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Learning through a First Nations lens

How Indigenous education is increasingly being integrated into —and out of — classrooms in Squamish
Joyce Williams, a Squamish Nation councillor, reflects on the difference between the education she received and the education her daughter is experiencing now.

When Joyce Williams was a student, the curriculum didn’t speak to her.

“As a student in this [Sea to Sky] school district, I did not feel a connection to what was being taught to me,” she said. “I didn’t end up graduating and finishing school when I was supposed to. So, especially for First Nations, that connection gives the student a desire to learn and just to continue on with their education.”

She sees the difference that connection can make looking at her own daughter, now in Grade 3 in Aya7ayulh Chet (Cultural Journeys), which is a kindergarten to Grade 6 program guided by the principle that all learning is grounded in understanding the connected relationship of language, land and culture.

“They couldn’t get a peep out of me,” Williams recalls of her childhood at school. “I wouldn’t talk to anyone in my class.” By contrast, she said, her daughter is deeply connected to what she learns in school and flourishes. “My daughter is very outgoing, she’s very confident, learning her songs, learning her language, learning how to harvest herring and how to weave with cedar and with wool. I only wish, and I’m sure that our elders wish, that we had that when they were in school.”

You can see the pride on the faces of elders when they are invited to seasonal potlatches and observe the traditions being carried on by the youngest generation, said Williams. Brought up in a time when their culture and heritage were aggressively discouraged or beaten out of them, or at best in a time when their specific identities were ignored amid a homogenizing curriculum, the elders have lived to see their cultural expressions celebrated, perpetuated and welcomed not only by Indigenous children but also by non-Indigenous kids, their educators and parents.

Williams contends that School District 48, Sea to Sky, is doing an exemplary job at integrating Indigenous learning, approaches and cultural components into the curriculum, a method to be emulated by other districts in B.C. and across Canada.

The divergent school experiences of Williams and her daughter are not the only perspective the Squamish Nation councilor brings to the discussion. Prior to her election to council, Williams was a culture and language worker in the school system and now chairs the school district’s Aboriginal Education Council.

Speaking at the University of B.C. late last year, Senator Murray Sinclair, who headed Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, made the emphatic case that most of the social challenges facing First Nations, Metis and Inuit people in Canada today are rooted in a fundamental crisis of identity by successive generations about who they are. Allocating more funding for child welfare, policing or incarceration will not have a fraction of the impact that would be realized if the education system and society helped Indigenous young people realize who they are as Anishinaabe, Cree, Sto:lo or Mohawk, he said.

“The educational system is just not giving them what they need,” he said. “It begins with recognizing that … Indigenous youth, in particular, must be given their chance to develop their sense of self-respect first, and that’s going to take some time to do.”

What Sinclair views as a seminal piece of the puzzle in creating the best future for Indigenous Canadians is being modelled in Squamish and the surrounding area perhaps as much as anywhere in the country, according to a number of people working directly in the field and interviewed by The Squamish Chief. The public and independent schools in the area are implementing curriculum and practices that pay homage to the heritage of the land and its original peoples – something that benefits Indigenous students but also non-Indigenous ones, according to educators.

These changes have helped spike Aboriginal graduation rates, which some years recently has reached 100%, something Williams said School District 48 is rightfully recognized for. Outstanding challenges remain, she acknowledged, including the formalization of First Nations decision-making authority in education and the implementation of components around the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to which the provincial government recently announced an ongoing commitment. More practically, there is a challenge filling positions for teachers of the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh language because positions require provincial teaching accreditation. Integration of current events and issues like Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls should be included in the curriculum in an age-appropriate manner, she said.

She would also like to see her daughter’s program, Aya7ayulh Chet, continue past Grade 6 to high school.

Independent schools in the area are likewise keeping up with advances in Indigenous curriculum and processes.

Gabriel Alden-Hull, principal of the Squamish Waldorf School, said her school has brought in Indigenous artists and included lessons in the curriculum, something that fits neatly with the Waldorf philosophy.

“The oral tradition is very strong in Waldorf,” she said. “We believe in learning through stories.” Confronting things head on can lead to butting heads, but stories, like rivers, can flow around something and provide different ways to encounter a problem, she said. Waldorf also emphasizes the importance of relationships, “that we are connected to everybody and that no one is disconnected,” said Alden-Hull. “What we’ve been learning is that there is a huge similarity in some of these ways of thinking and ways of being.”

Creating a framework for a different relationship “beyond the colonizing relationship with First Nations,” is a critical step, she said.

“It’s a long process and no one can expect to do it perfectly but more important is that we try, and that we be open to being corrected, we be open to recognizing that sometimes the way we do things is not right but that shows us a path forward,” she said. “There has to be humility in that process. We are all learning.”

First Nations values also dovetail nicely with the Montessori philosophy, says Catrin Webb, director of education at the Squamish Montessori Elementary School. Parallels include the way adults talk to children, commitment to community and peace education and an inclination toward consensus.

History, including the difficult parts in age-appropriate ways, is integrated into the curriculum at various ages, she said, supplemented by visits from Indigenous artists and trips to destinations like the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre.

A teacher who recently attended a workshop on incorporating First Nations curriculum into education generally and Montessori schools specifically will present to a professional development session in February.

Coast Mountain Academy has a range of components at all levels of the high school. Novels with First Nations cultural aspects are studied and other education components are integrated into the learning, including First Nations games in physical ed classes and visits from elders and artists. But the things that most excite head of school Mike Slinger are the “immersion opportunities.” Students go on trips to the Stein Valley, to Clayoquot Sound and to the Cedar Coat Field Station on Vargas Island, each of which offers entryways into Indigenous cultures and connections with the land.

Looking at carvings in stone, Slinger said, students will ponder the people who created them.

“How did those get here?” he asks. “These pictographs have been there for hundreds of years and people used to live here. How did they live?”

The exploration is not limited to Turtle Island. Coast Mountain students have travelled to Ecuador and Peru, exploring ancient and contemporary cultures there.

“It’s the awareness and perspective that we’re really trying to do, just honouring the whole reconciliation process,” said Slinger. “It’s very difficult to change what’s happened but it’s important to realize what happened and understand that we can move forward with better harmony and understanding of each other.”

While independent and public schools are at different places in the process, all are moving increasingly toward a holistic approach that recognizes the importance of Indigenous culture and knowledge to students who are Indigenous and non-Indigenous.

School District 48 recently completed a significant update of an eight-year-old strategic plan for doing just that.

“We look at it through a lens of equity,” said Susan Leslie, the district’s director of instruction. “Diversity is a strength, inclusion is a right and personalization is the way forward.”

The education system plays a crucial role, she said, because it has been the vehicle for 150 years of miseducation on these issues.

“Understanding begins with the land that you learn on and that you walk on and that you live on every day,” said Leslie. “This work takes time. We’ll be doing this work for another hundred years. What’s exciting is that we have the courage and we are taking the risks to do this work here.”

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