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New course aims to heal through creative arts

[by Monique Paschke]

Lorenzo Cherubini. Image: supplied

The histories of the Indigenous Peoples of Canada and Australia share a rather poignant narrative.  For both First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples of Turtle Island and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait people of Australia, the values and traditions (not to mention rights and interests) of pre-colonial contact were altered drastically by European expansion.  The colonial doctrine of ‘terra nullius’ rendered Indigenous peoples’ rights and land claims as non-existent.  Europeans did not consider Indigenous peoples as stewards to the land, and certainly did not perceive any legitimacy to their traditional and holistic educational paradigms.  Among the outcomes of colonization was the cultural genocide of Indigenous peoples’ linguistic and spiritual worldviews. 

 

Moreover, the establishment of government-funded residential schools were meant to assimilate Indigenous children into Eurocentric ideologies and Christian values by removing children from their families and communities (as early as the 1600s in Canada and the late 1800s in Australia).  The haunting repercussions of the oppressive living conditions, brutality, and abuse suffered by residential school survivors continue to persist.  For some, education is considered an agent of colonization that embeds a history of appropriation in both Canada and Australia.  This becomes especially important when one considers that the growth rate of the Indigenous population in both countries is burgeoning.

The 2015 Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission[1] addressed the context of residential schools in Canada and accounted for nearly 7,000 heart-rending testimonies and statements from survivors, families, and other community members.  It is significant to note that national inquiries have been commissioned in both Canada and Australia to investigate the socio-political implications of the policies of assimilation; namely, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996) and the national inquiry report, Bringing Them Home (1997) respectively. The voices that inform the Report speak to the interconnected and interdependent emotional, spiritual, linguistic, and physical aspects of Indigenous peoples’ identities, and the overall destructive force of European encroachment on Canada.  It can be speculated, thus, that there is a resounding echo of these stories across Australia as well given that Aborigines were oppressed by state government policy prior to 1950.

The tone of the Report is in some respects both retrospective and relative. In one way, it presents compelling evidence pointing to the ruthlessness of colonial ambition, power, and politics. From a different angle, the survivors’ solemn testimonies not only underscore their strength and resolve but also invite us all into the broader conversation to which we are entrusted. That conversation is informed by the Report’s 94 Calls to Action, which endorse approaches to reconciliation that recognize the origins and contemporary implications of the residential school era. It is a conversation, therefore, that must include education; as Commission Chair Justice Murray Sinclair stated, “Education is what got us into this mess … but education is the key to reconciliation.”[2] 

It should be recognized that public education, and more precisely K to 12 educators, have arrived at particular interpretations of reconciliation several years after the Commission’s recommended Calls to Action.

Admittedly, it has taken time.

Undoubtedly, though, it has been necessary to take the time to process the varied complexities.

By inviting students to situate themselves in difficult and sometimes uncomfortable spaces, educators have insightfully, pragmatically, and incrementally encouraged students to examine aspects of Canadian history that traditionally and largely have been ignored. Especially successful are the many principals and teachers who have been willing to position themselves in these same uneasy spaces and reflect upon their own interpretation of the historical present. As a result, principals and teachers across Ontario and Canada are taking the lead from Indigenous knowledge-keepers, elders, and community partners and actively participating in the Calls to Action from more informed perspectives. In these schools, educators embody a clear sense of vision and engagement in the difficult dialogue of reconciliation.  Principals shape the possibilities for teachers to critique and challenge dominant cultural and epistemic practices and assumptions.  Together with Indigenous partners, principals encourage teachers to pose provocative questions in their classrooms and be rigorous in creating and constructing learning environments of open discourse.

In addition, although not all teachers are necessarily experts on the topic of reconciliation, they are committed to sharpening students’ critical awareness of power and conflict, as well as advancing students’ acute perceptions of Indigenous peoples’ strength and resilience. The conversation becomes more strenuous when one considers the political implications of education that cannot be ignored, as both principals and teachers are tasked with increasingly diverse responsibilities while fulfilling their respective roles during times of unprecedented levels of accountability and public scrutiny. Yet, and despite what some refer to as a slowly eroding sense of professional autonomy, the limitations of “sorting and selecting” paradigms of education, and the dominant epistemologies of teaching and learning, these educators seek to honour the voices, perspectives, and histories of Indigenous learners and communities that have been silenced for too long.

The most influential principals, therefore, are those that foster teachers’ capacities to be attentive and reflective of the learning they facilitate with their students.  As the lead learners in their schools, principals are in touch with the subtle methods of exclusion that have confined Indigenous students and knowledges to the margins.  In this way principals are not only confident and informed but positioned to embolden teachers to successfully moderate the discursive spaces of their classrooms.  While the conversations manifest differently in each school and classroom and vary in purpose and procedure, the commonality rests upon the fact that educators have accepted the responsibility of rearticulating the historical narrative by recognizing Indigenous peoples’ victimization and, just as significantly, underscoring their unique social, cultural, and spiritual foundations.  

The various school and classroom initiatives represent a modest step to “getting out of the mess” and eradicating the legacy of the residential school system. There is concern that the demands placed on principals and teachers will hinder the development of the respective Calls to Action. Educators will need to be steadfast and resolute to sustain and advance these and other substantive projects. The provincial ministries of education and the federal offices responsible for First Nations education across Canada will need renewed strategies that are responsive to the inequities and gaps experienced by Indigenous students. Educators will have to continue to apply their own learning and culturally relevant professional development and pedagogy efficiently and accurately. By following the counsel of the same Elders, Indigenous advisors, and community members who have been instrumental in nurturing the conversations, principals and teachers will have to continue to facilitate learning opportunities for children and adolescents in curiously appropriate ways so that the tensions and ambiguities of the past can serve as tools of introspection and heightened awareness. 

In many respects, though, the conversation about reconciliation in Canada is only beginning.  But for Australian educators, it may be a conversation worth noting.  For Canadian principals and teachers, it may be one worth sharing given the commons spaces that we inhabit.  Such conversations can represent pivotal opportunities to interrogate the respective intended curriculum and the landmark policy documents related to Indigenous education across the respective provinces, states, and territories in order to isolate and verbalize not only the specific challenges but more importantly the creative and thoughtful possibilities for educators to foster students’ capacity for “intercultural understanding, empathy, and mutual respect” (TRC, 2015; 63).  Perhaps only then will students, as prospective critical citizens, be willing and able to comprehend how the collective traditions, knowledges, and spirit of Indigenous peoples complement our own experiences on this land.[3] 

 

Dr. Lorenzo Cherubini is a Professor and former Director of the Tecumseh Centre for Aboriginal Research and Education at Brock University in Ontario (Canada). His research has been funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).

Lorenzo is a graduate of the University of Southern Queensland (Toowoomba, Queensland, Australia).

 

[1] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015). Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

 

[2] Watters, H. (2015, June 1). Truth and Reconciliation chair urges Canada to adopt UN declaration on Indigenous Peoples. CBC News. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/truth-and-reconciliation-chair-urges-canada-to-adopt-un-declaration-on-indigenous-peoples-1.3096225

 

[3] This article is an extended and revised commentary of the opinion piece published in the Hamilton Spectator in 2018.

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