Studying the War of 1812 in Grade 8 History class left a greater impression on Kiera Brant than it does on most 14-year-olds. On the Tyendinaga First Nation near Belleville, Ontario, Brant’s class learned about the Mohawk and Iroquois contributions to the war. It wasn’t until she left the community that she discovered not all people know about the war through this perspective.
“It was a very different reality moving away from the reserve,” says Brant. “When I moved into Ottawa, it was like being hit in the face with the reality of education in Canada, particularly for non-Indigenous students. I had taken it for granted. That was a process.”
Although university was always an aspiration for Brant, her experiences prompted her to complete her undergraduate degree in Aboriginal Studies.
Now 22 and a Master’s of Education student at the University of Ottawa, Brant and her co-supervisor Nicholas Ng-A-Fook are working on changing the way the Ontario curriculum and teacher candidates treat the contributions of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people to Canadian culture, history, and society.
“Being one of the only Indigenous student teachers in the faculty was particularly worrisome to me,” says Brant of her early days in the program. “It made me realize that our future teachers would have a really limited knowledge on Indigenous peoples. Not only did they not have the knowledge, but it wasn’t a priority to learn about it.”
Brant plans to make it a priority. Her work examines the current Ontario curriculums, the successes, points of contention, and where the school system struggles to train teacher candidates and teacher educators, as well as to represent Aboriginal educators in the school system to teach the curriculum content.
She’s compared the province’s system with others that are further along in Canada and elsewhere such as British Columbia, Manitoba, and New Zealand.
“At the moment, there’s almost no accountability for teachers,” says Brant. “They can really choose whether they want to incorporate Indigenous content or not. We can start with qualifications, accountability procedures, as well as, at the Ministry level.
“It’s a priority area for the Ministry, but of course, curriculum reform takes many years. It’s important to also work on the teacher level to train candidates in ways to help them teach outside the box.”
Making it a priority
In an almost serendipitous encounter, Brant met her supervisor Ng-A-Fook at the end of her undergraduate degree. At the time, she had no plans to pursue a Master’s in Education, but Ng-A-Fook was enthusiastic about her work.
It was during the same summer the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations were released.
“It was the perfect opportunity to see what the final report said and what the recommendations were in regards to the future of education in Canada,” says Brant. “It’s a wonderful precedent to have more Indigenous content, but we need to have teachers incorporating it in an ethical way, not just putting a stamp on it and doing it how they wish.”
Much of Brant and Ng-A-Fook’s work includes ensuring teacher training responds to the TRC’s recommendations, and that all students learn about the repercussions of the residential school system and its resulting intergenerational trauma.
In particular, Ng-A-Fook—in collaboration with a First Nations, Métis, and Inuit advisory committee, the faculty administration, and his colleagues—established the introduction of a mandatory course on Aboriginal perspectives for all students in the Faculty of Education.
“I’m very interested in looking at what it means to de-colonize yourself and how the schooling system can shape a certain kind of world view,” says Ng-A-Fook.
As part of his research, Ng-A-Fook has teacher candidates and Grades 5 and 6 students on the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation in Quebec document the stories of residential school survivors and create digital oral histories to better understand Aboriginal viewpoints and histories.
Many teacher candidates learn about the residential school system and its legacy for the first time during these exercises. Interviewing Elders through digital storytelling also deepens digital literacy among the candidates and the students.
For Ng-A-Fook, having policies in place is a good start, but more can be done to provide systemic supports. Recognizing that school boards are already strained for funding, and teachers for time and resources, he sees an opportunity for government to play a role in earmarking funds directly for Aboriginal initiatives.
Funding for honourariums for Elders who take time to travel and visit schools or to support potential candidates from remote communities are some examples of how the government can help. Many candidates need to leave their communities and part-time to do practicum placements and could use more support, he says.
“I would like to see universities across Ontario create a financial action plan to ensure First Nations, Métis, and Inuit scholars and students are represented,” Ng-A-Fook says. “What communities are really calling for is to see the funds in place to ensure there’s that programming for high school students and university students to then transition into faculty and researcher roles.
“We have to go beyond the fact that we need to do this just for Indigenous students. This is necessary for everyone.”