Indigenous studies in public education

Helping teachers to include Indigenous perspectives and knowledge in their classrooms

Sonya Ermine talks to her Grade 1 class at Sturgeon Lake Central School. She returned to her home community several years ago because she wanted to learn more about Cree language and culture. Photo: © Chanss Lagaden / CBC

With the rapid growth of the Indigenous population in recent decades, more Indigenous youth than ever before are attending public schools in Canada. Like all students, it’s important for Indigenous learners to see themselves reflected in the curriculum. But often, that’s not happening. Jean-Paul Restoule and his team of researchers from the University of Victoria and the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education want to find out why.

“As an Indigenous person, I’ve always been interested in how we experience schooling, what our teachers know and don’t know, and how they help us learn about who we are,” he said.

Creating a safe space for sharing

When Restoule started this research, teachers said they didn’t have the resources they needed to bring Indigenous history and culture into the classroom. But when new materials were provided, teachers didn’t use them.

Restoule organized a day-long workshop to find out what else was at play. Participants could express themselves in group discussion, dramatic performance, visual arts or writing about the challenges they faced in teaching Indigenous content. The team then analyzed the materials from that event and coded for themes. They also asked teachers to record their experiences in journals to further inform this work.

The fear of trespassing and other barriers

Although this project is still in its early stages, a couple of key themes have emerged, including what Restoule calls a fear of trespassing.

“Non-Indigenous teachers often have anxieties about taking up the work,” he said. “They’re afraid they might offend someone if they talk about these things. There’s a sense that, ‘I’m going into an area that’s rightfully the place of Indigenous people.’”

Teachers also said they don’t have institutional or peer support to deliver Indigenous content. Restoule’s team is looking to create a network that fosters peer-to-peer support and mentoring to give teachers the confidence and means to teach this content to their students.

A step toward Reconciliation

Indigenous people in Canada are overrepresented when it comes to social justice issues, facing higher rates of imprisonment, suicide, violence and substance abuse than Canadians. Addressing these issues requires everyone in society to work together, Restoule said. For that to happen, Canadians must understand the history of Indigenous people in this country.

“It’s really important for all Canadians to have a sense of the Indigenous perspective on any issue they learn about in the classroom,” said Restoule. “We hope this work will improve the way teaching and learning about Indigenous people occurs for the next generation.”

Want to learn more?

For more about Restoule’s work, visit the project homepage or read his paper for the Canadian Commission for UNESCO.