Assessing Student Awareness of Indigenous Peoples Project

Assessing Student Awareness of Indigenous Peoples Project

Assessing Student Awareness of Indigenous Peoples Project

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An Indigenous woman dancing in ceremonial dress at a Powwow hosted at Queen's University. Background

This is a time of significant change for First Nations, Métis and Inuit (FNMI) educational research in Canada. Public leaders across many sectors of society are coming to recognize the importance of a basic understanding of FNMI governance issues, FNMI histories and FNMI cultures in the effective functioning of social institutions including education, justice, and health care (Department of Justice, 2014; Health Canada, 2014; Ontario Ministry of Education, 2014). Policy analysts have noticed that FNMI people are a growing percentage of the Canadian population and represent significant potential for future employment, yet are continuing to fall far behind non-FNMI students in terms of high school graduation, university entry and retention in universities (Drummond & Watts, 2011). There has been growing attention to FNMI rights in recent decades and increasing appreciation of their economic and social importance in Canada (e.g., they are highly important in the development or not of many natural resources). There is also an increased appreciation of the differences between FNMI and non-FNMI students which requires a more sophisticated approach to student needs, especially as most FNMI people live off reserve and many reserve schools make use of provincial curricula (McCue, 2006, n.d.).

As a result, Canadian provincial education systems and universities are beginning to grapple with these issues as education challenges rather than exclusively FNMI issues. But, while policy changes are being introduced in both secondary and university education across Canada, most educators have little understanding of the environment faced by FNMI people in Canadian institutions, and, importantly, lack the data to track the impact of policy changes. This research, both through its results and the process of consultation, will support and inform individuals and institutions seeking to improve education for FNMI people and education about FNMI people in Canada. Our goal through and beyond this SSHRC grant is to engage and enhance collaboration between universities, Ministries of Education, and FNMI communities in every province in Canada. We believe that educated awareness of FNMI peoples will enrich life for both FNMI and non-FNMI people in Canada.

The design and analysis of education about FNMI people raises important questions: how do we best determine the knowledge critical to understanding FNMI governance issues, histories, cultures and realities of life? How do we assess what students are being taught and learning? And, in our analysis of what they are learning, how do we separate the influence of formal education from that of the larger social and personal environment, including families, friends and entrenched social attitudes? This research is designed to work with FNMI educational and community leaders and university educators and administrators to define knowledge about FNMI peoples critical to responsible citizenship in Canada; reveal opportunities for improvement in curricula; track the impact of curricula on students who go on to university education; measure the impact of university education on student awareness of FNMI people, cultures, governance, geographies and current events; liaise with Ministries of Education and universities to address the issues created by the state of education in Canada; and work to better understand how ignorance and lack of awareness of others within our society has functioned and continues to function to marginalize, exclude and reduce our capacity. The research is fundamentally geographic in three ways: it is geographic as it seeks to understand and influence knowledge of FNMI peoples across the spaces and places of Canada; it is historical geography as it explores why and how that knowledge differs from place to place; and it is geographic education as it explores the geographic (as well as the political, current events, historical, cultural and curricular) knowledge of university students.

Context and Theory 

This project is about the unawareness and ignorance that undermines truth and reconciliation (Saul, 2008; TRC, 2012, p. 23). Recently, some social theorists (i.e., feminist scholars, queer theorists, and race theorists) working with marginalized populations have argued that theorizing ignorance is as important as theorizing knowledge (Bergin, 2002; Steyn, 2012; Sullivan & Tuana, 2007). Ignorance, as they use the term, requires its own analysis and explanation with special attention to language, contradictory social values, uneven social structures and often hidden but staunchly defended interests linked to significant social inequalities. Seen in this way, ignorance is not about faulty cognition. Nor is it a collective absence of knowledge yet to be acquired. It is an outcome of structural methods of not-knowing that, consciously or not, generally perpetuate the status quo, privilege and domination. Although the recent academic literature describes this ignorance as willful (Alcoff, 2007; May, 2006; Tuana, 2006), it is also social. Pervasive social ignorance molds individuals and groups into performers of social exclusion although they may not intend to exclude or to be excluded or be aware of playing either part (Alcoff, 2007; Dotson, 2011; Steyn, 2012, pp. 9, 13-18). This realization does not mitigate individual responsibility but does help to explain why unawareness is such a powerful and relatively unrecognized social force. Consequently, while this project is about tracking and changing key educational institutions, it is also about advancing the study of ignorance or “agnotology” (Proctor & Schiebinger, 2008).

For colonial and post-colonial theorists there is a strong link between not knowing and colonialism. What is colonialism but the willful and sustained ignoring of the rights and interests of subject peoples to favour those of colonial classes (Bhabha, 1994; Said, 1978, 1993; Spivak, 1988)? Even in a post-colonial era, colonially inspired unawareness informs our thinking in the most profound ways: from our sense of time (Fabian, 1983), to what seems in and out of place (Agamben, 2005; Cresswell, 1996; Mountz, 2009; Mountz & Hyndman, 2008), to what is of central and what is of marginal importance in the everyday (Certeau, 1984; Lefebvre, 1971, 1991) and in the more specialized realms of science (Bell, Butlin, & M., 1995; A. Godlewska & Smith, 1994), medicine (Cunningham & Andrews, 1997; Livingstone, 1992), anthropology (Clifford & Marcus, 1986; Thomas, 1994; Trigger, 1989; Washburn & Trigger, 1996) and the law (C. Godlewska & Webber, 2007; Tully, 1995). Unawareness was deeply linked to issues of class, race, and gender in the colonial era and remains so in the world formed by colonialism (Sullivan & Tuana, 2007). Most theorists agree that the first and most challenging step in changing unawareness is its recognition.

A feather is an important symbol in the many Indigenous cultures found throughout Canada. Education can – and has – functioned as a tool of colonialism and racism (Bonvillain, 2001; Freire, 1970, 1995, 2004; Haig-Brown, 1988; Jung, 2009; Kelm, 1996; Lobo & Talbot, 2001; Miller, 1996, 2000; Milloy, 1999; Regan, 2010), through what is taught and what omitted from curricula (Apple & Christian-Smith, 1991; Kaomea, 2000; Rose, 2007), through how content is taught (Battiste, 1998, 2002; McConaghy, 2000; Mitchell, 1991), through differential access to education that reinforces and sometimes defines social structure (Kabeer, 2009; Laachir, 2007; Ladson-Billings, 1998; Mendelsohn & Vicziany, 1998; Stoler, 1992), and through the mindsets of teachers and teacher educators (Dion, 2007; Higgins, Madden, & Korteweg, 2013). Socially shared knowledge, or what should be known and taught, is subject to on-going negotiation, particularly concentrated in knowledge institutions: schools, colleges, universities, public media, and government.

FNMI leaders and public figures as well as scholars of FNMI culture and history contend that non-FNMI ignorance of FNMI existence has systematically disadvantaged FNMI peoples in Canada and weakened Canadian society (Canada, 1996, pp. 1: 3, 7, 237-238, 248-239, 603, 681-232; 233: 498-239; 234: 527; 235: 291-232). The Truth and Reconciliation Commission placed great emphasis on the importance of revealing the truth of how FNMI people have been injured and marginalized in Canada (AHF, 2009). The Six Nations Traditional Chiefs declared a review of the Ontario curriculum an essential precondition to resolving the dispute at Caledonia (Alexd, 2008; Martin-Hill, 2007). FNMI playwrights, novelists, artists, musicians and educational advocates have struggled to educate Canadians in nonthreatening and engaging ways (Boyden, 2006, 2008; Castellano, Davis, & L., 2000; King, 1993, 2003, 2012, 2014; Moses, 2000; Sainte Marie, 2000, 2009; Wright-McCleod, 2005; Yuxweltuptun, 1990). In 2004 the Canadian Race Relations Foundation-funded Learning About Walking in Beauty report suggested that, in spite of all these efforts and significant social change in Canada since the 1970s, most young Canadians are learning little more about FNMI life and issues than did their parent’s parents(CAAS, 2004). Education theorists have also argued that silence, in the curriculum and the classroom, has perpetuated incomprehension of FNMI issues (Churchill, 2004; Ghosh & Abdi, 2004; A. Godlewska, Massey, Adjei, & Moore, 2013; A. Godlewska, Moore, & Bednasek, 2010; Lemisko & Bradford, 2002; Paquette, 1991; Sleeter & Grant, 1985).

Yet most Canadians consider the problem of FNMI education to belong to FNMI peoples rather than to everyone in Canada. While acknowledging that ignorance of FNMI peoples needs to be addressed, the 2007 Ontario First Nation, Métis, Inuit Education Policy Framework sets dates and expectations only for increasing FNMI graduation rates (Ontario, 2007). Canada-wide much of the research and policy attention has been focused on the fact that FNMI people, most of whom are in schools with provincial curricula, deserve much better education from Canada (Battiste, 2000; Castellano, et al., 2000; Cherubini & Hodson, 2008; CMEC, 2002; Deyhle, Swisher, Stevens, & Galvan, 2008; Mendelson, 2006; Smith, 2005), although recently there has been some awakening amongst Ministries of Education to the problem of the ignorance of the general population (CMEC, 2013). This project complements the research on the education of FNMI people by addressing the education provided in provincial jurisdictions, the role it plays in the maintenance of disadvantage and the role it can play in improving the lives of FNMI people.

Most research about FNMI people in Canada continues to be carried out by non-FNMI people and informed by theory developed in the absence of FNMI peoples (contra this, see (Castleden, Mulrennan, & Godlewska, 2012). This proposed research is focused on mainstream Canadian society and co-designed with FNMI people and FNMI theorizing. In this research, developed in collaboration with FNMI authors, intellectuals, community leaders and educators, the applicants reflect the perspectives and knowledge of FNMI people back on Canadian society. The view of what is important for Canadians to understand is Indigenous, gathered from the writings of FNMI educators and critics (Alfred, 2005; Borrows, 1997; Turner, 2006), gleaned from public documents that powerfully express FNMI views, such as the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, and checked and rechecked with FNMI community leaders. This is deeply important as, as Linda Tuhiwai Smith asserts, “Real power lies with those who design the tools” (Smith, 1999, p. 38; 2005). This research has also been designed from within mainstream Canadian culture to extend help to Indigenous leaders by recognizing, delineating and exploring the root causes of Canadians’ “significant lack of understanding and respect for FNMI ways of understanding the world, which translates into a lack of understanding of FNMI rights in Canada” (Turner, 2006, p. 8). This is action research that both identifies and begins to develop strategies to solve a social problem (marginalization of FNMI people through lack of awareness) and contribute to social science understanding (how can unawareness be analyzed and changed?) (Gilmore, Krantz, & Ramirez, 1986).

Some higher education institutions are beginning to address the issue of awareness in the non-FNMI population. For example, beginning in the fall of 2012 Lakehead University has required that all undergraduates take a Native Studies course. Queen’s University wrote a focus on FNMI education into its university plan, is offering Inuktitut and Mohawk courses, and has invested a CRC II in Indigenous studies. Following the 2009 Presidential Task Force on FNMI Initiatives, the Student Affairs office at Memorial has made addressing FNMI awareness a major priority. The Ontario Ministry of Education has just rewritten its K-8 Social Studies curriculum to enhance its coverage of FNMI peoples and topics. The Saskatchewan Ministry of Education mandated treaty instruction in 2007. While these interventions are timely and important, it is vital to their success that they be grounded in solid understanding of student knowledge and social attitudes. Given the historical, epistemological, and social complexity of shared knowledge, changing the knowledge we value requires both action and thoughtful, broad, and informed debate. This research is designed to contribute to both action and debate focused on schools and universities in Canada.