Aboriginal Inquiry: Lifting All Learners

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

4.5 Shifting school and community mindsets

As the earlier discussion of the demographics and Aboriginal history of the Kootenays makes clear, this is a region of the province where Aboriginal peoples once lived in abundance, but their history and presence is at best, minimally acknowledged. Despite this, in our discussions with district personnel, we learned that there are quite a number of Aboriginal/Metis peoples who in live in the region; it became equally clear that many students with Aboriginal heritage or ancestry do not choose to self-identify. Teachers, principals, vice principals and district leaders all suggested that this is a shifting dynamic, and that more students are beginning to self-identify, largely as a result of the deliberate focus on Aboriginal histories, cultures and knowledges being integrated into both elementary and secondary programs offered at the district level. They suggested that the work of the school district—including the work of the teachers and leaders involved in the AESN —with their concomitant recognition of Aboriginal peoples contributions to Canada and the region were shifting the culture of the school and the culture of the community. This could be characterized as a movement from tolerance for difference to an acceptance and inclusion of diversity.

There were also general impressions shared about the level and nature of acceptance of Aboriginal peoples in the community. While there were no openly negative discussions about the community, participants expressed that the community at large generally lacked knowledge about Aboriginal peoples in BC , and in their region in particular. This expression of a ‘lack of knowledge’ often serves as a polite way of acknowledging racist or marginalizing practices in the area. While we certainly heard no overt anecdotes of racism, the stories of how students were beginning to openly identify themselves or family members as Aboriginal/Metis/ or First Nations suggested that self- identification was becoming more acceptable and less of risk. As one teacher said:

“This collaborative thing [the AESN ], makes the entire topic [of Aboriginal education] presentable in a way where we can start mending the racism, the discrimination, the pictures we have had in our heads and [about the] culture, about Aboriginal people. If we can keep going and being positive and trying to heal the wrongs, there is a huge thing that will… solve some serious issues.”

Other teachers affirmed this statement, nodding in agreement.

Teachers also expressed their own need to learn more about Aboriginal histories and cultural knowledge. They spoke about the need to engage in collaborative ventures with local Indigenous knowledge holders to more accurately include Aboriginal knowledge/perspectives. They spoke about their efforts to learn more about aspects of Indigenous culture that had application to their own teaching areas and they discussed their own learning at some length, openly describing their efforts to learn as their students were learning.

During our visit to this community, one teacher openly self-identified as a person of Aboriginal ancestry from Quebec; this self-disclosure and subsequent discussion with his inquiry colleagues about the commonalities between Indigenous peoples from across Canada, struck us as providing even more evidence of the willingness and openness on the part of this small group of teachers to embrace their own status as learners within the context of Aboriginal education and to include Aboriginal knowledge as a part of their professional repertoire and teacher identity. This story illustrates another feature of this school district; that its teachers seem willing to take professional and personal risks and become vulnerable in acknowledging that they too are learners. One could possibly attribute this willingness, at least in part, to an increased acknowledgement of the validity of Indigenous ways of knowing and being. It could also be a sign of shifting beliefs: a move away from the more dominant, historically situated Eurocentric discourse where Aboriginal Peoples were deficit, to one that accepts the values, life stories and contributions of culturally different others.

In sum, although this district could be described as having a largely homogeneous teaching population there is considerable good will and desire to effect changes in teacher practice to reflect the diversity found in other locales throughout the province. In other words, there was a general readiness among the professional staff to embrace new approaches to teaching their students and a willingness to engage in practices that would extend to the community at large. This desire to shift local mindsets was evident throughout our interviews and conversations and is worthy of additional discussion.