Reclaiming First Nations’ education

Panel discusses schooling for natives

Education isn’t just what’s picked up in the classroom; it is also the intergenerational passing-down of cultural and spiritual vibrancy, something aboriginal people have long been pressured to forget.

Learning within the circle, a presentation coinciding with last week’s First Voices Week, sought to bring together for a mostly non-aboriginal audience a First Nation perspective on the struggles, setbacks, and attainments of aboriginal education and cultural pedagogy.

“You have to control education if you want your people, your culture, [and] your language to survive,” summed up Kenneth Deer, editor of the Mohawk community newspaper The Eastern Door and co-chairman of the National Indian Education Council in Canada. Alongside Deer were artist/writer/documentarian Alanis Obomsawin and Queen’s University Assistant Professor and Rhodes Scholar Lindsay Morcom.

Between the 19th and later half of the 20th century, the Indian Act determined how First Nations people would be incorporated into the Canadian social and legal system. For the time, the laws were at least nominally trying to better the lives of the country’s original inhabitants, though in reality it perpetuated a system of exploitation and led to, amongst other things, the residential schools into which aboriginal children were forcibly placed, and in which they experienced forced Europeanization.

Despite decades of struggle on the part of aboriginal people for recognition, slightly less than half of aboriginal individuals aged 18-64 have attained a postsecondary certificate—diploma, degree, trade school—compared to the almost two-thirds for the rest of Canada. That number falls to slightly above one-third amongst the Inuit population. Today, funding per student is thousands of dollars less than their non-aboriginal counterparts in the public system.

“We don’t ask for a right to self-determination. We exercise it,” said Deer, who helped set up aboriginal-run schooling in the ‘70s and ‘80s in Kahnawake. “If you believe that you’re sovereign, you’ll act like you’re sovereign.”

This education that he searches for is something deep. “By culture I don’t mean [just] songs and dances. I mean something more holistic: our politics, our clan system, our chiefs, the way we relate to our world,” said Deer.

“If we ever stop struggling we’re finished, we’re dead, we disappear,” he said. “So we are going to struggle, and sometimes we’re going to butt heads, because we’re not going to assimilate, we are not going to disappear.”

Another speaker, Obomsawin, referenced personal experience on those days of disappearing. Hers were the most poignant examples of the drive to stamp out the spirit of the culture.

“I knew one thing, I was going to a very dangerous place,” recalled Obomsawin of the humiliation heaped on her in the residential school system.

Despite this, she embodies hope, talking about an aboriginal rebound spearheaded by experienced activists and, most hearteningly, a generation of enthusiastic youth unapologetic of their origins initiating movements such as Idle No More.

The future of Canada’s stance towards aboriginal educational and the catch-up Bill-C33 was discussed. Here there was some disagreement on whether or not it was a step in the right direction. The bill, which aims at increasing the quality of aboriginal education through curriculum improvements and increased funding, has drawn criticism for maintaining the same unequal power dynamics and disparities.

Morcom drew allusions between the bill and civil unions for gay people wanting marriage: an ‘almost there’ solution that gives just enough budge to weaken public support and make those pressing for change look like they’ve overstayed their welcome. She also explained how it wouldn’t cover funding, services like libraries and immersion programs. By refusing to consult the hundreds of First Nations communities scattered across the country, Morcom believes Canada has once again taken on the paternalistic patronizing of its predecessors in deciding what it believes is best for aboriginal populations.

“It’s actually an extremely unjust piece of legislation,” she said.

Deer too blasted the bill, admitting he hadn’t and wouldn’t read it at all.

Morcom believes the way forward in the future is for Canadians to fully question and explore their past, and to realize their nation isn’t merely a friendly stereotype but has a history as a ‘colonizing culture’: “We need to think about how we think about history, how we think about each other’s rights.”

The aim isn’t a continuance of guilt for those of European descent, but an acknowledgment of inherited privilege and a critical acceptance that allows for the fact we may not be quite the friendly, open Canadian stereotypes we make ourselves out to be.

“We need to question that narrative or we’re never going to go forward,” says Morcom. “We all share a responsibility in the dialogue.”

Related Posts