Aboriginal Inquiry: Lifting All Learners

An Impact Assessment of the Aboriginal Enhancement Schools Network (AESN)

2.1.1 Early models of Aboriginal education (1960-2000)

Dr. Lorna Williams (2000) described the ways in which the Vancouver School Board (VSB) developed practices and supports for working with urban Aboriginal students and families. While VSB may not represent all approaches taken by school districts around BC , its position as a progressive force among BC school districts and its size make it a useful place from which to start a review. Williams begins by describing the historical approaches and the political antecedents that shaped the VSB’s responses to Aboriginal students. Aboriginal student numbers began to increase in the 1960s as a result of the closure of Residential schools. Beginning with home-school support workers, and later moving to rehabilitation program models, Aboriginal students were served largely through special programs created for them rather than the regular public school classrooms within the district. Resource teachers or itinerant models of resource support became more popular approaches into the 1980s and 1990s; this helped build momentum towards a model of integrating Aboriginal students in regular classrooms. Clusters of Aboriginal populations that moved into particular areas or neighbourhoods helped speed this transition. Importantly, as a result of consultations with Aboriginal community members and governments, both academic and cultural support for Aboriginal students became a priority.

The 1990s also emerged as a time in which a focus was placed on non-Aboriginal school personnel who worked with Aboriginal students, and professional training programs, workshops and resources were developed. Simultaneously, programs were developed district wide in which traditional values, beliefs, and cultural practices might be honoured, profiled and celebrated. Yet despite this, many schools developed what are described as ‘pull out programs’, meaning Aboriginal students left their regular classes to participate in Aboriginal educational opportunities with and among other Aboriginal students. As Williams (2000) noted, much of the rationale for these approaches was that it enhanced self-esteem while creating a positive acceptance of one’s Aboriginal heritage (p. 138), creating a belief among Aboriginal students and families that they could be considered participants in Canadian society with a strong Aboriginal identity. Yet there were tensions created by the special programming model, and periods of declining or static funding from the province meant that non-Aboriginal personnel began to question the ‘special status’ afforded Aboriginal students over others. The challenges Williams identified included the need to address the diversity of Aboriginal peoples – particularly language and culture, in urban settings where Aboriginal peoples often reside. While specific courses/classes were sometimes offered, the challenge was to integrate “First Nations content into school subjects… with teachers who are willing to take the initiative on their own” (p. 145). She concluded that the strategies used by urban school districts should therefore be flexible and multi faceted, and be the product of collaboration and engagement with Indigenous communities.