Engaging families by confronting stereotypes


by Michelle Sanderson -First Nations Me’tis Achievement Consultant

STARS Student Teachers Against Racism

What is it that engages families? Especially, in regards to my position, for First Nation families?  I think about this question as I prepare for a PD drop-in for the early learning consultant’s workshop. She’s working with 21 new teachers and EA’s and has asked me to speak on one of the four pillars of early learning, engaging FNM families. There’s no easy answer, as the causes of disengagement are complex and multi-faceted. (She’s alloted me 15 minutes)

Through my research and experience as an anti-racist educator, I realize that because there has been a lack of deep and meaningful education regarding First Nations people, that, many teachers and school staff are coming into the position not having a critical analysis of some of the symptoms of colonialism that we see in some of our families. This is a critical problem of course, but can be minimized by stating that we teach to all children. Whether the achievement gap, or as some call it the education dept, agrees, is quite different. Of course, there are the exceptions, and no group of people have homogeneous qualities. But, what I do know, is that at some point, someone deliberately made a decision to not cover First Nation history in Canada’s education. I’ve heard stories of history majors working in our school division, who knew nothing of the Indian Act or residential school! -(until they took our treaty catalyst teacher training).  On a more upbeat path, I’m not the only one to notice this, and actions have been taken provincially to address this problem.  Amid the changes recently, is the inclusion of First Nation and Me’tis specific outcomes and indicators Saskatchewan has made mandatory to teach, in all grades from pre-kindergarten to grade 12. As well, the province has made teaching treaty outcomes and indicators mandatory. Since the mid 1990’s, recent graduates from teacher’s colleges, have been compelled by the University of Saskatchewan’s college of education to take anti-racist or Native Studies classes. I’m not sure if these classes are mandatory across Canada, or Saskatchewan for that matter. However I do applaud the University of Saskatchewan’s efforts to treat the roots of this problem and hopefully, we will continue to see growth in this area. On a side note,The University of Manitoba, has made Indigenous Studies classes mandatory in every college. Locally, within our own school division, we have had many events, including, but not all are listed, such as treaty catalyst teacher training and anti-racist/anti-oppressive education to address this education void. These are small efforts, but that’s how change happens.  I applaud those teachers for taking the time to get this training in our school division.  Along with the many benefits to having this training, is that it can only serve to create more skilled teachers in meeting the province’s outcomes and indicators and to create good relations amongst all people. (ie. interrupt racism) Another initiative from the province in pilot project form, is the “Following their Voices” project. In short, it’s a project, which starts with research by asking teachers and community members, students, parents what they think about education, and where they are, and where they wish it would go. Problems are identified, and actions are taken to address the problems. Again, small pockets of change to address the First Nations Metis achievement gap, or the First Nations Metis education debt, whatever you want to call it. Basically, these trainings are giving educators a much needed critical analysis that is needed to connect in meaningful and humanizing ways with First Nations and Metis students and families.

At one point, I myself, lacked the analysis that was needed to understand the effects of colonialism. A lot of the racism, and stereotypes that were out there, floating in space without a deeper analysis, caused me to internalize the racism at a very young age. One need only turn on the news, or drive down the street to see the effects of colonialism. Sadly,and it’s the negative images that makes the news more often than naught. Stories of strength and resilience, plentiful though they are, are often left to more spectacular negative news items. That in itself is a future project to address. Back to the subject at hand. Because of these internalized racial images I had been exposed to,  I had to have my eyes focused another way, from someone else.  I had to be shown that I was not a bad person, or that I wasn’t worthy, or that something wasn’t wrong with me, or that my genes weren’t faulty. It’s a process, that as a racialized being, I must continually visit and interrupt within myself each and every day. Being someone who has experienced much trauma due to my race and racism, due to being a child raised in a community of first and second generation residential school survivors, who were themselves, victims of abuse and trauma, guilt and shame, I had to analyze why I had these negative thoughts about myself and my people, the way I did. My healing journey is ongoing.

One of the tools which helped me to understand the effects of colonialism, racism and stereotyping, was passed to me by an anti-racist friend and colleague of mine, by the name of Sheelah Mclean. She shared an illustration with me, to help me to understand within minutes of why there were such negative perceptions of First Nations people, and impressed upon me the importance to teach the First Nation Me’tis history education void. This illustration helped me to depersonalize racial stereotypes about myself and my people and to make sense of them.  This illustration can also be used to understand multiple types of oppression. The illustration is quite simple. It is in the shape of a triangle. Starting from bottom right, we move clockwise. The first point in the bottom right corner of the triangle represents the policies, procedures and strategies which were put in place to oppress Indian people. The second point of the triangle, bottom left, includes the material consequences of the oppression. We can use this illustration to take apart the stereotypes and the myths and to challenge ourselves as to how we came to conclusions, based on the partial picture we are presented when we process a large group of First Nations people through our education system without knowing our own shared history. At the top of the triangle is the thoughts, inferences, or the conclusions that people come to without understanding that these are the results of the policies and procedures.   We can clearly see that the direct result of oppression when we look at this triangle, travelling clockwise. So, if we just see the bottom left, (3.) the results of policy directed at First Nation people,  is obscured (2), then we can see how stereotypes are made, and generalizations like, (1.)“Indians are inferior” are created. (Of course, this is just a brief snapshot of some of the strategies/policies unleashed upon Indian people.) Which, is what makes treaty catalyst teacher training and teaching our shared history about residential school, treaties that much more effective in interrupting racism and the creation of stereotypes.

Triangle of Misunderstanding

As an educator, I feel that there is an urgency to breaking the stereotypes and myths around First Nations people. It is these negative ideas, about First Nations people which are interrupting good relations across the spectrum. If First Nations are to fully participate in the economy, we need to confront the stereotypes.The full participation of First Nation people in the economy was the intention and was embedded in the spirit of our treaties.  It’s important to understand that the First Nations experience as Canadians, as “Indians” as defined by Canada has been disastrous to First Nations people. I think the future will brighten, and the possibilities will expand, when we as Canadians can together come to an understanding, of our shared history. When that happens, we can begin to humanize each other in meaningful ways and engage families and communities who have long been divorced from trusting education.  As First Nation families realize that teachers and schools are beginning to come in as allies, engagement will rise. But as well, it will begin a process where non-Native teachers will also be questioning and redefining within themselves, what it means to be white.

Further Reading:
Non Native teachers in Native Communities by John Taylor



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First Nations Education Act

by Michelle Sanderson

First Nations Education Act: Just another top down Act constructed without input from First Nations?

People are all abuzz on twitter and facebook today, regarding the First Nations Education Act.  As I attempt to make sense of this piece of legislation, I am left to question, what is it? And what does it entail?  As we already know, First Nations students on–reserve,  receive funding through the federal government for their schools. Much of the infrastructure at the schools are in various states of decay, typically, there is little to no internet in most of the schools. I was surprised, when I came to Living Sky as I walked through various schools how abundant the schools were in resources. I saw ipads,  computer rooms, exercise rooms, equipment overflowing to the brim in the phys.ed equipment rooms and the science labs. This is something that I hadn’t often seen when visiting or working in First Nations Schools.  Of course, I don’t want to over generalize, as some communities had made huge efforts to stack classrooms with supplies and equipment, using funding from elsewhere, or fund raising.  However; schools on reserves are typically, being operated without having the budgets, which provincial schools do. This money is what attracts the specialized supports that larger provincial school divisions would have, such as education psychologists, occupational therapists, language, math and early learning consultants, arts education consultants or First Nation and Metis Achievement coordinators to name a few. In short, First Nations Schools are typically being run with bare bones funding.  We could come to the conclusion, like the federal government did, that First nations people are unable to handle their finances and that they are misspending monies which are meant for their education. However; when you see the funding formulas, you get a clearer picture of what it means to be a First Nations student in a First Nations school.

First of all, the funding formula, which is set out by the federal government, states that schools on reserves receive tuition as accorded by Ottawa. Whether the school is in a remote part of the province, or near a bustling city centre, the funding formula is the same. Schools typically receive between 3,000.00 – 7000.00 less per child in tuition fees, than if that same child were registered in a provincial school. Let’s say for instance that reserve school X has 300 student. After applying to INAC or DIAND as they’re called now, the school would typically receive, oh, let’s say, $7000.00 per student after nominal roll is collected on September 30. Therefore, the school would receive about  $2,100,000.00 for their operating budget,  to pay out teacher and staff contracts, maintenance fees, purchase equipment, and renovations as any other typical school would do. However; if those same students were enrolled in Provincial School Y, after nominal roll in September, that same school would receive up to 7000.00 more per student from the provincial government. Therefore, the funding formula could look like 300 students x 14,000.00 =4,200,000.00. As you can see, this is a significant difference in the operating costs and ability to hire quality teachers and to implement quality planning within the school.

When First Nations students switch from a reserve system, to a provincial system, there is a perception that they are usually delayed in reading, writing and math. We’re left to think that perhaps it has to do with the quality of the First Nation to administer their funding adequately, or perhaps the problem is the First Nations teachers, or the parents, or maybe it’s related to their culture. However; when we realize that indeed First Nations students are coming into school with a price over their heads which is sometimes half as much as a provincial student is worth, then we must wonder about why the reason for the funding disparity?

First Nations people are hopeful that the First Nations Education Act is going to address these funding disparities, so that First Nations children, living on-reserve,  can have a chance for a quality education, which is not only adequate and equal to provincial standards, but as well, that it will honour their culture, languages and heritage.  The First Nations Education Act was rolled out without consultation from First Nations people. In many cases, in order to receive their band’s operating budget, First Nations are being forced to adhere to the agreement before they receive their operating budgets.  First Nations people are wary that the government may have not addressed the funding disparity, but, is yet, forcing First Nations to comply with provincial curriculum standards with little to no financial supports to meet these requirements.

First Nations people are confused and concerned as to what the Act entails and why a First Nation Education Act is needed, especially without consultation from the people whom the act will encompass.  Some First Nation parents said, we already have negotiated for our education through treaties with the federal government and offloading the education responsibility to the province will, in effect, make treaty null and void. We’ll be hearing more about this as time goes by when on-reserve funding initiatives are either depleted or exhausted.  As educators of First Nations children, we should all be concerned about what this Act means for members of our society. As the achievement gap garners more and more attention, we’re forced to think critically about how and why funding disparities,  as such,  exist and whether forcing compliance to externally created top down initiatives are really going to make the changes they promise. More to come later.





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Concerning Aboriginal Education

 I recently,  an article about Paul Martin as printed in May 15, 2013, in  the Globe & Mail (Toronto, Canada), Aboriginal education vexes Martin, Canada.,  and I invite you all to take a good critical read of this article. To summarize, Martin is celebrated for putting some of his own money into projects aimed at helping Indigenous people.   I bring indigenous history and an anti-racist, anti-colonial, and critical lens to the article in understanding the reasons and manner with which Mr. Martin  concentrates his efforts to alleviate the suffering and attempting to address the problems experienced by Aboriginal people.

After reading the article, I found that Martin names a lot of the problems indigenous people face when being a member of an oppressed group in Canada. These are touted on two different areas in the article, some of the problems that he named quite uncritically, I might add, are half of the homes have single parent families, half of the students who are in school are in foster care, high unemployment rates, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, weak literacy/low literacy rates, lack of role models, reserves are economic dead ends,  poor housing, educational inequalities,  25% – 40% less funding per student for primary students in schools, and last but not least, gangs, crime and violence.

That list is a little overwhelming, maybe even daunting. However;  the problem with the article, is that the reader is left to their own devices to make sense of these sad and grim statistics.  Without a critical view of what all of this means, the article in itself, serves to do a dis-service to indigenous people.  I commend Martin on putting his money where his mouth is, but, at the same time, I worry, that without a critical understanding of the statistics he’s touted, that he just may be very well be perpetrating stereotypes about the very people he’s trying to help. We must ever be conscious of the brush of stereotyping.

As many elders and spiritual elders explain, you can’t solve a problem with the same mindset that created it.  If you know your Canadian history, then you’ll be aware of how our early indigenous ancestors experienced the newcomers. The newcomers saw our early indigenous ancestors as needing help, that there was something wrong with them, that they didn’t have something, that should be given to them, that they, the oppressors could provide. This deficit thinking led to some very profound mindsets, or strategies, which painted indigenous people with negative connotations.  Without a critical understanding of these multi-faceted problems called into attention, we may blame the victim.  We can avoid that by  educating ourselves and understanding our nation’s true history, which isn’t pretty.

It is this very Canadian history, which is intertwined with colonialism, racism,  which in large, lead to where First Nations people are today.  Policies like residential schools to “take the Indian out of the child” were a real part of our history and it’s this, our shared history, which has material consequences in today’s society. Unrealized treaty promises lead to economic detriment to First Nations farmers. There were untold opportunity, for the early settlers, and true, like the Canadian national story tells, there were difficult times for those settlers. However; those settlers had opportunity and privilege which was systematically denied to the early First Nations farmers. Time and time again tales of withheld impliments, denied access to the market are told about our First Nations farmers. It’s sad to hear about it, but as well, there are many tales of lost lands, which were then placed into the hands of the newcomers or settlers. These are the stories that are untold in public education, deliberatly or not, which need to be told.  It is these events, which have  lead to the material consequences of poverty for generations for some and wealth for others. Some are still benefitting off the wealth of that very land today. So, although it may seem like it’s all in the past, there are true material consequences to the policies and laws that were put into place in the early 1900’s to privilege some and to deny others. This, in short,  is the definition of racism.

In order to move forward, we need to acknowledge our dark past. There’s no moving forward without the validation of the truth.  There are still tons of residual trauma and resentment connected with unrealized treaty promises, residential schools and policies like the Indian Act. The last residential school, here in Saskatchewan, was closed only in the 90’s. It’s not far enough in our distant past to relay the racism as a past tense, as in it happens no more. These same policies are at the root of today’s lived oppression, poverty and intergenerational trauma which have affected many of  today’s indigenous people. Many of us both indigenous and settler, are trying very hard to walk a new path, and reconnect with wellness, through a variety of ways, and it’s important if we’re going to walk this road in the manner our indigenous ancestors intended, hand in hand, sharing economic opportunities and the land and seeing each other as humans beings, as cousins, that we indigenous and settlers have to understand our dark past to meet our bright future together.

Regardless of the statistics, or the problems which are said to be “plaguing” First Nations,  without fully understanding the situation, it is extremely detrimental to the communities you are working in to not understand our collective histories.   More importantly, when working with oppressed groups, such as Canada’s First Nations, it’s important to remember that the indigenous people did not arrive at such atrocities by themselves.  These problems and statistics are real material consequences which were, and are, arrived at through policies, procedures and implimentations of real laws, bills, policies and procedures aimed at marginalizing the First Nations people. 

Some of the laws aren’t too far in the distant past. In this modern day and age, we can see differences in funding, as much as 13,000.00 per child, in on- reserve schools, compared to provincial schools.  This only serves to ensure a lower quality of education, ensure less teacher time for indigenous students on reserve than in the city. Martin is right when he talks about our indigenous students being second class.  And the policies just keep coming! With the First Nation Education Act being pushed through parliament with the massive omnibus bills, we see more legislation coming to provide even less to indigenous students on-reserve.

One challenge I would put to Martin, is to look at First Nations in a new way, as a group of oppressed people who do have the role models in their communities, who do care about their children’s education and well being. Indeed many First Nations people do work, are sober, are educated,  pay taxes and deserve to be treated and talked about with dignity when and where the subject of indigenous people exists, in education, in mainstream, in the economy and even in the media. It is also equally important to realize that for those who are suffering ongoing lived oppression, that they didn’t quite get there by themselves and that Canada itself has a long and on-going violent colonial  history toward Aboriginal people and would do well to acknowledge its role in the predicament that First Nations and Metis students find themselves in. 

I’ve included some links and citations to some articles, which delve into these multi-faceted issues further.  I hope my article/blog sparks some conversations, to change the old way of seeing and look through the world with new critically awakened eyesight. I applaud Mr. Martin and wish there were more like him.  I hope that he continues work for the wellness of all humankind and I encourage him to further educate himself as to how to better “become an ally” or to work together with oppressed groups “in solidarity.” It’s important to remember how powerful naming is. Even now, our traditional relatives give naming a ceremony all it’s own, because we recognize how very powerful it is to have a name.  With that in mind,  I would be careful how I would name or describe any person or group, oppressed or not.

The Hawthorn Report (online)
Cardinal, Harold. The Unjust Society. 2nd ed. Vancouver: Douglas & MacIntyre, 1999. 140.
Lawrence, Bonita. “Gender, Race, and the Regulation of Native Identity in Canada and the United States: An Overview.” Hypatia. 18:2. 2003. 3.1
Mullin, Jessica. “Opinion Shale-gas exploration debate exposes intersecting issues of race and colonialism.” October 18, 2013 Miramichi Online


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