Part 3: Justice, Education, & Resistance

As we turn our gaze on the last few years of the 20th century and analyze how expectations of educators of Indigenous learners have changed and/or remained the same, two critical voices keep tugging at my neuronal networks.

The first is from Anishinaabe scholar and activist Leanne Simpson. In her article Land as Pedagogy: Nishnaabeg Intelligence and Rebellious Transformation, Simpson argues that for education to become decolonized, Indigenous education needs to occur outside of the imperial context: “Nishnaabeg must stop looking for legitimacy within the colonizer’s education system and return to valuing our individual and collective intelligence on its own merits and on our own terms” (p. 22).

While not pushing western education aside completely for Anishinaabe children, Simpson surfaces the reality that Indigenous children “are spending 40 hours a week in state run education systems,” and that “Next to none of that takes place in a Nishnaabeg context….” (p. 23). Despite Canada’s best efforts to reconcile its relationship with Indigenous children, there exists an omnipresent desire to assimilate and legitimize success through conformity.

And this very real vector of assimilation and integration through the praise of the adoption of western practices and ideologies in the form of low expectations is seen through the history of education in Manitoba. Through the Manitoba Teacher, we have seen throughout the 20th century that success is determined by the degree to which an Indigenous child can emulate European values. We are curiously pleased when Indigenous children can moderately participate in our society.

The second voice that enters my mind throughout this process is that of Marie Battitste, University of Saskatchewan scholar. In her work Decolonizing Education: Nourishing the Learning Spirit, Battiste brings to the forefront the notion of cognitive imperialism, arguing that:

Cognitive imperialism is not just symbolic cultural assimilation, but wholesale cognitive whitewashing, working through the loss of Aboriginal languages that themselves inform the perspectives and values and world views of the peoples. As a result, success has been closely associated with Aboriginal students’ losing their languages and cultural connections; many often do not see the merit of holding to Aboriginal language systems, cultures, or world views, nor understand the wealth of knowledge within their own systems. This self-doubt, coupled with racism, continues to sabotage their expectations for their own future. (p. 162).

Success in the minds of the colonizer has not and is not about what Simpson describes as an education system designed to “create self-motivated, self-directed, community-minded, inter-dependent, brilliant, loving citizens…” (p. 23). Rather, success is defined by one’s ability to engage in a neoliberal system designed to assimilate Indigenous peoples into a foreign political, social, economic and historic paradigm. This certainly was present in our investigation of the Manitoba Teacher between the 1919 and the 1970s, despite a few voices from the north.

The conflict between Indigenous resurgence and colonial forces came to a critical point in the late 1980s and early 1990s and this is evidenced in editions of Manitoba Teachers’ Society journal in the early 1990s. Several key events, movements, and people helped to bring Indigenous issues and voices to the forefront of Canadian mainstream society. The first was the conviction of five white men in 1987 for the heinous murder of Helen Betty Osborne in The Pas, Manitiba in 1971. Coupled with the murder of J.J. Harper by an RCMP officer, in 1998, the cases led to intense relations between Indigenous peoples, the RCMP, the Manitoba government, and the settler state in general. In response to this tension, the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry, led partly by Senator Murray Sinclair, was created in 1988 and rendered its final report in three parts in the fall of 1991.

Helen Betty Osborne (Globe and Mail) and J.J. Harper (Winnipeg Free Press)

At the same time, national events were also influencing the tensions between Indigenous and settlers in Canada. The first is what many refer to as the “Oka Crisis.” In the summer of 1990, as Ellen Gabriel, a Mohawk activists who is and was a leader at Oka thirty years ago, reccounts, “the Kanien’kehá:ka Nation were denied their fundamental human rights without any just recourse. 30 years later, the Rotinonhseshá:ka are still fighting the same issues, while Canada, Québec and Oka collude to continue their land fraud under the auspices of development based on institutionalized racism.” (Gabriel, 2020). Local, provincial, and federal forces besieged the Mohawk community as it was attempting to resist the development and expansion of a golf course with condominiums. The “Oka Crisis” was less a crisis and more of Indigenous peoples, supported around the world, defending unceded territory.

Ellen Gabriel (Canadian Dimension)

The second involved Elijah Harper, an NDP MLA who, supported by the Assembly of First Nations, who filibustered the provincial legislature in order to stall the Meech Lake Accord — constitutional amendments that would acknowledge Quebec as a distinct society.

Harper and the AFN had major objections to being excluded from discussions related to nationhood.  Harper’s famous eagle feather response would ignite a chain reaction and eventually shut down the constitutional process.

Elijah Harper (Toronto Star)

But it was the murders of Helen Betty Osborne and J.J. Harper that seemed to compel the Manitoba Teachers’ Society into finally giving some oxygen and space to the Indigenous voices of resurgence, at least on paper. In the March 1990 edition of The Manitoba Teacher, where the cover and the central focus is on the theme of “peer-coaching”, three articles speak to three different perspectives when it comes to cognitive imperialism and colonial forces in the form of public education. The first is an article by Marshall Murdock, who at the time was the Native Education Advisor of the Winnipeg School Division at the Elmwood Educational Resource Centre entitled “We can beat racism, if we work together.” (Murdock, 1990, p. 9). In a response to the establishment of both a Winnipeg School Division task force on race relations and an MTS committee devoted to anti-racism, Murdock unveils that racism is alive and well: “Racism is a reality. It needs to be addressed by the school system and community.” He goes on further to argue that “Individuals in the mainstream of society often talk about minorities and native people needing to be integrated.” But he challenges this by arguing that Indigenous learners do not have the same opportunities for education and employment and learners in the rest of society.

As alternatives, Murdock speaks to the development of “Aboroginal Survival Schools” and Indigenous teacher education programmes. Children of the Earth School, an all Indigenous secondary school had been in the works since 1988 through energy from North End community groups and the Winnipeg School Division would later open it in 1991. He also points to post-secondary opportunities that had been developed through the University of Winnipeg’s ACCESS programme, BUNTEP (Brandon University Native Teacher Education Program) and the University of Maniutoba’s Winnipeg education Center. As Murdock explains, “These programs are designed primarily for Indian and Métis students who have been deprived of educational opportunities for social, economic and cultural reasons.” A handful of programs designed to train Indiegnous teachers in their communities, including BUNTEP, PENT (Project for the Education of Native Teachers), and IMPACTE (Indian – Métis Project for Careers through Teacher Education) sprouts dup in the early to mid 1970s as a reaction to what Sealey in the previous blog post saw as a dearth in Indigenous teachers in the north and rural areas of the province.

The essence of Murdock’s message in 1990 is that alternatives must be found for Indigenous education. That integration does not work and that, “We must continue to explore new approaches to native education. The pursuit of alternatives and new concepts must become top priority — without jeopardizing the equality of programs and program delivery necessary to meet the needs of native students” (p. 11).

And this is the danger, of lessening the quality of education to which Murdock refers. Off-campus programs, death-by-worksheets, and special education have all been tools by the education system to create an apartheid system. The system has made assumptions about the abilites, interests, and potential of Indiegnous learners and has attempted to integrate through apartheid.

In the same March 1990 edition, propelled by the recent high-profile acts of violence on Indigenous people in Manitoba, an article entitled “Some day we’ll graduate” appears. Three Indigenous learners describe their experience at Rising Sun High School, an off-campus program developed through R.B. Russell Vocational High School and Rossbrook House. The programme still exists, although the partnering school is now Gordon Bell. In the article, the learners talk about their experience growing up in the inner city. They speak of the difficulties dealing with the omnipresent forces of poverty and racism and ask the fundamental question: “Why do so many of us have a hard time finishing school?” (p. 14).

Rising Sun School is described as a school situated in a house. Classes are small, but the learners follow the same curriculum that all other learners do in Manitoba. They enjoy their experience as the are able to engage in the culture: “The last few years we have been given an opportunity to learn Ojibway from a teacher in the neighbourhood. Another teacher comes to the school to teach us native crafts. Also, we have participated in pow-wows and workshops on native spirituality.” (p. 15). There is a sense of pride in their words, despite the challenges that they are presented with living in Winnipeg.

Through their words, they are happy. They conclude with the following: “We like going to school at Rising Sun where we can feel at home and where we can learn at our own pace. It will make it possible for us some day to graduate.”

And the last article of note in the March 1990 issue is written by Caroline McCaig, a teacher at Stony Mountain Elementary School and a member of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society’s task force on racism. McCaig outlines for the first time in The Manitoba Teacher an urban settler perspective on racism in the education system. While her critique is bathed wholeheartedly in problematic notions of multiculturalism, she does identify the reality of low expectations for racialized learners:

Fundamental prejudices are universal. A study in Great Britain and the United States has shown that teachers expect less from non-whote children. Low expectations tend to result in low achievement. Studies have also shown that the majority of students in vocational and lower-level academic programs comes from visible minorities. Educators need to develop realistic expectations of all students to make sure that prejudice does not interfere with the academic achievements of students. (p. 13).

This attack on the colonial system from an urban context is relatively novel and an important moment. The March 1990 issue of The Manitoba Teacher is significant in its entirety as it features voices from Indigenous teachers, Indigenous learners, and settler teachers. Each offer a perspective that is unique and each fundamentally asks for a different or alternative form of education.

The June 1990 edition features an article on BUNTEP. Agnes Grant, one of the faculty members, describes the Indigenous education programme 20 years in the making. While she notes much success, she does offer some caution: “Historically, and to some extent even today, they have been criticized for being watered down.” (Grant, 1990, p. 4). Despite this perception, Grant asserts that all the off-campus teacher education programmes are successfully running, ensuring that Indigenous learners in rural areas have Indigenous teachers. 

A year later, Indigenous education comes back into focus in The Manitoba Teacher with the June 1991 edition entitled In Search of Harmony and Understanding. Caught up in the early days of multiculturalism mania, the edition features several stories on cultural programmes, including Ukrainian bilingual schools, teacher connections in Africa and Thailand, and editorials on inclusion. 

Cover of the June 1991 Manitoba Teacher

The first article that refers specifically to Indigenous learners is a profile on Gary Robson, Native awareness consultant with the Native education branch, Manitoba Education and training in Winnipeg. In the profile, Robson’s views on education are quite clear:

Mr. Robson says he believes that academic success goes hand in hand with self esteem and that Native students will “become proud and self-confident” if they are encouraged to seek the facts about their heritage and learn “basic skills and knowledge within a context that acknowledges and builds on their culture. (van Raalte, 1991, p. 14).

When training and connecting with teachers, Robson offered a two-pronged approach; the first whereby Indigenous learners are connected with elders in their communities but are also supported by teachers at school. The second emphasis for Robson is on teachers. Robson argues that it is important for teachers in today’s schools to acquire some knowledge of and insight into the ways of Native people for centuries have raised and educated their children and young people.” (p. 15.) Robson places the onus on the educator to engage with the learner — with the experience of the learner and acknowledging that these experiences are valid.

The other article in the June 1991 edition of The Manitoba Teacher is one entitled Multi-purpose Project Helps Native Students. The article focuses on a unique programme at Hugh John Mcdonald School that is predicated on “counseling and beading”. Through the programme, “Native students who have trouble coping with their lives in and out of school” connect with an Indigenous artist, supported by a school guidance counselor. Through beading and teachings, the aim is to raise the self-esteem of learners through various “activities that allow students to experience a measure of success and (b) discussions that enable them to share their concerns and gain new knowledge.” (van Raalt, 1991, p. 2).  By assigning  “culturally relevant tasks,” the artist “makes sure that the tasks she assigns can be handled by the students to whom she assigns them so that the student will experience ‘a sense of accomplishment.’”

The period at the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s marks a significant transition in Canadian society and also the discussions related to Indigenous learners. Through the analysis of The Maniotba Teacher during this period, we see that strong voices from northern and rural parts still exist, but a new voice is beginning to develop within Winnipeg. Through the development of the Winnipeg School Division and MTS task forces on race relations, there is a shift in focus from assimilatory policies to the creation of separate educational experiences for Indigenous learners. Through off-campus programs, school programs, and survival schools like Children of the Earth, there appears for the first time a realized desire on the part Indigenous peoples to resist colonial forms of education. 

Through Oka and Meech Lake, Indigenous resistance and reclamation, while always present, briefly become visible through The Manitoba Teacher. It is clear that educators in Winnipeg and throughout the province were engaged at some level in conversations about race, Indigenous education, and expectations. There are parallel forces which raise questions about teacher expectations at this time. The first is the need to seperate Indigenous learners from mainstream education programmes and the second is to change perspectives on success.

At the time, led by community activities and organizations, this separation may have been propelled by a need to rebuke and reject generations of genocidal policies. As Simpson (2014) argues, “Nishnaabewin did not and does not prepare children for a successful career path in a hyper capitalistc system.” (p. 23). While much ground was made during this period by Indigenous educators, learners, and leaders, did it actually shift the expectations of settler teachers in Winnipeg? Have the perceptions and attitudes of white educators changed in 2020? Have off-campus programmes worked? Have they been co-opted? Do we often label learners as “at-risk” “off track” or “unreachable.” Are we streaming Indigenous learners into certain programs? Who is suspended most? Who are the learners who are on IEPs? Have the conditions for our learners changed since 1919?

These are the questions that we need to ask ourselves if we are to move forward in Winnipeg.

References

Battiste, M. (201). Decolonizing education: Nourishing the learning spirit. Purich.

Carleton, S. (2018). The legacy of Oka and the future of Indigenous resistance. Canadian Dimension.

Gabriel, E. (2020). Ellen Gabriel on the 30th anniversary of the 1990 ‘Oka” crisis. Canadian Dimension.

Grant, A. (1990). University reaches out: Programs bring education to communities. The Manitoba Teacher, Vol. 68(4), pp. 2-4.

McCaig, C. (1990). In the fight against racism, teachers can help turn the tide. The Manitoba Teacher, Vol. 68(3), pp. 12-13.

Murdock, M. (1990). We can beat racism, if we work together. The Manitoba Teacher, Vol. 68(3).

Simpson, L. (2014). Land as pedagogy: Nishnaabeg intelligence and rebellious transformation. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education, and Society, Vol. 3(3), pp. 1-25.

Van Raalt, M. (1991). Multi-purpose project helps Native students. The Manitoba Teacher, Vol. 69(4), pp. 12-13.

Van Raalt, M. (1991). Native education consultant raises teachers’ awareness. The Manitoba Teacher, Vol.69(4), pp 14-15.