4.7.1 A focus on building self-esteem and self-acceptance amongst Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students
In our visit to the Arrow Lakes we were repeatedly struck by the ways in which teachers and district staff were able to able to provide evidence of how students (and staff) in their district were becoming comfortable with self-identifying as Aboriginal peoples. This parallels the stories of local Aboriginal people in the Arrow Lakes area, known by members of the community to have hidden their Sinixt ancestry for safety in previous periods where racism was more widespread. While some might question the veracity of such claims, there is well-documented research evidence that many Aboriginal peoples deliberately hide their identities and ancestry as a means of survival. Christine Welsh, a Métis filmmaker, is one of many people of Aboriginal ancestry who have sought to document and explore this phenomenon. In her film, Women in the Shadows (1990) she explores her efforts to know herself and her family as she re-visits communities and places of her childhood in order to reconstruct family and personal histories. In writing about this experience Welsh says: “The film records my struggle to understand the choices my grandmothers made—to recognize that, for many Native people, denial of their Native heritage and assimilation to the “white ideal” was largely a matter of survival” (1995, p. 28). Welsh also reflects on how the film making process was central to coming to these understandings; in other words, her attempts to story or give meaning to her family’s experiences was a critical feature of coming to know herself.
Welsh’s work helps to illustrate how creating safe spaces for exploring personal identity and finding value in one’s own cultural ancestry is a powerful tool for dismantling the assimilative culture that has persisted in Canada, including the Kootenay valley. In this School District, through the work of the AESN and the Aboriginal Enhancement Agreement, teachers, district leaders, community members and students are all engaged in processes of inquiry designed to dismantle the fear, prejudice, and stigma attached to “being Aboriginal”. They are also incorporating many of the First Peoples learning principles (BC Ministry of Education, 2012) that were referenced in an earlier section of this report. While we do not suggest that their efforts have always met with complete success, the work they are doing is having a significant impact on the social, political and cultural contexts which enable (or constrain) the ability of students’ of Aboriginal ancestry to see and understand themselves as successful, valued, and contributing members of their communities. The efforts of this district, through their AESN work, are noteworthy in terms of the impact they are having on community beliefs and understandings; they are altering the conditions in the community that has made it acceptable to ignore or silence Aboriginal voices, identities and histories. They have done this by making spaces for different conversations to occur, ones that can permit a more inclusive and accepting stance towards Aboriginal peoples and their cultural perspectives.
As notable however, is the impact the AESN work is having on the Arrow Lakes school district teaching population: this too is key to effecting change for Aboriginal students, as the literature review completed earlier in this study noted. Teachers who themselves have engaged in cultural immersion experiences, or who have sought ways to dismantle bias or deficit ways of thinking about culturally diverse children and youth, and adopt culturally inclusive ways of teaching are most likely to effect changes in student success. We saw teachers profoundly interested in how their inquiry and integration of culturally responsive teaching practices were making an important difference to their students, and who were eagerly exploring ways in which they could extend these experiences in order to more fully accommodate the diverse needs and interests of their students. In this district we saw evidence of how these approaches are altering historical trajectories that had created different classes of individuals on the basis of their conformity with dominate “white” social norms. This is a powerful impact of the AESN .