B.C. high school students will soon have to complete four credits of Indigenous-focused coursework to graduate, and local First Nations leadership says it’s a good first step.
“I think it is a great start,” said Mel Aksidan, Lheidli T’enneh First Nation’s acting education manager and member of the newly formed Indigenous Education Leadership Table (IELT).
“There’s a lack of understanding and without understanding, people can’t show empathy to Indigenous people and Indigenous issues and that lack of education is what is affecting where Indigenous people stand in our world.”
The Ministry of Education says the new requirement — the first of its kind in Canada — will be in effect for students graduating in the 2023-2024 school year.
The ministry says it collaborated with the First Nations Education Steering Committee on the graduation requirement and was guided by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
It plans to consult with Indigenous communities this spring to address gaps in the K-12 curriculum.
The change is also in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report on the residential school system, which recommended that an age-appropriate curriculum on residential schools, treaties and Aboriginal peoples’ contributions to Canada be mandatory for kindergarten to Grade 12 students.
Pam Spooner, director of Indigenous Education at School District No. 57 (SD57), said the requirement builds upon work already underway within the district.
For example, the district includes a component of the English 10 curriculum that focuses on First Nations literature and storytelling and has courses under development that focus on science, art history and music in an Indigenous context.
There is also a Tse'khene language course already approved and available from the provincial government plus another under development that will teach the Dakelh language.
“We've got a land-based teacher. We've got Indigenous teachers who go out and do literacy on the land, and literacy with other classrooms, so we've already been building people up and providing resources to staff.”
Spooner also noted that four credits out of the required 80 to graduate is a small percentage of what is mandatory, and most students already receive two Indigenous-focused credits through their English 10 requirement.
“Now post-secondary institutions are doing more with respect to reconciliation learning as well. All sorts of cultural sensitivity training is happening across the board, so I think that those little four credits is only going to be a first step,” added Spooner.
“I think when we teach the youth today alongside us, I think we'll start slowly eliminating some of those systemic racism views or stereotypes that people have and so that could change our society in the future.”
Spooner said Indigenous graduation rates are thirty percent below non-Indigenous graduates in the district which has 3,800 Indigenous students making up 30 per cent of the student population, the highest percentage out of all sixty school districts in the province.
“This work doesn't just fall on the shoulders of Indigenous people, we need our allies to help us in this work as well,” added Spooner.
“It is difficult and there's going to be naysayers and the community or within the district itself, but we need those allies to stand up as well and voice their priorities and why they think it's important to learn the real Canadian history too.”
SD57 has also begun meeting with the IELT, a partnership between a Lheidli T’enneh First Nation and McLeod Lake Indian Band (MLIB), to work towards Indigenous Education reforms in the district.
“We completed our second meeting and as IELT we identified strategic priorities, what can we push for Indigenous education in SD57 from now until the end of this school year,” noted Aksidan.
He said the IELT is advocating for new anti-racism and anti-Indigenous racism policies, an Indigenous superintendent to serve as a representative on senior staff, better reporting on Indigenous students and funding, as well as an external ombudsperson.
“With the IELT we are not only looking out for Indigenous people or the local nations but we are looking out for everyone by pushing for education on Indigenous issues so everyone has an understanding and that is the only way we will see change, when everyone understand the true history of Canada and the true impact it’s had on Indigenous people,” said Akisdan.
The IELT, which formed in January, works collaboratively with the district in a government-to-government model using Dakelh Pitt House protocols.
Although the IELT is newly formed, Akisdan is said he’s hopeful it will have a positive impact on the district and may serve as model which could be implemented in other districts around the province.
In terms of the Indigenous-focused grad requirements, the Ministry of Education is currently accepting online feedback from students, parents, caregivers, teachers, school district staff, Indigenous communities, and the public.
Feedback will be compiled by an independent research firm into a “What We Heard” report which will be provided to the Ministry of Education.