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Opening The Doors: Progress in Indigenous Education

Statistically, my brother and I should have been stereotypical additions to the criminal justice system.

This had been a potential outcome since my high school-educated teen mom, who also belongs to the Mohawk nation, raised two rambunctious boys pretty much on her own. Luckily for us, and for her, she had the help of her parents. Both of my grandparents, one from the Cayuga nation and the other from the Mohawk nation, were residential school survivors who lived on Six Nations of the Grand River Reservation. My younger brother and I still managed to remain a statistical anomaly. Don’t get me wrong; the local Five-O knew who we were. We didn’t get the moniker of the “Dreaded Hager Brothers” for our fastidious farm work and diligent attendance at Bethany Baptist Church on Chiefswood Road. We escaped our reputation through our combined fear of letting either of our Mohawk matriarchs down, along with a genuine love of sports and the guidance from some exceptional men as coaches. We were regularly encouraged to stay in school and finish. Plus, school was where the free sports were, and someplace for my brother to eat lunch. He was less academically inclined than I and better-looking, allegedly. We both managed to graduate with our high school diplomas, a bit behind schedule, but with good enough grades to get into post-secondary studies. 

To some, this path towards academic achievement is nothing unusual.  But similar family circumstances for others we knew were sufficient to create an impossible set of obstacles to the benefits of more education. I’m not providing this contextual background information to pump my own tires in self-congratulatory celebration, nor am I seeking empathy. The context about the odds that presented and increased our chances of failure over success serve merely as fodder to indicate the typical statistical data that my brother and I, and those similar to us, represent. Everyone has a sad song to sing, regardless of their background and upbringing.

My path led me to join a different, somewhat problematic system for First Nations, Métis, and Inuit (FNMI) folks: education. I considered pursuing an MA in history, but the acceptance letter from university that accepted my BEd application arrived in the mail first. So off to teachers’ college I went. I’ve worked with some amazing teachers who are truly great at their craft. I’ve also worked with some who made me wonder why they stayed, let alone joined, this challenging and rewarding vocation. I’m someplace in the middle of that spectrum, if I do say so myself.

Although much of my evidence for progress in Indigenous education – and the possible reasons for a lack in various areas thereof – are anecdotal, there are many aspects of my beliefs about progress that are also based on facts gleaned from many different conversations over several years with other teachers, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, who worked within the education system and had similar experiences to me. 

Progress in what areas of education, you may be wondering? Progress in academic achievement, teacher recruitment and retention, or sense of belonging – and perhaps resiliency in both FNMI students and teachers. How are any of these indicators of progress measured? Are these indicated by higher graduation rates, increased admissions to post-secondary studies, or securing a well-paid, enjoyable career? I would like to suggest that it’s all of these things, along with the acknowledgement that FNMI students and those few FNMI teachers are still here in spite of quite a long period of assimilation tactics. Like the rest of the inhabitants of Canada, we want to enjoy what this country has to offer: not scrambling for crumbs, but as co-owners of the bakery. So yes, progress has been slow and for many it still is slow, especially for the many school boards who have First Nations (FN) communities to serve. These boards often struggle to find any significant numbers of qualified candidates or to establish anything close to a balanced FNMI student to FNMI teacher ratio. This doesn’t even include the necessary number of FNMI specialists for traditional languages, music or culture, the classroom Educational Assistants (EAs), school principals, and, of course, board members. It’s not for lack of trying, but often these boards are almost prisoners of circumstance.

First, let’s look at how becoming a teacher is marketed (other than the often-cited and misleading notion of two months’ summer vacation). Basically, it’s along the lines of the following: hey, community member! We need you to make these random children who happen to live in close proximity to this building understand uncomplicated things like math, science, and accurate history. Oh, and just a heads up, these random kids may not want to know about any of that stuff. Plus, they will often be tired, hungry, and have no idea how they got themselves into a variety of emotional states in which they now find themselves. So, you must get them to comprehend all of those important things, sometimes against their will, using this set of documents called the curriculum. By the way, you will be required to make this happen while these young people are also developing in multiple ways: physically, sexually, emotionally, and possibly spiritually. Plus, they will likely be fighting with each other, on and off, all the time, about important stuff, like their third favourite reptile or who has a crush on whom. We’re also going to demand that you deal with parents, who sometimes completely disagree with everything that you do and the methods you use, regardless of your training, experience, or expertise. However, even if you excel and do get really good at this challenging balancing act, nothing significant happens in terms of financial reward or community recognition. Luckily for you, while achieving these multiple skill-testing challenges, every move you make will also be monitored and assessed. Therefore, it’s essential that you  try to keep up to date on all of the other very important things that the kids don’t want to know as well as all of the things they do want to know. Please complete these tasks while struggling to be “cool,” so you can connect and engage with them during their attempted knowledge acquisition. Any takers? 

Well, aside from all of the above, for some FNMI folks, the draw to become teachers and work in education is simply not there because schools were “not a nice place” for them. Nor is the importance of an entirely non-Indigicentric education necessarily held in high regard. While acknowledging that many of these sentiments spring from the historical atrocities perpetrated in the residential school system, we must also note that for far too many FNMI families, schools simply did not meet their linguistic and cultural needs. There wasn’t a lot of trust in the system due to the lack of Indigenous representation as well as a limited or nonexistent understanding of the families’ desire for a true balance of Indigenous and non-Indigenous ways of knowing. For example, when I went to school, French was the only second language offered. Progress has been made in this area; my secondary school alma mater now offers Cayuga and Mohawk, but none of the other four languages of the Haudenosaunee confederacy. There is also relatively little incentive for academically inclined FNMI to join the teaching ranks, other than those far-too-few who recognize the true need for local knowledge to be included and grown within the existing curricula.

Unfortunately, many of the FNMI stalwarts who recognize the institutional demand for their knowledge, who advance through the hoops and past the obstacles, also tend to bring some of their unresolved trauma to the classroom. Again, this isn’t their fault – but it in turn has a negative impact on many students, and the cycle of school not being a nice place continues. There isn’t a massive stampede of top teaching talent heading into the more remote and isolated FMNI communities, either. Boards must often contend with many of their hires often falling into one of these “3M” categories: missionary (let’s save the natives and have a northern adventure); money makers (isolation bonuses, subsidized housing, and a shortened path to job security); or maniacal (marching to a completely different drum). If boards do manage to attract some appropriately qualified and sincere non-Indigenous teachers, many do not stay for long, leaving the community, the families, and the students after two or maybe three years.

For some communities, the lack of licenced supply or substitute teachers ultimately means hiring folks whose only qualifications are that they are responsible young adults with a clean background police check. There is little enticement for them to acquire additional credentials since they might not be eligible for any housing, if there is any, because they were hired from within their community. Why would they leave the comfort of their community to venture into the unknown to become qualified for what would amount to a few extra bucks without being eligible for any teacher housing? Many are forced to continue the status quo of living at home with their parents and extended families. There is also the added competition from other entities in the community who are also seeking well-educated, experienced, responsible folks to work in a variety of roles where having on the job training is an asset.

Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom. Schools and boards continue to improve parent and community engagement. They’ve recognized their previous shortcomings regarding the curriculum, school calendars, and lack of recognition for language, time on the land and cultural awareness. These aspects are getting better. Despite the very real issues outlined above, I’ve been privileged enough to have worked with many Indigenous and non-Indigenous teachers in some northern and isolated communities who continually strive to get better – and who have become better educators in the process. I know many former colleagues who were pleasantly surprised by the welcoming nature of and gratitude of the communities and families. Several are still living and raising families there, which helps convert the schools to a beacon for the possibility of a different future through reconciliation on an individual level.

Progress for Indigenous students and Indigenous education is happening. Both FNMI folks and non-FNMI folks can’t rely on stereotypes of what education used to be like. Sometimes it is hard to see progress when it’s slow and right in front of you, since progress implies movement. It frequently seems like Indigenous peoples are in an ambulance that is caught in a traffic jam during a blizzard. We are encouraged to celebrate the ambulance because at least we’re in an ambulance now and, even though it’s moving slowly or not at all, improvement is being made. It’s true that advancements are not always smooth, error-free, or in the direction we expected or even hoped for. But we’re still in the ambulance!

Some reasons why I believe that I’ve seen the light at the end of the tunnel are from some of the inspirational and great teachers whom I’ve worked with. Plus, Indspire is succeeding in filling the financial gaps for many FNMI students across Turtle Island as they pursue their post-secondary dreams. Teach for Tomorrow (T4T) is one program in this area that will hopefully increase the chances of more Indigenous educators being in front of Indigenous students. This is an education program which Indspire operates in partnership with the University of Winnipeg and one of the largest school boards in Manitoba. Currently, Indspire is supporting two of an eventual three cohorts of FNMI secondary students from the Winnipeg School Division who have started their journey towards a career in education. Our aim is to create a well-supported, culturally relevant, and inclusive pilot project that facilitates an unobstructed route towards qualifications in education, either as a classroom assistant or a fully qualified teacher. Indspire is about to launch T4T’s next site in partnership with school boards in proximity to Thunder Bay and Lakehead  University.

Regardless of the underwhelming incentives to become an educator, there are more FNMI folks who are enrolling in programs across the country. Many more universities offer Indigenous studies programs as well as FN language courses and qualifications. Having recognized qualifications in traditional language and cultural programs is especially important in order to establish good credentials and career prospects. It also brings greater balance in the curriculum. Hopefully, more FNMI youth will continue to recognize that a teaching degree opens more than just a door to a classroom. 

At times, I wonder about this progress that is being made. Sure, many more doors are being opened for FNMI folks, but history has taught us not to trust those who are holding those doors open. Is there little wonder why we are reluctant to walk through what seems to be a clear passage to a tremendous opportunity? I’d like to propose that even more progress will be made when we do finally fully trust those holding the door open – and we completely believe that walking through will take us to a great place. Instead of a graduating class of 500 Indigenous students being newsworthy, like what happened in May 2021 at the University of Manitoba, it will be the norm across Turtle Island. Nia:wen. 


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Mike Hager belongs to the Bear Clan of the Mohawk Nation. Growing up, he spent time living on the family farm on 6 Nations of the Grand River and in the nearby town Caledonia. His alma mater is the University of Guelph where he got his honours BA in history with a double minor in Criminology and Sociology. Mike was also student athlete playing on the football, rugby, and wrestling teams. While deciding about the pursuit of graduate studies in history, Mike helped coach the Gryphon women’s rugby team to winning seasons back to back while he received his Indigenous focussed BEd to teach in the Primary/Junior levels from Brock University. 

After graduating from Brock, he taught in the Mohawk Immersion sector of a new primary school for 2 years on 6 Nations of the Grand River before heading to New Zealand to play rugby and teach in Rotorua. Initially it was meant to be a one-year adventure. It became a 10-year exploration of the South Pacific that ended with his New Zealand citizenship and the opportunity to work in England for a New Zealand software development company and furthering his rugby career while based in Manchester.

Eventually, Mike found his way back to Canada and back to teaching. This new venture took him to the James Bay Eeyou School in northern Quebec teaching in the Cree village of Chisasibi along the shores of James Bay. Once again, an intended one-year exploration grew into an 11-year discovery of living and teaching in the isolated north. It was here that Mike was introduced to Indspire through the Peer Support program by being a mentor for new teachers. During this position Mike was made fully aware of the many wonderful initiatives that are available through Indspire.

It was a complicated decision to leave the wonderful connections that were made in the north. He appreciated becoming a welcome member of the Cree community where hunting, fishing and 9 months of winter were big parts of his life living beside the James Bay and the big river.