It’s been a big month for Ella Laforme. She’s starting university after being among the first high school graduates from Kapapamahchakwew – Wandering Spirit School — the first Indigenous-led school in Toronto.
She says the school changed her life.
“For once I wasn’t a token student. I was just another student at that school, which is like one of the most refreshing things to feel,” Laforme told Global News’ current affairs show, The New Reality.
Earlier in her life, Laforme attended mainstream public schools where she remembers teachers calling on her, when she was only 10 years old, to explain Indigenous culture, traditions and history to the class.
She felt put on the spot and obligated to teach the class.
“I felt almost guilty. Like I should have been speaking about my culture, even though I knew I couldn’t, because I didn’t even know what they were talking about.”
She felt her teachers did not have the necessary knowledge or resources.
Schools, and especially history textbooks, she tells Global News, typically emphasize the “falling or the eradication of Indigenous Peoples,” and reflect upon Indigenous traditions “in the past tense, as if we aren’t here anymore.”
“We are successful people, who do successful things, but in history textbooks,” Laforme says, “there’s none of that.”
She eventually changed schools, and started attending Wandering Spirit, part of the Toronto school board. It focuses on Indigenous language, arts and tradition.
Laforme says the experience at Wandering Spirit was transformative. She was able to interact with other students who “got me, and who understood what I was talking about.”
The curriculum is ‘our way of life’
In 1976, Pauline Shirt and her late husband, Vern Harper, started Wandering Spirit in their living room — a vision that grew over decades.
Pauline at only eight years old was taken to a residential school in Alberta, schools where students were forced to assimilate and abused for their culture and speaking their language.
Decades later, living in Toronto, she watched her own children be bullied in public school for being Indigenous.
“They made them feel ashamed, they were ill-treated, very, very, very badly,” Shirt recalls of her kids’ experience in school.
Despite asking administrators for help, nothing was done and school was unsafe for her children.
So Shirt decided to do something about it, creating a school where Indigenous language, history and culture are shared through an Indigenous lens. As Shirt describes it, the curriculum is “our way of life.”
That place was Wandering Spirit.
“We took them to places, you know, land-based teaching, we took them to ceremonies, we took them to sweat lodges.”
It started an as alternative school and eventually, it was incorporated into the school board in the 1980s.
Shirt says it was not easy.
“There was lots and lots of racism.”
Pamela Toulouse, an Indigenous educator, professor and educational advisor, says Indigenizing the curriculum comes down to system-level change.
Indigenous teaching is not mandatory in Canada, so how and what is taught varies in provinces and territories.
“If Indigenous content is not mandatory, or else if it’s viewed as an elective, then I can guarantee that Indigenous Peoples are also viewed at the same level,” she says.
It’s absolutely critical, Toulouse says, for the curriculum to be “informed and led” by Indigenous people.
“The moment that Indigenous Peoples are, again, not part of the conversation when it comes to Indigenous content, then that is the very first step in getting it wrong,” Toulouse says.
She adds that Indigenous education can be incorporated into a wide range of subjects, not just social studies and history. This includes math and science.
For example, Toulouse says, high school lessons in organic chemistry can draw on the many contributions that Indigenous Peoples have made in terms of pharmaceuticals. The same goes for health practices, and myriad other subject areas — “celebrating,” Toulouse says, “our literature and our contributions, our science, our technology, our agricultural techniques.”
Leading the way
In Nova Scotia, the Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey school district, which represents 12 Mi’kmaq communities on Cape Breton Island, has long known the importance of giving jurisdiction and autonomy to Indigenous Peoples to develop their own educational resources.
“(The students) feel connected,” says Lindia Isadore, who teaches Grade 5 at Wagmatcookewey School in Wagmatcook, N.S.
The focus here is on land-based teaching. Many classes are held outdoors to connect lessons with the land. Students attend immersive Mi’kmaq language classes. They also learn about math and science through traditional games, including a dice game known as Waltes, which hones students’ ability to add, subtract and multiply.
In the early 2000s, the region had a high school graduation rate of just one in three. Today, 90 per cent of students graduate. It’s a remarkable shift that teachers attribute to students living and learning about their communities, in their communities.
As a child, Isadore attended a nearby public school where she was constantly name-called, taunted and ridiculed. The abuse came from teachers, students and even the principal. It made her question her own value and worth.
“If only one person would have reached out (to me, as a child) and said, ‘Is there a way I can make your day feel better, or what can I do to help?,’ that would have (meant) so much,” she said.
Now, she is working hard to instill in her students a pride that she didn’t experience at school when she was growing up.
Drawing from Indigenous knowledge, traditions and history with pride is happening in public schools across the country, albeit in pockets.
Glen Allan Elementary, part of the Elk Island school district in Sherwood Park, Alta., is an example of a school that is showing the way forward.
Everything they do there is developed through partnership with Indigenous leaders and elders.
And it starts early on.
On the day we visit the school, Elder Wilson leads a group of kindergarteners through a forest just behind the school.
“We’re here today in the forest,” he tells the group of children, “because this is our university.”
Wilson proceeds to teach the children a series of words and phrases. He sings songs. He makes jokes, and he piques their interest using wood instruments to emulate bird sounds. The children are captivated and delighted.
In the higher grades, elementary school teacher Janet Botterill teaches children about the history of residential schools, in a thoughtful and informed way.
“When you are at school, do you feel like you’re a human? Do you feel valued? Do you feel loved?” Botterill asks the children, as they nod their heads in agreement.
Botterill says that the deplorable treatment of Indigenous people in Canada was not something she was taught as a student until she took a required course in university during her teacher training. That’s when everything changed for her — and she realized that “you can intertwine Indigenous education into everything that you do, all of your daily practices.”
It’s the kind of experience Laforme wishes for all public schools. One of the ways she recommends teachers and school boards begin to transform the way they teach is to carefully examine their educational resources.
“There aren’t enough Indigenous voices being heard,” Laforme told Global News’ The New Reality. English classes, for example, still emphasize “really old, Western people,” relegating voices of minority groups, including Indigenous Peoples, to the sidelines.
This process, says educator Charlene Bearhead, is long overdue.
“The average Canadian that’s more than 12 years old, or maybe 15 years old … hasn’t had the benefit of an honest, comprehensive education about our collective history,” she says.
But it’s happening, thanks to a select group of teachers, along with school board administrators, who are taking the plunge — showing that it can be done.
“Education,” Bearhead says, “is the key to change.”
“Education is the only way to create real, long-term, sustainable change.”
—with files from Farah Nasser.
The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line (1-866-925-4419) is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience.