Creating an authentic Aboriginal education curriculum in North Okanagan-Shuswap

by Daniel Palmer, Writer, British Columbia School Trustees Association

When Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its final report last year into the shameful treatment of aboriginal children in residential schools, it brought to light a dark chapter in our educational history.

But on February 2016, when board members at North Okanagan-Shuswap School District #83 passed a motion to improve Aboriginal education for all students, they had no idea they were likely making history of their own.

“The B.C. Ministry of Education told me that as far as they knew, we are the only School District to adopt the commission’s calls to action,” said Irene LaBoucane, District Principal – Aboriginal Education in SD83. Those calls to action include developing culturally appropriate teaching materials – something the province is also implementing – and protecting aboriginal languages and culture.

“It’s a huge responsibility, but it’s all very timely, especially with the new relationship the national government is building with aboriginal people, and with B.C.’s curriculum changing,” LaBoucane said.

The board also endorsed a school district action plan drafted by an implementation committee that included local First Nations representatives, teachers, principals, Aboriginal education staff, and the district Superintendent, Glenn Borthistle. The plan breaks down Aboriginal education into four areas: curriculum, resources, teacher capacity and student capacity. That means any innovative ways the district can find to be more inclusive and respectful has to stay within the existing budget.

“It makes a difference when we have someone at the top championing us at a higher level,” LaBoucane said. “Glenn Borthistle has done an amazing job in the last three years, and we’ve seen a shift where most people now acknowledge the (traditional aboriginal) territories at our district meetings. I’ve been around the school district recently and a number of principals now do that as well.”

The plan also calls for appointing a Truth and Reconciliation teacher representative at each school, as well as having the Sewepemetsin language as a learning option at elementary school by 2017-2018.

Bobbi Johnson, SD 83 board chair, said the board felt it was important to heed Chief Justice Murray Sinclair’s Truth and Reconciliation recommendations for public education. The catalyst for the plan came when a delegation comprised of Chief Wayne Christian (Splatsin Nation), Chief Judy Wilson (Neskonlith Band), First Nations Band Coordinators, and an Elder presented to the Board of Trustees the importance of endorsing the TRC’s Calls to Action.

“Although it’s a complex topic, we feel our path is quite straightforward,” Johnson said. “We need to build teacher and student capacity around curriculum and resources to gain a better intercultural understanding, and strengthen students’ capacity for empathy and respect.

Johnson said the district’s core values include statements around building relationships that are respectful and caring, as well as building on diversity and strengths of students, staff and families.

“By integrating Canadian Aboriginal history and culture into our curriculum, including the difficult truths around residential schools, we can help all of our youth build empathy and have a clearer understanding of our shared history,” Johnson said.

The next step is to create a five-year implementation plan and a means of measuring success, LaBoucane said.

“When I started working 25 years ago, I used to call it the ‘beads and bannock’ approach. There was very little genuine understanding of aboriginal communities in schools. But now, fast forward to authentic representation in the curriculum, that’s a huge step forward,” she said. “The huge work ahead is to get teachers to do this right, and believe me, they want to do this right and in a respectful manner. So when we talk about building teachers’ capacity, enabling them, they feel good about it. It’s our responsibility to honour the territory in which we live, work and play, and to remember we’re all invited guests to this territory. I remain optimistic because everyone is embracing these changes and looking to the future.”

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