for universities to respect the cultural integrity ofAboriginal students, to create programs/courses relevant to Aboriginal perspectives and experience, to engage in reciprocal relationships whereby every one is a teacher and everyone is a learner, and to encourage responsibility through participation. Much has been accomplished but much remains to be done. As we pursue an agenda of independence, we must have Aboriginal trained professionals in the areas of law, medicine and engineering, as well as in various technical and vocational areas. It was on that premise that we created The First Nations House ofLearning at the University ofBritish Colwnbia in 1987. Its mandate was/is to expand the range and depth ofprogram and course offering (beyond education and law), both for and about First Nations, within the University's faculties, schools, and institutes. I attended the annual Aboriginal graduation celebration at the First Nations Longhouse at UBC a couple ofyears ago and was delighted to see that the graduates were from ten different faculties (Science, Arts, Library, Archival and Information Studies, Social Work Education, Forestry, Law, dentistry, medicine and graduate studies, one honorary doctorate). To me, this was evidence that the House ofLearning mandate was taking effect. The First Nations Longhouse on the UBC campus was opened in May 1993. It is a magnificent 2,043 square metre Coast Salish style longhouse constructed of West Coast red cedar logs that serves as a "home away from home" on the campus. Our people are the fastest growing population in Canada and, at the same time, are experiencing the highest drop out rate. There has been a high success rate among mature students who make up the majority ofthe current university population. There continues to be a bottleneck at the secondary school level. Therein is the greatest challenge that Aboriginal peoples and post secondary institutions must address. Are universities doing enough to prepare teachers at the secondary level to work with students ofanother culture? Are Aboriginal parents convinced that higher education will bring due rewards? 10 On the positive side, there are a growing nwnber ofAboriginal people who have completed graduate studies. The bonus related to this achievement is that Aboriginal students are engaged in research to answer their own questions. As Dr. Carl Urion (1991), a Metis professor at the University of Alberta explained: Aboriginal people' research discourse has as its final asswnption, the integrity of the person. It asswnes a context in which there is unity and wholeness to be discovered or affirmed...It is thus essentially empirical. The major requirement is that subjects and researcher should engage together in creating the discourse. The participatory research using tradition as a base for change, is a means ofgaining security as a people. Research by our people is important as a necessity to inform our lives, to cOlmteract flawed research by outsiders, to be objects ofour own research, to own our research. I spoke earlier ofRoz lng's dissertation, Dealing with Shame and unresolved Trauma: Residential Schools and Its Impact on 2ad and 3n1 Generation Adults. Other titles by Aboriginal graduate students are: Jurisdiction and Control in First Nation School Evaluation, Indian Control of Indian Education, the Path of the Upper Nicola Valley, Language Renewal and Language Maintenance: A Practical Guide, Compassionate Mind: Implications of a Text Written by Elder Louis Sunchild (Canadian Journal of Native Education) to name a few. The Status ofWomen Canada has just released a publication entitled, A Holistic Framework for Aboriginal Pollcy Research by four Aboriginal women. I hope that I have managed to provide you with a glimpse ofour history, its affect on succeeding generations, and how we are attempting to inform our lives and of those yet unborn. I will assure you that we have done more to address the education challenges before us in thirty years than what was accomplished in the previous three hundred years. Education has been my whole life and I know the efforts to make positive change by people ofmy generation will be carried on by succeeding generations as more and more become educated and are committed to a mission ofservice to our people. They told me to tell you the time has come  They want you to know how they foel.  So listen carefully, look toward the sun  The Elders are watching.  11 Cree prayer Thank you. Vema J. Kirkness 12 -_ ......_-­


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