It's time to do the work.
Indigenous students experience our education system as an assimilation and nullification
of their own identity.” Michael Marker (2004p.105)
As an Indigenous lecturer, educator, administrator, and graduate student, I have been in many unwelcoming and uncomfortable spaces, that were designed for learning. Throughout my journey in education my many encounters with racism and potentially unwitting but nonetheless ignorant comments have cut into my being. While in these encounters I was often uncomfortable and felt I needed to be silent, my voice has strengthened as I have grown and matured in my own work. Yet as I reflect on my own experiences, I wonder why there are so many consistent accounts of toxicity for Indigenous students in classrooms. The current day school system is claiming to be making the effort to make schools a more welcoming and safer place for Indigenous, Black and students of colour. My wonder is what is the school system actually doing to create the kinds of spaces that are needed – spaces that are free of ignorance of colonial history and that do not retraumatize Indigenous, Black and students of colour while others learn? As Michael Marker suggests in the quote above – are nullification and assimilation the only avenues open for Indigenous students to not just enter but to survive in the education system?
The core of my work is helping preservice teachers understand Canada’s colonial history and the historical amnesia that the colonial system has built into our schooling. When people in positions of authority – such as teachers - do not know that history, they can say that they did not know because they were never taught, and may think that this is a “free pass” to being ignorant to their hurtful comments when teaching. Susan Dion (2007) calls this the “perfect stranger” approach towards Indigenous peoples. Dion speaks of this position teachers take to replicate the dominant norm of society and making them fearful of challenging this discourse that has been ingrained as knowledge. This positions educators as rule followers and protectors of the post contact historical dialog of right and wrong, and protects the teacher and enables them to sit safely within what they know and don’t know.
In other words, stating “I didn’t know” allows educators not to challenge the narrative and deepen their understandings of our shared colonial history of Canada. It is now time for educators to move away from the “I didn’t know” phase, and take up the responsibility to educate themselves so that they do know.
As educators what we bring into the classroom is what our students read, see, and learn. If what we are bringing into the classroom is curriculum of the “white” story and books about the “white story”, then this is what our students learn. The “white story”. This is usually because that is all we have ever been taught in our own education. The “white his-story”.
As Lana Vindevoghel (2016) argues, as educators we bring ourselves to what we teach. If we as educators have only been taught through the colonial lens, then (without active intervention on our part) that is how we will teach. This then perpetuates what is knowledge and it being the dominant narrative of the colonial system. As Sheila Cote-Meek (2014) writes:
… if as educators we choose not to introduce historical matter that may evoke strong emotive responses and students, we could also be contributing to the marginalization and suppression of that narrative. In these instances, the memory of particular histories is then placed in a space of the forgotten, effectively removing any burden of responsibility from colonizers. (p. 34)
What these authors are drawing attention to is the way in which knowledge (written knowledge but also all validated knowledges) are presented, taken up, and in effect curated for the students, and how it socializes students into social discourses. In essence, validated colonial knowledge systems when left unaddressed have a nullifying effect because they normalize the silencing of other knowledges and worldviews. This then allows for the erasure of Indigenous knowledge and history.
What I encourage educators to do is to read the Truth and reconciliation report. This is something you can do to learn about the Canadian shared narrative. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report is a document that tells the story of Canada’s relationship with Indigenous people and how the Indian Residential School system was a tool of cultural genocide on the Indigenous people of this land. For those of you who do not know this history, it is time to read this report. I encourage all of you to read the report and learn this history as it is critical for all Canadians to know in order for us to be able to truly understand our shared colonial history and for us to build a better future. It is in your hands as educators to make the difference. You as educators are going to be leading schools and the next generations to come. We start creating the next generation of leaders the moment those children walk through the doors in kindergarten. The responsibility of teaching the colonial history of this nation lies with you, to pass on this history to your students, so that we will never have another student, another adult, or another leader say; I did not know that history, I was never taught about it. This lies with you, it is your responsibility as school leaders to do this work and I am a believer that once we know better, we do better.