Putting the Indigenous land acknowledgement into practice
By Clarrie Feinstein
In September 2016, trustees at the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) unanimously passed a motion to include an Indigenous land acknowledgement every morning before the singing of the national anthem. Introducing the acknowledgement is part of the Aboriginal Education Committee’s (AEC) mandate to decolonize Canadian schools and recognize the colonialist construct under which the education system operates. The acknowledgement is the first step in reconciling the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups within the education system, but simply saying the acknowledgement is not enough. Teachers and staff must provide historical and current context for the acknowledgement, which has proved to be a challenging feat in numerous ways.
“The transition has not been smooth sailing,” says Barbara Anne Felschow, central coordinating principal of the AEC. “It’s a slow process but people are on board.”
“We want to do it in a sensitive manner that honours the community”—Cheryl Howe, principal, Huron Street PS
David Ast, the curriculum assistant leader at Harbord Collegiate Institute, agrees with Felschow. “It hasn’t been smooth. Everyone is in a different place on the continuum. Many teachers didn’t learn about much when it came to Indigenous issues. There are gaps in people’s awareness of the issues at hand.”
In order to prepare TDSB educators, the AEC offers resources for teachers, staff, and students at the TDSB. A 2010 report on the Urban Aboriginal Education Pilot Project (UAEPP) titled Decolonizing Our Schools: Aboriginal Education in TDSB emphasized that Indigenous issues must be incorporated in a meaningful way, which can be achieved through in-service professional development for teaching staff.
The UAEPP provided workshops and learning opportunities for teachers and staff to help facilitate Indigenous education for educators, resulting in a sizable shift in teachers’ understanding of Indigenous people, history, and culture. However, some teachers said they felt uncomfortable with the increased responsibility of decolonizing school space with other educational commitments.
“We still experience questions on how the acknowledgement came into being from staff,” Fleschow explained. “We have people asking what is and is not included in the statement, how it has evolved, et cetera.
“Our job in the AEC is to provide the resources for teachers and staff to be properly informed in order to have the context needed to understand the complicated history of the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.”
The AEC provides accessible information on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s kindergarten to Grade 12 educational reform, which includes accurate residential school information and in-depth analysis of land and treaty acknowledgements. This gives teachers the fundamental knowledge to provide historical context and accurate information to their students. The committee also facilitates community members to speak at schools regularly in order to support a knowledge-building relationship with the schools and the Indigenous community.
At Harbord Collegiate this has been occurring for some time. Ast has coordinated workshops with various community members, artists, and elders for the past four years.
“On professional development day we had an Aboriginal speaker come in to facilitate a workshop with teachers to better understand treaties, the Indian Act, and the TRC commission,” Ast says. “The acknowledgement has put Indigenous issues on teachers’ radar. There has been interest from teachers to learn more.”
The land acknowledgement was introduced at Huron Street Public School in May 2016, and while Principal Cheryl Howe said the transition has not been difficult for teachers, the staff wants to do it right.
“We want to do it in a sensitive manner that honours the community. Teachers will take it slow because it is such a complex issue and none of my teaching staff is Indigenous. We need to reach out to the Indigenous community first.”
Huron is in the beginning stages for community outreach, which includes speaking with the AEC, inviting community members to facilitate educational workshops for staff, and updating its library with current and appropriate resources. “But there are over 500 schools in the TDSB all wanting this access,” Howe says. “It will take time.”
At Huron the acknowledgement is a stepping-stone for more teaching on Indigenous issues. Howe acknowledges the additional responsibility that is attached to teaching this material to young students. Many engage with questions ranging from “what is this?” to “what specific territory are we acknowledging?” indicating the students’ desire to be given more context on the acknowledgement.
For Grade 10 Harbord student Caleb Woolcott, the only difference in school has been the acknowledgement itself; there has been no cultural shift.
“There has been no curriculum change,” Woolcott said. “There has been no context provided on the treaties and what is actually being said when we acknowledge the land. Students don’t seem that interested, no one really pays attention to the announcements every morning.”
Woolcott attended a workshop, which discussed treaties to provide context for the land acknowledgement. So far, in his favourite subject, Grade 10 History, the curriculum has not yet covered Indigenous history. “We talked a little bit about Aboriginal involvement in the First World War. But it’s still the beginning of the year. Our teacher said there will be more taught after the winter break.”
While Woolcott has not witnessed increased student engagement regarding Indigenous issues, Felschow believes that non-Indigenous students are further ahead in their understanding of social justice and are independent learners, who self-inform. For Indigenous students, the acknowledgement provides them with a platform to be more visible and brings to the forefront their self-expression and student voice. The acknowledgement gives them a place of belonging. The goal for the TDSB is to create a space where self-identifying Aboriginal students can feel comfortable in expressing their identity.
According to Harbord’s principal, Vince Meade, there was a census conducted five years ago which indicated that Harbord had 30 to 40 students who self-identified as Aboriginal, but there is no updated information. Active engagement with the student body regarding Indigenous issues is still an ongoing process.
“There has not been a shift in the educational environment,” Meade said, “but parents adopt the acknowledgement before their meetings. We’ve had some workshops on the history of agreements and the board has implemented training sessions, which have been very informative. The work is ongoing.”
While the narrative between staff and student opinion regarding Indigenous education at Harbord does not align, Woolcott said, “The acknowledgement is more than what was done before and sheds light on the issue.”
FOCUS ON EDUCATION: Building a respectful future (November 2016)
HISTORY: Honouring those who honour history (October 2016)
ON THE COVER: Tracking history in the Annex (April 2016)