Building relationships requires education.

When it comes to the many challenges that aboriginal peoples face here in Canada, I find I have to strike a balance between identifying those problems and trying to come up with solutions for them.  Spending too much time on either of those things and I get mixed up, ungrounded.  The one is too depressing to deal with all the time, and the other is too long-term and can burn a person out if that person (me!) needs more instant and tangible results.

People will ask me, “so what would your solution be”, and I often step back and refuse to answer, because I believe solutions have to come from people themselves and I don’t want to speak as a single person. I think that when you propose solutions, you should also have an implementation plan…because anyone can dream.  It takes a lot more effort to make dreams real.

But right now, I’m going to talk about dreams and wishes.  I’m going to think aloud on the topic of things I would really love to see, and why.  I can’t call these things solutions, just ideas.  But solutions start somewhere.

How would you go about changing the relationship between natives and non-natives in Canada?

Ooooh! *rubbing hands gleefully*  Let’s just pretend I have a magic wand, billions of dollars, and unlimited resources.

My dreams are based on things I want in my life.  Things I think are missing, support I don’t have, resources I crave.  Pretty much all focused on my kids actually.  In this post I’m going to address just one wish I have.  I’m going to leave out scholarly articles, studies, long winded justifications and just tell you what I’d love to see.

Aboriginal language (and culture) learning for everyone!

Hear me out!  I know a lot of people feel pretty strongly (and often negatively) about having to learn other languages.  Chill.  I’m just chatting here.  (And f you want a more involved discussion of the various issues at play, please read this article.)

What I’d love to see is for aboriginal languages to all become official languages in Canada.  “Are you nuts!?  We could never afford to translate every official document and sign into all those languages!”  Yes, I realise that, and I’m not asking for that actually.

This, only nicer.

As official languages, there may indeed be translations in specific regions where necessary (although this already happens to some extent, where provinces have made that effort through provincial or territorial ‘official languages‘ policies).  However, I don’t see that addressing relationships between natives and non-natives.

Nope, what I want is for aboriginal languages to be taught in all elementary and secondary institutions.  I want them to be mandatory. “Whoa, what!?  Are you–” Hold on, I asked you to hear me out.

The way I picture it is that whichever traditional territory the school or school board in question is on, the traditional aboriginal language of that territory would be taught to all students, native and non-native alike.  So if you’re in Mohawk territory, you have Mohawk language classes.  If you’re in Dene territory, you learn Dene, and so on.

Now, my kids and I are currently living in Mohawk territory, but our language is Plains Cree.  Would it suck just a little to have them learn Mohawk in school and not Plains Cree?  Yes, it would, just a little…but I think the benefits would by far outweigh this.

“What benefits?” you scoff.  Well, let me first identify what I see some of the problems to be, and I’ll address how I think this would address those problems.

Not understanding aboriginal history/culture

As Justice Sinclair put it:

“Aboriginal kids were taught that they were savages, that they were heathens, their cultures were irrelevant and that they had to assimilate,” he said. “That very same message was being given to you and your parents and your grandparents in the public school system.”

It’s not only non-aboriginals who are lacking in information about aboriginal history and culture, and how that history and culture is relevant to Canadians today.  Many aboriginal students also lack that information and understanding.  One way I think we can address this is through aboriginal language learning.

Language can not be effectively taught in a vacuum.  (Sound waves just won’t travel in space!) Okay but seriously, learning the language of the territory you are in also comes with historical and cultural information.  Even if at first all you’re learning is those funny place-names are actually aboriginal words that refer to specific physical features or historical events, you’re becoming more grounded in regional history.

Once you become more versed at delving into regional history and culture, I think that it becomes easier to do this on a wider level as well.  Canada’s history is very much a patchwork of regional histories and contexts.  Correct more immediately relevant regional understandings first, and you create a strong foundation from which to work with.

I do not think you can effectively engage in this kind of historical and cultural learning without at least some language learning. Translations alone aren’t sufficient. I’ll probably wax eloquent on that subject in a later post.

Lack of self-confidence among aboriginal youth, divide between native and non-native youths

For me, and for many other aboriginal people, it is incredibly empowering to hear an aboriginal language being spoken and taken seriously.  Even if that language is not necessarily yours.  Even when the territory you live in is not your traditional territory, having native culture being presented in a positive light can be incredibly confidence-boosting. I think there is also a great opportunity to make non-natives feel ‘welcome’ and part of something cool and interesting.

I have heard a lot of stories from non-natives who grew up in the Prairies and who got to see hoop dancers, grass dancers and so on, or who saw native students going off to smudge in the native student centre or what have you.  They often talk about how as children, they saw these things and were really moved by how ‘cool’ it was, but that they also felt left out.  They wanted beautiful regalia too, they wanted to smudge.  Some of them got to, but others felt denied access to these things because they were not First Nations.  There was a recognition there of the beauty of another culture, but also a barrier that further exacerbated an already deep divide between native and non-native students.

I think that engaging non-natives in language and cultural learning would allow them to feel more rooted in the regional culture.  Not as ‘wannabe Indians’, but rather as people who share a pride in the local history and culture.  Imagine for example, a non-native student proudly saying, “I come from Wet’suwet’en territory”.  Imagine native and non-native students proudly peppering their speech with Witsuwit’en terms.

I remember reading an article a few years ago about just such a language program somewhere in BC.  I wish I could find it, but students both native and non were interviewed about what it was like to learn an aboriginal language.  The students all thought it was really cool. The results were very inspiring…the program fostered inclusion that affected the native and non-native students in different ways perhaps, but in every way positively.

But why make it mandatory?  And why promote this over other (currently non-official) languages like Mandarin, Spanish or even Arabic?

I do not think it is enough to make such things optional, not if we seriously want to change relationships and undo damage.  It can’t be an ‘opt out’ situation that risks missing vast swaths of Canadians.

Aboriginal languages need to be recognised at the very least as equal to English and French.  Why?  Oh boy.  If you’re even asking me why, it means we are doing a crap job right now of teaching the relevance of aboriginal culture and history.  I can’t even begin to answer that question without first making you understand how our cultures are revelant to all Canadians…including our most recent newcomers.

And that’s the point.  That’s the learning I’m talking about.  I see language learning as a ‘way in’ to a deeper and more respectful (and healthier) relationship… not as a way to increase your job opportunities.  I don’t expect everyone to become absolutely fluent in an aboriginal language (though it sure would be nice!), but having some legitimised exposure can’t hurt.  Whether we make it a separate class, or integrate it into the curriculum and blend it into every subject, I believe aboriginal language learning for everyone has incredible potential for fostering understanding and cooperation.

I believe it has this potential because it focuses on positives in a way that even the most second-language resistant person can find interesting.  It also forces there to be more direct involvement from aboriginal-language speakers, most of whom also have important cultural knowledge.  There has been a push to teach more aboriginal culture in schools across Canada, but oh man…some of that information is just awful, to be honest.  And I don’t blame the teachers if they don’t know what’s accurate and what’s not.  Having actual community members and holders of real cultural knowledge involved in the process means we aren’t perpetuating silly mistakes and stereotypes.

Mandatory language/cultural learning for teachers too!

Yup.  I think that anyone wanting to be a teacher in this country also needs to have mandatory language/culture training.  If we don’t start teaching our future teachers about the history of this country, we’re never going to get anywhere.  Right now, very few teachers-in-training receive any sort of education on how to deal with First Nations students or aboriginal issues.

I see education as THE TOOL, the main force for change.  Thus those people who go out to engage in educating current and future generations must not be left out.  They are possibly the most vital link.

We are not simply ‘a minority’.

I hear this a lot, about aboriginal peoples being ‘just another minority’.  Well hey, guess what…so are Francophones.  Yet we (in my opinion rightfully) preserve a special place for Francophone language and culture because the French were one of Canada’s founding peoples.

The myth of only two founding members of Canada needs to be smashed up into little tiny bits.  Aboriginal peoples were vital in the founding of this nation, and despite the truly awful history of oppression and colonisation, we continue to be relevant in a way that is not comparable to other ‘minorities’.  We’re never going to truly understand that without making some real effort.

I joke with my partner that New Zealand used to be associated just with sheep and kiwi when I was a kid, but that now it is inescapably flavoured by the Maori.  The national character of New Zealand, as seen from abroad, has shifted because of a new understanding of Maori culture in that country.  For example, where would the All Blacks be without the haka?  Simple changes perhaps, and that country is hardly free from native and non-native conflict…but it’s a start.

Canadians often complain about a lack of a national identity.  Well folks, isn’t it time Canadians learn about their history and culture, and finally develop that complex and beautiful national identity?

I don’t have it planned out.  I don’t have the curriculum designed or the funding figured out.  I just have ideas, and wishes.  I’d love to hear what ideas and wishes you have!

About âpihtawikosisân

Métis from Lac Ste. Anne, Alberta. Currently living in Montreal, Quebec. Passions: education, Aboriginal law, the Cree language, and roller derby. Education: BEd, LLB, working on a BCL
This entry was posted in Alienation, Culture, First Nations, Fluency, Language learning, Representation of natives and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

42 Responses to Building relationships requires education.

  1. Nesren Ali says:

    Are there any current education initiatives that are not through school? Rather, through a wing of an NGO or a media campaign?

    • There’s lots of initiatives going through University systems, actually. Lots. Most of us academics spend a fair bit of our free time trying to jumpstart these things. Usually, they go nowhere, but we try.

      • That’s an issue that drives me right up the wall. There are SO many language and culture initiatives out there, but people just don’t work together well on these things (in my experience). I feel like we keep developing the same beginning frameworks, and then things break down, and we never get any further. Then some eager beaver comes along and says, hey let’s get a program going, and bam, it’s counting 1-10 and learning family terms, and basic cultural stuff all over in a prettier and perhaps more technological package. The internet and the libraries are littered with the detritus of programs past, and the burned out husks of the well-intentioned who came up against so much negativity that they just couldn’t keep going in the face of it.

  2. This was an excellent read!
    I started following your posts after I stumbled upon the first one about Attawapiskat and have really enjoyed reading the ones that have followed.
    As a graduate student focussing on Indigenous Education I have heard others make the same arguments and I think that your ideas make a lot of sense. I really appreciate reading your thoughts as they are helping me inform my own thinking and providing responses to some of the questions people have posed to me.

  3. Bekka says:

    I like this. I don’t have any [acknowledged] ties to First Nations in my family history, but my husband’s paternal grandmother is Carrier and his paternal grandfather is Cree. While his own mother is Swiss, that’s still quite a background for our kids.

    Even before meeting my husband, I’ve always been fascinated with the culture, the history and traditions of First Nations. It’s one of my desires to seek out the stories of my husband’s family so we can share them with our kids. I’m probably a little more concerned about that than he is.

    As a student, I would have loved to learn more about the local cultures and traditions. There were a few opportunities to meet with storytellers who were sometimes brought in to the schools for special occasions, but it was never enough to feed my curiosity. Many books that I tried to read were very jaded in their coverage of First Nations.

    So, to have an Aboriginal culture/language component to education would be totally fitting. When I was still in school, they were starting to implement programs to help understand the influx of East Indian and Asian students, their backgrounds and traditions – why should we not also have similar programs to help understand the Aboriginal background?

    As we are planning (at this point) to home school our kids, I hope to find resources to help teach them about their ancestral background on their father’s side.

  4. Amy says:

    I am a non-Native taking Ojibway language and culture studies, and I too believe that there should be mandatory classes throughout school, and that there be Native language(s) made official. I hope this comes out right as I write it, I mean it sincerely, Native cultures were on this continent before non-Native, including French, cultures were…so why is it so hard to believe that they should have official status.

  5. I agree that making our history relevant and, more importantly, accurate is a good way to move into the future. This would give real meaning to the words “truth and reconciliation.” Of course, this phrase originated in South Africa after the fall of apartheid. I think it applies in many similar ways to what must occur in Canada if we are to view Canada as entering a post-apartheid era.

    Sadly, I’m not sure we’re there yet.

  6. Nokamis says:

    Miigwech again for another great topic in much need of discussion.

    Personally, having grown in an urban environment with bits and pieces of cultural and linguistic teachings and a deep sense of connection to my culture and people, (thanks in large part to my father/speaker and our oral tradition – old people’s stories), I had a pretty strong ‘sense’ of cultural identity. However the scope of the knowledge I had was limited to mainly the parameters of my family, extended family, our life experiences, and our personal history in the context of the mainstream I grew up in, and all that that encompassed.

    As an adult I continued my education in Native studies and in an Aboriginal School of Social Work. Suffice it to say it was quite the eye opener in terms of allowing me to put so many personal and collective pieces together in the broader cultural context, historically and contemporarily. The education I received was not only a vehicle to a richer broader understanding of my culture, people, community and self, but it provided many tools and much inspiration to make contributions to both Native and mainstream community in the cultural context.

    Now had the educational opportunity been afforded myself and others of my generation early on, surely we would have been leaps and bounds ahead of the game and the sky would have been the limit for opportunity to create cultural bridges across the great educational divide.

    **This paper is well worth the read. The author is a Cree woman whom I respect and appreciate greatly.

    Research Paper on Aboriginal Curriculum in Ontario
    Author: Dr. Emily J. Faries 2004

    Click to access A%20Research%20Paper%20on%20Aboriginal%20Curriculum%20in%20Ontario.pdf

    “Schools have a vital role in providing the opportunity for First Nations people to learn about their own history, culture and language. Schools should not only offer First Nations content to First Nations students but also to non-Native students as well.
    Reports conducted by the federal government have also recognized the critical need for incorporating First Nations content into the school curriculum. The Minister‟s national working group paper states that:
    Centuries of commerce, cultural evolution and social interaction among First Nations have produced a vast body of knowledge worthy of inclusion in all schools and post-secondary institutions as valid and important learning material. (INAC, 2002) p.13”

  7. “The myth of only two founding members of Canada needs to be smashed up into little tiny bits.”

    I couldn’t agree more with this statement. Coming from a political background, I am very familiar with the discourse that you mention which merely talks about Aboriginals as just a minority or a population that somehow needs to be integrated or dealt with, but does not acknowledge that these people were indeed here first and as vital to this nation’s identity as any other. The English/French divide seems to dominate any discussion of Canada’s founding and this subsequently influences the rights and privileges each group currently enjoys or ought to enjoy because they were founding nations whose identities and cultures need to be preserved and celebrated. Perhaps it’s time that we have this same discussion about those people who were here before anyone else.

    I hope that makes sense. This was an excellent piece and you’re doing wonderful work with this blog. As someone who is only starting to understand Aboriginal affairs in Canada, I really appreciate that.

  8. Mark Loft says:

    Great read, thanks for this. I have a friend who teaches at a high school in ottawa, he recently informed me that he had applied for, and received, funding for an aboriginal studies program. This school has never had one, this is a pilot run, and because he is non-aboriginal, he wants to make sure he is doing it correctly. I, as Mohawk (and a former Aboriginal Studies grad), want to help him as much as I can.

    I have already linked him to your page in light of the Attawapaskat crisis, and your great words (and links) on that subject. Now this particular article is perfect timing! He has met a bit of resistance, but his feeling is basically that “if I dont do it, nobody will and there’s no program”. I personally think that this is an excellent opportunity to build understanding, and if this is successful, he may be able to continue the course.

    along with your excellent blog, if you have any further words of advice, it would be much appreciated!


  9. Dammit, ap**** whatever. You’re my new guru. Reference blog.
    I may not be able to recall your spelling, but damned if I don’t champion your writing.
    This white guy is absolutely hooked.

  10. Pingback: Building relationships requires education. | Media and Culture |

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  12. Norman PIlon says:

    Hi, âpihtawikosisân,

    I’m very happy to have found your blog. It has given me much to think about. I don’t expect you to post this ‘reply,’ though you may do whatever you wish with it. It is a kind of conversation with myself, but also with you . . .

    At times you want to say something, but you just don’t quite know how to say it. So you sort of let the words chase themselves down on the page.

    I wanted to explore the tension between ‘self-identity’ and ‘group-identity’, all the while underscoring the fictional nature of ‘ethnicity’, making it obvious that the cohesive substance any “group essences” is actually little more than a ‘word’ — quite literally, or so it seems. But if ‘group identity’ is a fiction, it is nevertheless a necessary fiction. People cannot live alone. We can only subsist, both physically and psychologically, in groups. However, given the horrors to which ‘ethnicity’ (or ‘nationalism’) potentially lead, these modes of conceiving oneself in the dimension of one’s ‘group identity’ will one day, I think, have to be surpassed by more inclusive or universal forms of ‘group identities.’ Of course, the ultimate figuration of a “group” is that of “humanity” or “mankind.” It is my belief that justice and kindness are prevalent to the degree that people see themselves as belonging more to the race of humankind than to any other conceivable lineage, whether cultural or hereditary. That, at least, is what I think I tried to say in the following (and if the poetry sucks, well so much the worse for me 😉 ) (BTW: my wife, and therefore my children, are small ‘m’ metis):

    The world is peopled by peoples.
    I am Polish. You are Italian.
    There goes an Anglo-Saxon.
    And don’t forget the Jews.
    Because people also define themselves by their religion.
    And here, a Cree, and there, a Metis.
    And 800 million Arabs, not one like any other,
    But an Arab nevertheless.

    Invite one ‘kind’ to get together for an evening.
    Let them talk and dance and celebrate and show off
    The nation’s way of dressing and conversing.
    But pay attention, here:
    Soon, among themselves, between themselves,
    Here and there, a hint of discordance.

    What does it ‘mean’ to be who ‘we’ are?
    Who is ‘really’ German? And who is not?
    A Turk? A Christian? A homosexual?
    Who among us is not ‘truly’ Greek?
    Then why do you not behave as a ‘true’ Canadian should?
    Why do you cover your head that way?
    (Ex-pats and immigrants and the local blood-line . . .)

    We know who ‘we’ are! Do you?
    Why, you are one of us!
    Therefore, I implore,
    Believe as I do. Pray as I do.
    Be exactly as I am.
    For we wear the same skin, and for that and in the same manner,
    We take it squarely on the chin. And we believe everything that
    We read in the same way as well as what we hear, write, and say.
    For ‘we’ are different and ‘they’ are not like us.

    You don’t agree? How can that be?
    Well maybe ‘we’ are not all exactly the same, but approximately.
    After all, we number in the hundreds of millions, we Russians.
    And then again, it is true, we are quite different,
    You and me, even as we are both proud Japanese.

    It is just that you lack a bit of authenticity.
    Your father was this, and your mother that.
    That makes you a half or a quarter of the whole that you are,
    A bit of a fake, you know.
    We have roots, after all. Origins to which we should return
    And beyond which we cannot (or should not) go.
    There are limits.
    And there is identity.

    Otherwise, we’d all just be – what?
    People? Human beings? Individuals?
    A Man? A Woman? A Child?

    Yes . . . perhaps,
    Each in need of another.
    ‘I’ have much work ahead of ‘us.’

    We must get to it.


  13. Emo says:

    The extent to which this has already happened deserves to be evaluated… i.e., we do need formal outcome evaluations for the schools and districts where (in effect) “Cree is the new French”.*

    * [An education major put it this way to me… he is one of many who will go on to teach basic colors, numbers and names of animals in Cree to little white children in the classroom context. This is already happening, and has been happening for some years, although various people told me that the formal guidelines haven’t been codified yet.]

    I have met white people who grew up in schools that provided Cree as a mandatory second (or third?) language. I’ve seen articles (in journals of education) that evaluate the inputs for these programs, but not the outcomes. In evaluating real-world outcomes, I’m sure you’d find some failures to learn from, and some institutional success stories. As you’ve presaged yourself, for the vast majority of white people in such programs, the main effect is learning that aboriginal people exist at all –they don’t walk away with any ability to actually speak the language.

    On the one hand, I’m pessimistic about human nature (something the education system can’t change) –and, on the other hand, I’m concerned that efforts to make Cree “the new French” will result in Cree becoming “the new Latin” (i.e., a dead language, yet mandatory in classrooms… that apparently produce nearly zero people with fluency or reading comprehension of the language in question).

    One of the questions that I put to people is: how far would you need to walk to actually buy your groceries in Cree? Obviously, you can replace “Cree” with the name of another (salient) native language, and ask the question again. From where I’m sitting, I can assure you, it is a very short walk to buy my groceries in an amazing variety of languages (Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Greek…) but Cree ain’t one of them. That is one of the basic questions that highlights the extent to which Cree really is an endangered language, right in the middle of its own (vast) homeland.

    People who are optimists about the future of the language will insist to me that it’s possible to speak Cree merely a few hundred kilometers away, on a reserve they’ve passed through. However, these impressions are normally based on things like (1) seeing small children playing “tag” in Cree, and (2) seeing a very small number of very elderly people who are really fluent in Cree. I hate to say it, but nobody has ever offered me an optimistic opinion based on actually buying groceries with this language as the medium.

    Language extinction is a real threat, even for Cree (and it isn’t for Chinese, Vietnamese, or a long list of other languages that groceries are weighed and sold in). Does anyone in the current generation care? Human nature doesn’t change: I can do my own small part, within the circle formed by the length of however far my right arm reaches, but I think we are all witnessing the endgame to cultural genocide. And it is a game being played by guys like John Duncan, who had no education related to First Nations, and who has never learned a native language, and who isn’t even making an attempt to do so after receiving that unique position of power –a stark contrast to the unceasing controversies over how well various plenipotentiaries speak French in the house of parliament.

    • Norman PIlon says:

      Hi, Emo,

      Sadly, I agree entirely with your observation that what we are witnessing is the endgame of what has all along been the deliberately engineered genocide of Native Americans, that is, not only the eradication of indigenous populations, but the deliberate extirpation of their cultures — for what is a Native American without his or her culture? In fact, the deed is to all intents and purposes complete.

      Briefly and schematically, the strategy was this: a) offer the native populations the choice between physical extermination (by force of arms) or a tenuous and crippling existence on the inadequate land base of the ‘reserve’ while submitting to the dictates of the Federal Government in return for crumbs; b) remove the children (forcibly if necessary) from their communities for the cynically ‘presumed’ and ‘unmitigated’ good of an ‘education’ received in a residential school; and c) cut the ‘educated’ native loose upon reaching the age of ‘majority’ with the choice of either returning to his or her community in a state of complete alienation from the way of life of his or her elders; either that or with nowhere else to go since the ideology that originally conspired to “kill the Indian while saving the man” — to echo a title by Ward Churchill – also tended to be the dominant mindset of the general European settler population, an alternative less than zero since it was virtually impossible (and still is) for any native to find his or her place in mainstream Canada. To my mind, the only ‘reconciliation’ going on is between the ‘ruling classes’ of what they themselves call Canada and their guilty awareness of the enormity of their crime. What could be easier than for a rapist to excuse himself to his victim even as he is completing his act of brutality?

      It is not my intention to be inflammatory. But I think that that characterization isn’t too far from the ‘reality.’ One merely has to look at “what else” the psychopathic power elites of this country are up to abroad: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Iran — and so it goes interminably. One thing and only one thing counts for these men and women of a refined wealth and greed: power and property, all of it – even if it means the death of millions.

      Sorry, Emo. But you seem to have brought my blood to a simmer.


    • I think you’re generally right, unfortunately, about this stuff. I’ve been working in Algonquian language issues for more than 10 years now, and I’m pretty convinced we are in the ‘endgame’ for at least a linguistic genocide. The culture persists and changes, but the language – Plains Cree in this case – is mortally wounded.

      The elephant in the room is of course what you’re talking about – there is no reason to speak Cree. That’s one of several reasons the kids on the reserve don’t learn it. In the southern reserves, it’s now generally a ceremonial language, with daily use only for a very small fraction of the community. And Plains Cree is considered a ‘dominant’ aboriginal language. Compared to Haida or Stolo or Kwakwala – Plains Cree is downright vibrant.

      As someone who gave up 10 years of his life (so far) to the language, I obviously think there ARE reasons to speak Cree, but they don’t compete with the mainstream culture that is washing over these communities like a tide coming in. These are largely reasons that would now be labelled ‘esoteric.’ Plains Cree is a beautiful language and holds the knowledge of generations of intelligent, philosophically-gifted human beings in it. I am a better person and a clearer thinker for learning it.

      But it won’t get me an iPad or allow me to buy groceries.

  14. Gail Taylor says:

    While I agree with you about the importance of language, I would like a class taught in every school about what the First Nations communities gave the non-Natives and I am not talking about the obvious such as their land. I mean like systems of government and a United Nations and democracy that came from the grass roots up. I mean like the number of medicines already in use by First Nations before the arrival of the non-Natives. I mean like inventions such as the travois, eye goggles and the toboggan. I would add to that their way of seeing and being that respects the earth and its creatures. The list could go on and on. The First Nation people were not ignorant savages that had to be rescued, but rather it was their knowledge that paved the way for the newcomers. We needs both sides to respect the many cultures of the First Nations. If a people are constantly being stomped on and put down, it is very difficult to have the necessary self esteem to make any changes that might be necessary. Our First Nations are the battered children of our so called just Canadian society. It is not something that happened many years ago and therefore one can deny any responsibility. It is happening here and now and every Canadian needs to look long and hard about where they were and what they did when they learned of the crisis in Attawapiskat.

  15. Enid says:

    I agree whole-heartedly with everything written. We non-natives need to write letters and speak about the First Nations languages of the the territories we live on. I’ve learned a bit of Anishinaabemowin and it really enhances my experience of listening to Elders open ceremonies, and other speakers. It makes that connection to the people real. Nia weh. (that’s Mohawk for thank you)

  16. N. Bertin says:

    First of all, I’m all for your ideas. Where do we sign the petition to make these changes? The other thing I’d like to see are entire blocks in history education dedicated to learning about specific First Nations groups WITHOUT the Euro bias. When I was a school kid in Toronto, I remember our grade 4 class learning about the Chinese culture. We had visiting Chinese guests for talks and demonstrations, we went to Chinatown on a field trip, brought back Chinese foods, made a big lunch out it and made Chinese-inspired arts & crafts based on the mythological animals and their script. Next, we learned about Africa in much the same way. We all loved it and came out of it with a new understanding of that place we’d previously only known on a map. I’d love to see this type of learning about First Nations groups in schools. Combine that with language lessons and we’ve got a whole new generation of Canadians who have a better understanding of the people and the place they call home.

    • Hahaha, well unfortunately getting this sort of thing implemented would take much more than a petition. It would take serious planning. Knowing that many people would support such a thing, however, is heartening in itself!

      • N. Bertin says:

        Call me daydreamer but I believe that if we create the demand, those who are responsible for creating curriculum will find a way to implement it. But you’re right — first, we have to be proactive so we can help them find the right tools and the right resources such as the people with the right knowledge who would deliver the education in the right manner. As a matter of fact, the biggest issue I’ve heard directly from teachers and program directors is they just don’t know where to find the people with the knowledge and proper ideas. Another equally important issue is that they are fearful of repeating the same paternalistic patterns of implementation. That said, I believe the best answers lie with our education system and not our politicians. And I also believe that those who now run our education system are much more committed to making things right. If we offer them the access to proper resources, they will gladly implement it into the curriculum.

  17. Nokamis says:

    “Closing the Gap for Aboriginal Students” by Dr. Emily Faries

    Click to access eFaries.pdf

    Ontario First Nation, Metis and Inuit Education Policy Framework:

    Click to access fnmiFramework.pdf

    2009 Progress Report on Implementation of the Ontario First Nation, Metis, and Inuit Education Policy Framework

    Click to access SoundFoundation_RoadAhead.pdf

    • I have also provided links to curriculum in Cree language and Culture in the “Language and Culture Links”. Aboriginal Studies at the highschool level has been around for a while in Alberta, though it isn’t available everywhere and it’s optional:

      A lot of consultation has been done, and programs developed. What is needed now is a push to have these programs become part of the core curriculum rather than remaining on the ‘fringe’. There also needs to be more materials developed to support these programs.

      • Most aboriginal language curriculum is really pretty bad, unfortunately. It doesn’t hold a candle to the level of expectations set for French or German or Mandarin. Aboriginal languages are the only ones that regularly accept that the students will generally be unable to say “My name is ___” by the end of 2 university-level semesters.

        I have a whole bunch of frustrations related to this – so I’ll shut up before it goes on and on. It’s the same in linguistics for aboriginal languages. Generally, the bar is lower than it is for other languages.

        The reasons for this are ugly, in my opinion, and things I won’t post on a blog for fear of getting hollered at (for the umpteenth time).

        Just do a mental exercise when looking over any language or cultural materials wrt to an aboriginal language: Transfer the whole discussion to French. If it is substandard for French, if it’s absurd and sloppy for French, then it’s substandard and absurd and sloppy for Cree (or Dene or Mohawk or Cherokee). If it would never make it in a French classroom, then it should never make it in a Cree classroom either. Only the best for Cree students.

        • While I tend to agree with you, I have linked to Alberta and Sask curriculum in the Language Links page that is certainly up to snuff for second languages. There are few materials available, however, and even fewer truly fluent language teachers with pedagogical training to deliver those programs. Not to mention high turn-over on many reserves, and you’ve got the ‘let’s start from the beginning’ syndrome played out again and again. Any language program would suffer a similar fate under those conditions, I fear.

    • Emo says:

      Not a complaint, but… I’ve been through a lot of documents like this, and one of the interesting facets is that similar work has been reproduced by many of the different provinces, and sometimes by multiple divisions/departments within a province.

      That is not to say that the results of these projects have been the same, nor even that they’ve had the same objectives; however, there is interesting material (arising from this diversity) for a comparative study.

      It is hard to escape from (inherently propagandistic) statements of purpose to instead deal with real measurements of outcomes… be they evaluations or projections, be they past, present, or future. However, propaganda of this kind (“vision statements”, etc.) remains preferable to what governments were producing just ten or twenty years ago (and it is easy to be optimistic that this could signal positive change, “from the top down”… perhaps just because the older generation of administrators and bureaucrats has retired).

      In terms of getting a sense of which projects are working (and to what extent, at their various inconsistent stages of implementation) my own impression is that the people who are most worth talking to are precisely the ones who are the most difficult to talk to, e.g., instructors and administrators on isolated colleges attached to specific reserves. Aside from geography, it is difficult for them to talk, because they’re in small institutions where they may be endangering their own job (or their institution’s sources of funding) if they complain (and everyone in the community will know that they complained, etc.).

      I have seriously proposed undertaking a survey of this kind (as old-fashioned social science research) to at least provide a structured forum for anonymous feedback from the “periphery” where indigenous language revival projects (and new education initiatives) are now underway (and, of course, places where they are not underway…). I’d be delighted if I met someone more able and motivated to do this work than myself, and could thus “give up” on the proposal; but we’ll see what happens. The talent pool of people available to deal with any side of the problem is very small; and, again, educational institutions are inherently conservative and defensive, and may consider any kind of evaluation (or possible change) a threat to whatever status quo they’ve managed to attain.

      I have been looking through the various (Canadian) journals of education for articles along these lines… as always in the social sciences, opinions and anecdotes are easier to find than palpable facts. In these reports just linked to, I note, even the Ontario government doesn’t seem to have many facts to offer aside from what it can quote from the census. If people don’t undertake original research (in this case: fieldwork) to produce the facts, they aren’t available for any side to invoke in the policy debate.

  18. Another excellent post. I liked your comments about “funny place names.” I live in the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island and we have many, many place names in the local Coast Salish language, which I thoroughly appreciate.

  19. Norman PIlon says:

    I agree that building relationships does require education. But what kind of education and to what end?

    Between two ‘different’ cultural groups, what does it mean to ‘build a relationship?’ It seems to me that this can mean:

    a) Helping each group gain insight into the other group’s already established modes of living as well as into each group’s ‘cultural’ hopes for the future


    b) Learning about or critically examining, if any, the ‘already’ established links between the two groups to establish:

    a. Whether and how the relationship may be in certain dimensions one of ‘dominance / dependence’

    b. Whether and how the relationship may be in certain dimensions one of ‘mutuality,’ wherein one group can ‘help’, with no strings attached, ameliorate the life of the other in a manner defined by that other

    c. Whether links of ‘dominance / dependence’ can be attenuated while those of ‘mutuality’ augmented in such a way as not to impair the ‘cultural’ independence of either group involved
    If the kind of ‘relationship’ that you are after is to ‘gain insight’ into the other group’s already established modes of living to engender attitudes of empathy, then I would agree that exposing ‘students’ from both ‘cultural’ groups to one another’s languages and so forth is the way to go. However, I don’t think that such an ‘education’ about the details of another culture, apart from making it possible for one to have both empathy and an appreciative regard for the differences in the ways of life of each group, goes very far in the direction of creating a substantive relationship of reciprocity or mutuality between the two cultures, that is, a relationship wherein the ‘welfare’ and ‘cultural integrity’ of either group becomes the paramount. For in what sense does my knowing how to ‘speak’ or ‘behave’ in Cree or Mohawk fashion serve to reinforce the political, cultural, and economic future or viability of either the Cree or Mohawk nations unless I am myself Cree or Mohawk? Certainly, it would be good for as many Canadians as possible to understand the Cree or any other indigenous ‘style’ of life, but it is probably more important in this conjuncture of history for more Canadians to come to a better understanding of the ‘systemic’ (and exploitative) relationship that has (and continues to) undermined and threaten the very existence of Native communities everywhere in North America.
    If I had unlimited sources of funding and could influence the choice of education curricula in order to foster a relationship of beneficial reciprocity between First Nations and mainstream Canada, I would make it mandatory for ‘all,’ both natives and non-natives, to learn the ‘real’ history of how European culture came to dominate the Americas and furthermore, would enlighten the student, both Indian and non-Indian, about how current property relations, both on the ‘reserve’ and off, are implicitly exploitative not only of the Native American but also the Euro-Canadian, i.e., how these property relations work to both accumulate and concentrate wealth and power into the hands of an unimaginable small fraction of the population of Canada. In this fashion, one would hope, mutually beneficial political alliances between native groups and what we could call ‘the working class’ of Canada might be fostered or at least rendered more likely. After all, without actual political influence, the standing of any individual or group amounts literally to nothing. As things stand, this is the situation in which both Native Americans and the American working-class find themselves.

    I guess that what I’m trying to say is that education for all broad cultural groupings must be politicized in the classroom if it is to become relevant for ‘everyone’s’ emancipation into a future that each can make his very own.


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  22. Emo says:

    On topic, but also alluding back to your prior discussion of costumes and/or/as/vs. ethnicity…

    The slightly longer history of attempts to enshrine indigenous culture (in the colonists’ education) may be worth glancing back at, and, while some of these white folks had good intentions, you would certainly glance back in horror:
    Yeah, that photograph says it all (and this is still ongoing today!). “The imitation of Indians” was a part of the founding mythology and social function of various groups that were precursors to the Boy Scouts (, and the Boy Scouts themselves to some extent (as above, “The Order of the Arrow” exists as an echelon within the scouts).

    Making this all somewhat more saddening: the rituals of “The Order of the Arrow” are based on the Lenape (remember them? An Algonquian group native to the New York City area… and now very nearly extinct both as a language and as a people…). Thus, an organized “secret society” of white people dressing up like the Lenape has survived while the selfsame white people have driven the (real) Lenape to extinction. The imitation was apparently based on written accounts of the local Algonquian traditions, and they incorporated isolated words from the (now extinct) language as well (presumably, they horribly mispronounced these words in their appropriated “rituals”, e.g., “…[calling themselves the] Wimachtendienk (“Brotherhood” in the Lenape language)…”, etc.).

    In retrospect, these are all just aspects of the same (sad) endgame to cultural genocide, although I’m willing to imagine that plenty of them began as sincere-enough attempts at education, or, indeed, cultural preservation (cf. the surreal case of “The men intended to resurrect the spirit of the Iroquois. They tried to learn the languages, assumed Iroquois names, and organized the group by the historic pattern of Iroquois tribes. […] New members underwent a secret rite called inindianation in which they were transformed spiritually into Iroquois.”).

    This appropriating aspect comes up again and again, with supposed cultural-education programs boiling down to, “give us your song, dance, food, and costumes”. I read a (provincial) posting for a cultural education program, and early on it used the abstract language of education and exchange, but toward the end it made clear that what it was seeking was a variety of people who could cook something distinctively representing their culture, and provide a brief song and dance that a classroom of (white) children could appreciate. When the word “culture” is used in a way that excludes “history”, you know you’re in trouble; and I do think that “cultural education” of this kind can become a part of (and has been a part of) a kind of denial of what the reality of the history is. Again, my response to all of this is simply to define what I do in terms of language (language learning, and language preservation). It may just be that learning language is so difficult (and time-consuming) that it allows me to avoid other aspects of the game.

  23. One problem is that the communities themselves typically do not want the language spoken by ‘outsiders.’ As a môniyâw who can speak Cree, I have plenty of stories to tell on that count. At best, I’m a talking dog performing tricks. At worst, I’m somewhere between a spy and a liar, coming in to steal secrets.

    However, language attitudes are really different in Métis communities, as opposed to reserve ones. I think your outlook, in general, is very Métis in this regard (I mean that as a compliment, by the way!). In Métis communities, the general outlook seems to be that the language is a language. It is useful, and is preserved as useful. The culture sort of lives on whether the language is spoken or not. I guess that comes from being Métis – you speak English, you speak French, you speak Cree *shrug* whatever. You’re still Métis. You are survivors – you do what you have to do, I think. Your identity isn’t fixed to one language – in some sense Métis identity is related to the ability control several languages. Métis people will often demonstrate their Métis status by code-switching, or proudly identify the number of languages they have control over.

    For people on reserve, there’s often a much more intense, intimate collection to ONE language and how it is entangled with their culture. So, for them, it’s very hard to think of the language being handed out willy-nilly to foreigners who may or may not have any respect for it.

    Does that make sense to you?

    • It certainly makes sense…in fact I admitted to the tinge of jealousy I have to deal with in an earlier post when I meet non-natives who are more fluent in Cree than I am. It’s a bit painful, and if you don’t deal with those feelings, then you just end up resenting and disliking the person who has put in the effort to learn ‘your’ language. When really, you should be happy that someone is fighting to keep it from dying. Then again, there is much about colonialism in the relationship, because many of us don’t have the opportunity to learn the language, nor the luxury. It’s a complex situation, and not everyone acknowledges it openly. This, coupled with a history of abuse by those who learned the language in order to…yes steal…knowledge or at least profit off of it, has led to a definite air of suspicion in many communities.

      I agree that many Métis come from a multilingual background, and thus perhaps do not have the same anger and frustration. However, it could also be that many Métis do not feel so strongly about their identity being linked to their aboriginal language where this is certainly a feeling I feel is nearly universal among First Nations.

      Working with First Nations on language programs is a very touchy issue because there are a lot of unanswered questions about ownership of something that is essentially cultural property…perhaps they most important cultural property of all. I have plenty more to say about this, but I’m in the midst of fighting children away from cooling chocolate chip cookies, so it will have to wait!

  24. Heather says:

    I have a question…

    From your previous posts I was surprised to learn that education on First Nation Reserves is actually funded/delivered by the Federal Government and not the Provincial or Local Government. I know, at least in Ontario, we have a standardized curriculum that is taught in every publicly funded school and learning about First Nations People and Culture (past and present) is throughout our elementary and secondary curricula. However, if I have understood correctly, the Ontario Curriculum would not be taught in schools on Reserves in Ontario because they are Federally run – do I have that right? If so, does the Federal Government have a standardized curriculum that is delivered in Federally Administered schools? Or do local communities or schools set their own curriculum to be taught?

    🙂 Heather

    • There is no Federal curriculum framework, no. Some First Nations schools adopt provincial curriculum and use provincial materials while others create their own materials and standards. It’s a hodge-podge actually and something I will get into further detail on when I tackle First Nations education.

      It’s also important to note that on-reserve teachers are not generally part of the provincial teachers unions (or associations) and thus, it is not always clear what their salaries are. In some areas, they are paid substantially lower than their provincial counterparts, while in other areas they are paid a lot more (particularly in isolated communities where it is very difficult to attract teachers in the first place). In addition to salaries, these teachers do not have other union protections (ie. collective bargaining) and may not have similar retirement plans, benefits and so on. Again…an issue for a wider discussion.

  25. steve says:

    i always felt bad in highschool for First Nation students that were yelled at or scorned for speaking their language (and really really pissed off at teachers in these situations)…..i also wished the schools would have had everyone learning a bit of a locally spoken language (mostly cree and Ojibwe) every year so that we could communicate and get to know each other but not always on our terms (in english basically). obviously, could have taken this on myself….(wished i had)….but things are easier said than done, especially for the terminally shy like myself….

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