Education for reconciliation

An illustration in white lines on a green background. It shows a classroom, with a map of the land we know as Canada on the wall.
Illustration by: Amelia Rankine

When the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) was first released in 2015, Pamela Toulouse, who is Ojibwe/Odawa from the Sagamok First Nation and a professor at Laurentian University, said she couldn’t wait to see educators across the country embrace the opportunity to work with Indigenous communities.

The report—and its 94 Calls to Action—put forth the idea that reconciliation could be spearheaded by changes in education, specifically by closing the education gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth, and by incorporating Indigenous cultural education into existing frameworks.

Toulouse said reading those Calls to Action was a dream come true.

As an Indigenous person and an educator, she finally felt like her culture and identity would be an integral part of the learning that would take place within classrooms in every school.

“Twenty-seven years ago, when I started out in teaching, there was the lack of recognition of the validity of Indigenous approaches to education,” Toulouse said. “And it’s not that the lack of recognition was with Indigenous communities—it’s been the lack of recognition from various provincial, territorial, and federal governments at the time that wouldn’t recognize our knowledge as legitimate, our languages as legitimate, and the ways that we teach our content as important.”

“Fast forwarding over that 27-year period, I feel that I’ve been very lucky to see education being transformed.”

The TRC intends to compensate survivors of the residential schools system and work towards a better future for the Indigenous peoples living on the land known today as Canada.

The Commission’s final report—Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future—documents the experiences of approximately 7,000 Canadian residential school students, many of whom were sexually and physically abused.

Along with the report, the commission also released its Calls to Action. The 94 recommendations therein serve as a framework for working from truth to reconciliation.

One of the significant calls to action is the implementation of education for reconciliation, based on the idea that through consent and consultation with Indigenous people, a new education system could bring Indigenous children to the forefront instead of consistently leaving them behind.

Five years since they were first put forth, none of the calls to action to improve Indigenous education in the country have been completed.

Toulouse says it’s been over 150 years of Canada presenting old myths and omitting Indigenous history and values from education in the country.  According to her, it’s going to take just as long to recover and reconcile.

“It’s taken 150 years of colonial education to reshape the lives of Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, and how we relate and view each other. So it’s going to take a long time [to address all the Calls to Action],” she said.

At the same time, Toulouse says she has seen examples of Indigenous communities across the country who have propelled reconciliation forward by leading by example.

Through community initiatives and the creation of school boards that are by Indigenous people for Indigenous children, Toulouse says Indigenous communities are now saying, “It is our children, our education, our way.”

Barriers to increased education for Indigenous youth are physical and financial, but they’re also emotional, too.

When the topic of education for Indigenous children is wrapped in memories of centuries of abuse, forced assimilation, and cultural genocide, how can non-Indigenous frameworks for learning expect to gain the full trust of the Indigenous children and parents they serve?

The TRC’s Calls to Action are specifically targeted at the Canadian federal government. As a result, on the provincial, territorial, and community level, implementing reconciliation into schooling has taken on a variety of formats.

Both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities responded to the Calls to Action with their own initiatives, while others have been working towards Indigenous-informed education since well before the TRC was formed.

In Aug. 2020, the Yukon First Nations Education Directorate (YFNED) was formed. Led by chiefs and community members from the territory’s 14 First Nations, the YFNED is working to exert more control over the education of Indigenous students and create a separate First Nations school board in the territory.

The June 2019 Report of the Auditor General of Canada to the Yukon Legislative Assembly found that the territory is failing to meet the education needs of many students and isn’t doing enough to reflect First Nations culture and languages in the classroom.

Melanie Bennett, the executive director for the YFNED and a member of the Tr’ondek Hwech’in First Nation, told The Pigeon that the directorate was created as a direct response to the auditor general’s report, which identifies the “inaction that was happening in regards to First Nations education in Yukon.”

According to the report, part of the problem is that the territory’s education department hasn’t partnered with First Nations to develop effective programming, and while committed to providing more inclusive programming, it hasn’t really followed through.

One example of these unmet promises is the Yukon Department of Education’s inability to better reflect Yukon First Nations culture. The report says the department didn’t have a human resource plan and lacked the resources needed to help teachers reflect Yukon First Nations culture in the curriculum.

It also found that program support for Yukon First Nations culture varied from school to school. For example, some schools reported they had met the cultural inclusion standard , which is to have at least one Yukon Indigenous land-based activity each season. Other schools reported no land-based activities at all.

Bennett says the YFNED is working to improve education in the territory by working with the 14 First Nations communities to create curricula and programming that meets the needs of their children.

For Bennett, this work is divided into four pillars: creating a school board or regional education agreement, building capacity, supporting research programs and initiatives, and holding the government accountable.

“Our work with these communities is to really be there with them in those four areas—my number one goal is that we have to go, consult, and listen to what communities want because they know what’s best for their citizens and ensure that their voices are being heard,” she said.

“Each community has their own unique vision for education, and I’m doing my best to have our team here in support and capacity to implement that for them.”

As part of these efforts, the YFNED has been creating programming that engages Yukon First Nations members in learning and dialogue. One of them is the Nurturing the Learning Spirit workshop taking place on Nov. 25­­–26.

A collaboration between the directorate and IRP Consulting, an Indigenous-led firm, the two-day workshop hopes to bring community members on the land to build connections and celebrate their culture and successes.

Tosh Southwick is the co-founder of IRP Consulting.

An abbreviation that means “Inspire. Reconciliation. Potential,” Southwick says the purpose of the programming IRP creates with local organizations, including their upcoming workshop with YFNED, is to address the 94 calls to action put forth by the TRC and to foster and support conversations about reconciliation and education in the territory.

“The intent behind the workshop is to really provide some uplifting moments for those people who have been working on the frontlines of education for a long time—supporting them to hold their heads up high in all of the hard work they do, and giving them some skills to nurture the learning spirit for the students that they all advocate for,” Southwick said.

According to Southwick, while the territory has seen progress, it has not necessarily seen the systemic change needed to sustain reconciliation; this is why IRP’s reconciliation-focused programming is important.

“It’s about showing people what reconciliation is and what it looks like,” Southwick said. “It’s about having those opportunities for some of those difficult conversations. I’ll often say to people, if you’re not uncomfortable, then we’re not doing reconciliation. We’re not moving forward. We’re not advancing.”

“It’s tough work,” she added, “and I think the future for IRP is supporting those conversations and trying to make sure that we’re navigating [reconciliation] with Indigenous voices at the forefront.”

Along with the creation of new initiatives, Indigenous organizations that existed long before the TRC’s report came out are spearheading reconciliation-driven education across the country.

The Urban Society for Aboriginal Youth (USAY) in Calgary, Alta., is an example of reconciliation efforts that predate the TRC.

USAY was created in the late ’90s when a group of Indigenous youth formed a council to address high suicide rates among young people in their communities.

The council worked with Al Duerr, the mayor of Calgary at the time, and helped create programming, services, and activities that would reduce the rates of suicide among local Indigenous youth.

One of the recommendations Duerr put forth was the creation of a permanent Indigenous youth agency that would keep this work going.

That’s how the society came to fruition so many years ago. Today, the society uses its programming not only to address suicide among Indigenous youth, but to foster a positive identity and sense of self in each Indigenous youth that participates.

LeeAnne Ireland, the executive director of USAY, told The Pigeon that when it comes to reconciliation through education, the society hopes to be a space that creates a bridge for Indigenous youth instead of one focused entirely on removing barriers for them.

“We focus on what it means to be Indigenous and the vibrancy of our people, and we believe that focusing on the barrier strengthens the barrier—it doesn’t strengthen the intervention,” Ireland said. “So for example, we believe that focusing on reducing isolation, building connection and relationships, and fostering empowerment and good cultural identity is the way to overcome high suicide rates.”

Ireland says this shift in narrative is visible in the kinds of programming USAY undertakes.

Along with charitable activities such after-school and lunch programs, USAY creates programming that allows Indigenous youth in the city to express themselves through art.

This includes creating augmented reality murals and virtual reality games that focus on education and positive Indigenous storytelling. It also includes publishing their own magazine called New Tribe, which serves as an outlet for Indigenous youth voices and promotes a positive outlook on Indigenous people through stories, artwork, fiction, poetry and journalism.

“Everything we try and do has a foundation in Indigenous culture,” Ireland says.

According to her, culture and tradition is an important part of reconciliation-driven education because it helps Indigenous people resonate with their own communities and stories more. At the same time, Ireland says it is also a way of bringing both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people “into the conversation.”

“It’s important when you’re an Indigenous person to ground things in traditional Indigenous worldviews and culture so that it makes sense [to you],” Ireland said, “and then the educational component is to invite non-Indigenous people into that conversation.”

“How do you create opportunities for dialogue and conversation that are meaningful to non-Indigenous people and invite them in to see the value, diversity, and strength of Indigenous culture instead of the more negative perceptions of what it means to be an Indigenous person?” she added.

“How do you create those opportunities to have really interesting discussions and then build action towards truth, reconciliation, and anti-racism efforts?”

While the YFNED and USAY are working towards reconciliation in their own way, reconciliation-driven community initiatives and school boards are not new.

The first Indigenous school board in Canada was the Cree School Board of Québec which was established in 1975. The country has also seen the creation of the Anishinabek Education System in Ontario, Mi’kmaq in Nova Scotia, and the B.C. First Nations Education Steering Committee.

The Cree School Board is still operating today, serves nearly 6,000 students, and works to “[serve] the Cree living in Eeyou Istchee and [empower] us to take control of our own education system as well as to protect our language, culture, and traditional pursuits.”

Part of the school board’s philosophy is that “the Cree child is a unique individual and that we have the responsibility for the proper spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical development of that child.”

This philosophy—that Indigenous children flourish when educated within their community and through culturally driven practices—is not a new one. It’s based in longstanding First Nations teachings, but has been pushed aside by colonial acts.

In a 2011 report based on the National Panel on First Nation Elementary and Secondary Education for Students on Reserve, the panelists, led by John Duncan, the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada at the time, noted how the trauma of residential schools needed to be at the forefront of discussions about Indigenous education.

“First Nation students are not failing. Rather, we are failing students through the impact of legislative provisions that are more than one hundred years old and linked to a period that we now accept as deeply harmful and destructive—the residential school era,” the report reads.

Part of helping community-oriented teachings flourish again is emphasizing the learning that happens away from classrooms. Through learning on the land, being guided by Elders, and being taught traditional languages, Indigenous youth are given different avenues for education.

According to Toulouse, seeing the creation of Indigenous school boards across the country has helped both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students by giving them a “holistic” education that is rooted in knowledge, heritage, language, and culture.

However, for reconciliation through education to move forward, Toulouse also says that education both within the school system and outside of it needs to change. This is why she thinks that the creation of the YFNED and a First Nations school board in the territory, as well as community initiatives and organizations such as USAY, are equally important.

“The thing is, Indigenous people and communities do things the way that we do [because] it’s always been about lifelong education,” she says. “It’s always been about honouring our children. It’s about giving them the tools to continue practising their culture and language, and also giving them the tools to be confident in living in any world that they choose to.”

“We’ve been saying this for years—our schools [should be] structured to honour the community and make sure they’re included—that their vision of education is represented in our schools.”

Ireland says there needs to be greater focus and funding for Indigenous organizations, initiatives, and programs that are spearheaded by Indigenous people themselves because changes put forth by the government take a long time to come into fruition.

“There’s a lot of government advisers that are now cancelling reconciliation curriculum in schools,” Ireland said.

Ireland was specifically referring to recent changes in Alberta, where curriculum advisers picked by the Alberta government earlier this year recommended changes to the kindergarten-to-Grade 4 curriculum for fine arts and social studies.

These changes would eliminate all references to residential schools and “equity.”

“They say that it’s too scary for six-year-olds to learn about residential schools. Well, it must’ve been really scary for six-year-olds to go to residential school,” Ireland said. “Education systems are slow to react and, and in some cases, in denial of teaching some of Canadian history.”

Ireland says for Indigenous children to succeed, communities can’t rely solely on formal education.

“I think our role is supplementary because, regardless of what’s happening in systems, we’ll have a parallel approach where we tell our truth and we work on reconciliation efforts as we see them as Indigenous people—that’s not dictated by external forces.”

This December marks five years since the TRC’s final report. According to the Yellowhead Institute’s 2019 accountability update, in the five years since the 94 calls to action were released, only nine have been completed.

These include Call 13, which demands a federal acknowledgement of Indigenous Language Rights; Call 41, which demands an inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG); Call 72, which demands federal support for the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation; and Call 90, which demands federal support for Indigenous sports programs and athletes.

When Toulouse first started her career 27 years ago, Indigenous knowledge and history wasn’t a part of the curriculum taught by most schools; Indigenous languages weren’t widely spoken outside of the community, learning on the land wasn’t seen as a necessary part of healing, and Indigenous communities weren’t always consulted about what their children were being taught.

Today, Toulouse says she is proud to see that so much has changed in education—both in the 27 years that she’s been an educator and in the five years since the TRC’s final report was released.

However, while Indigenous people and communities are working toward reconciliation in their own ways, Toulouse, whose spirit name means “she who looks ahead,” says she believes that when it comes to Indigenous education and reconciliation through it, there is more work ahead than behind.

More importantly, Toulouse says that moving forward, non-Indigenous people need to work towards reconciliation as well.

“I think that it’s important to understand that no matter where, Canadian citizens who are non-Indigenous are in the homelands of a particular Indigenous nation, and that when you’re in those homelands, those homelands are to be treated like your own home. So how would you want people to behave in your own home? How do you want them to treat your children, to treat you?” Toulouse said.

“I would like non-Indigenous people to think about how they benefited and continue to benefit from the subjugation of Indigenous peoples,” she added. “Truth and reconciliation and treaties—it’s here to stay.”

“Canadians are really going to have to find a place in themselves, to look at their own children, nieces, nephews, and to say […] ‘Because I want my own children to be safe, I can relate to Indigenous people wanting the same.’”

Ireland agrees.

“Five years out [from the TRC final report], I think I see there’s an awareness that reconciliation needs to happen, and there’s some effort in trying to achieve that,” she said. “But we’re not at the point where we’re enacting all of them just yet. I think that there is a greater awareness, but five years is a long time to unravel 500 years of colonization.”

“Living reconciliation is beyond a land acknowledgement or beyond interacting on a surface level with what it means to be Indigenous,” Ireland added. “[It’s] really having conversations that make people feel uncomfortable. So what I really think we should focus on is living reconciliation, fostering dialogue, and building relationships between cultures and people.”

Meral Jamal was born and raised in a family of 20 in the United Arab Emirates. That may be why she is loud, messy and a little all over the place. She is a journalism and history student at Carleton University. 

Share this article

Like this article? We’ve got much more in store, with the help of our incredible donors.
As of right now, The Pigeon is run almost entirely by volunteers, but thanks to the readers who have become monthly donors, The Pigeon was able to pay three Indigenous journalists and one Indigenous illustrator to contribute to this project, “Tracing Threads.”
Can you become a monthly donor for as little as $10 a month today?
With your financial help, we can continue to share unique stories, prioritize marginalized voices, and create positive change in the Canadian media landscape.