Snaw-Naw-As member Lawrence Mitchell, who had a negative experience in school and wasn’t aware of his culture or language, now goes into schools to teach song, dance and for kids to help them to be proud of who they are. TAMARA CUNNINGHAM/The News Bulletin

Snaw-Naw-As member Lawrence Mitchell, who had a negative experience in school and wasn’t aware of his culture or language, now goes into schools to teach song, dance and for kids to help them to be proud of who they are. TAMARA CUNNINGHAM/The News Bulletin

Nanaimo school district taking initial steps to reconciliation

Shift underway to bring culture and indigenous ways of knowing into schools

Being Indian meant igloos, teepees and hunting buffalo to a young Lawrence Mitchell, who spent his early years in foster care and unaware he had a culture or language.

Elementary school didn’t help. Mitchell, a Snaw-Naw-As member, said there wasn’t anything to teach him about culture, other than a social studies book, and school was negative and hard with racism and pressure to fit in.

“[Kids would] be saying really mean things to me, saying ‘you dumb Indian, go back to where you came from, you don’t belong here,’ getting beat up like all the time,” said Mitchell, who didn’t even know what an Indian was at the time.

After getting beaten up one day, he was so tired of it, he clawed at his arms and cried to God, “why did you do this to me?”

“I was trying to scrape the Indian off,” said Mitchell. “I assumed it was the colour.”

He’d later go searching for information, poring over encyclopedias, social studies books, dictionaries and movies like Dances with Wolves and let what he learned – the igloos, teepees, hunting buffalo – define who he was for a long time. The day he tried to scrape the Indian off, he pretended didn’t happen.

“I swept it under the rug in there,” he said, pointing to his chest. “Like way deep inside.”

It all came bubbling to the surface during the Nanaimo school district’s blanket exercise last August.

There’s been a shift underway at Nanaimo school district, where there’s an effort to improve the educational experience and success of indigenous children and pull more indigenous culture, language and ways of knowing into schools for all students.

It’s all part of decolonizing and indigenizing an education system and while some work has been happening for years, there’s a new focus on reconciliation as a school board goal and a response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls to action.

Officials are working on what reconciliation will mean in the context of the education system, while also calling upon everyone in the district to self-reflect on their own beliefs and values around indigenous people and Canada’s history and to take collective ownership of students’ success.

The idea is to build pride among indigenous students and help them reach their potential, according to aboriginal education vice-principal Anne Tenning and director of instruction Laura Tait. There are more than 2,000 Inuit, Métis and First Nation students, representing 17 per cent of the student population, and 56 per cent of them graduate after six years, a 2015-16 district report shows.

Tait says what’s needed for learning is a feeling of belonging, care and love in classrooms and schools.

“It sounds simple, but getting us to the place, that first level, where every aboriginal kid feels welcome and a sense of belonging, that’s a big menu item,” she said. “In order to do that we really have to understand what history has done to our people and to undo that and to seek and find value in indigenous ways.”

Tait, of the Tsimshian First Nation, went to school in Nanaimo and doesn’t remember it being overly negative but it also wasn’t a good thing to be Indian; it was important she didn’t identify or talk about it. Now her children go to school and she said being aboriginal is probably a “pretty cool thing.”

There are staff who check in with them, the Coast Salish language Hul’qumi’num is taught to their entire class and the principal says Hay’ch’qa, or thank you.

“There’s some small milestones that are significant. Are we there yet? Not even close,” said Tait, who said the goal is a shared place and space for indigenous ways of knowing and being.

The focus of the district has been indigenous students and their families and Tait said it’s now broadening to all Canadians, adding the non-aboriginal population hasn’t been addressed. It’s where collective ownership of student success comes into play, and self-reflection.

It’s impossible to do the work of decolonizing and indigenizing a system, she said, if someone hasn’t gotten over the internal hurdles of what they believe.

Tenning said when working with teachers and administrators, part of it is, “how do you know what you don’t know?” Aboriginal content is still quite new to education and she points to our own educational experiences, what was or wasn’t taught about aboriginal people, what was accurate and largely inaccurate, and said the district knows it’s a big ask of teachers to say collective ownership.

“We all want to go forward with this in a really good way, but there’s a lot of uncertainty if it wasn’t taught to them,” she said, adding educators are being provided resources, workshops and supports and are encouraged to invest in their own learning.

The district hosted a blanket exercise in August with aboriginal partners and trustees. It’s a role-play activity about colonization and part of work toward defining reconciliation. Instead of video recording the meeting, the school district hired a graphic artist to capture the day and used a Coast Salish protocol of having people to witness the event and call upon them to recount the experience. It’s considered an example of using an indigenous way of knowing in a western framework.

School trustees heard from witnesses in October and shared reflections and ideas for next steps on reconciliation the following month. The school district’s education committee now has a book club, which trustee Stephanie Higginson said is meant to show reconciliation is a journey, not a destination, and a lot of it begins with personal work.

“I think we’re really in remarkable times,” said Mitchell, 38, who now teaches Coast Salish song and dance in schools. He’s grateful there are people in place who understand reconciliation and indigenizing, value and recognize the local community and nations, and work to understand how to incorporate that into their daily work lives or children’s school lives.

Mitchell took part in the blanket exercise and said tears flooded his shirt. He was coming to terms with understanding more about who he is and the history of the First Nations, but he said it also gave him the opportunity to face his dark past.

“It allowed me to understand that it is a district that has changed or is in the process of change,” he said. “It gave me peace of mind that people today care … [that] I matter, and they’re working to make those kids feel like that too.”



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