Aboriginal Education in Quesnel Now, Cultural Genocide in Canada Then
The Quesnel School District has an Aboriginal Education Center. Its mandate: "to ensure that students of Aboriginal ancestry are provided with the opportunity to gain an education and work experience [in the public school system] that meets individual needs, and honors their culture and heritage as Aboriginal people" (Tressierra L. et al., 1996, p. 1). Quesnel is no hero in such. Districts throughout BC have addressed the need for Aboriginal students to experience dignity and success in their public education.
Direction that addresses that dignity and success comes from many sources:
It is important for teachers to be aware of the personal and cultural knowledge of students when designing the curriculum for today's multicultural schools. Teachers can use student personal cultural knowledge as a vehicle to motivate students and as a foundation for teaching. (Banks, 1996, p. 12);
Not surprisingly, "research on the education of First Nations students has shown that schools which respect and support a child's culture demonstrate significantly better outcomes in educating those students" (Maina, 1997, p. 294).
The Aboriginal Education Center's mandate is noble, and more so in view of the cultural genocide and poor academic schooling Canada ensured for many Aboriginals through its residential school system.1 This chapter addresses how such a genocide and poor schooling took place, but it addresses first what my own school district is doing to "enable an improved working relationship between [itself] and the Aboriginal communities that it serves" (Tressierra L. et al., 1996, p. 1).
A council that includes members of those Aboriginal communities--namely from Red Bluff, Kluskus, Nazko, and Alexandria Bands, and from the North Cariboo Metis Association and Quesnel's Native Friendship Center--
ensure[s] that students of Aboriginal ancestry receive full benefit of the funding received by the School District for culture, language, and support programs (i.e., monies allocated to the district for Aboriginal Education...). This purpose would be achieved through providing an opportunity for dialogue around information, proposals, evaluations, and recommendations by/for the [council] and through obtaining informed consent from members of the [council] for decisions pertaining to spending of the additional funds for language, culture, and support programs. (Ibid., p. 2)
The Aboriginal Education Center, guided by direction from the council, oversees the work of seven First Nations Student Support Workers (FNSSWs), one First Nations Youth Care Worker (FNYCW), one Culture/Resource Teacher, one Aboriginal Language Teacher, and one Early Intervention Teacher. A full-time secretary handles necessary paperwork.
The FNYCW "promote[s] cultural growth...in first Nations students which will assist them in their academic success within the school setting and support them in remaining in school. Intervention [is] provided through individual or small group sessions" (BC Aboriginal Education [BCAE], 1997, p. 19). But the FNYCW doesn't work in isolation to encourage academic success; rather, he or she "maintain[s] open communication with First Nations students, parents/guardians, the band, First Nations Education staff, and school personnel to meet students' needs" (Ibid.), which reminds me of the wisdom of Proverbs 15:22: "In the multitude of counselors there is accomplishment" (New World Translation [NWT], 1984). This communication enables the FNYCW to "assist instructional staff in incorporating Native content and cultural identity into the existing curriculum for Native students" (BCAE, 1997, p. 19).
Likewise, FNSSWs "provide[ ] assistance to First Nations students....Strong links with the First Nations community are strongly encouraged" (Quesnel Student Support Services, 1990, section 4.3.2). These workers "assist First nations students with their social/emotional development" and "provide assistance to students in support of their academic programs" (Ibid.).
Ongoing workshops, retreats, and mini-courses organized by the FNYCW and FNSSWs address traditions, spirituality, crafts, sports, food, wood carving, art, and other mainstays to traditional Aboriginal existence. They also address personal and family issues. Students have opportunity to enjoy the powwow, potlatch, sweats, smear, and peace pipe. Many of my students in my secondary alternate program (McNaughton Centre, Quesnel, BC) have been invited to participate in Aboriginal events. In the words of one of my Aboriginal students, "It's important not to forget [the past]."
As the previous paragraphs imply, Aboriginal individuality should be respected. Educators unfamiliar with teaching Aboriginals should note that and the direction in the next three paragraphs.
"It is...essential that the education of First Nations students be built around the rich cultural heritage they bring with them to the classroom in order to develop the sense of pride that is critical to personal and cultural identity and academic success" (Maina, 1997, p. 300). Aboriginal individuality should be respected with regard to spirituality "in daily living, in the relationship with one another, in humility, in sharing, in cooperating, in relationship to nature, the land, the animals, in recognition of the Unseen and the Eternal, in the way [Aboriginals feel] and perceive[ ] their world" (Seton, quoted in Maina, 1997, p. 300).
Aboriginal individuality should be respected in terms of some Natives' learning styles. For example, competition in the classroom may actually destroy a sense of community so important to many Native people. Consider what A. Kohn says in Beyond Discipline:
Here's a[n]...exercise worth trying out at a faculty meeting: ask everyone to think of the most effective ways by which a community can be destroyed .Don't be surprised if participants nominate competition as the number one community destroyer--not only awards assemblies but spelling bees, charts that rank students against each other, grading on a curve, and other things that teach each person to regard everyone else as obstacles to his or her own success. (1996, p. 106)
Maina refers to this same community destroyer:
solidarity and loyalty to the group is likely to be contradicted by learning practices which encourage competition rather than cooperation. Any demonstration of individual superiority is avoided because it is seen as demonstrating the inferiority of others. A competitive classroom atmosphere therefore produces conflict in [many] First Nations students who are disposed to learn cooperatively in groups rather than competitively as individuals. (1997, p. 304)
Aboriginal learning styles and culture simply should not be ignored:
Cultural elements can be integrated in the classroom...through oral history, stories and songs, which are important instructional techniques in most First Nations cultures. The main source of oral history, stories and songs in First Nations cultures are the Elders, who are the upholders of morality and cultural wisdom. (Ibid., p. 305)
I've used many quotes, and the most important principles I see in them, that the school system should "meet[ ] individual needs, and honor[ ] [Aboriginal] culture and heritage," seem obvious. Those principles in practice dignify Aboriginal students as they respectively dignify anyone on Earth. The federal government of Canada, however, chose, through the residential school system, to not meet individual needs of Native children, and to dishonor their culture and heritage.
How unfortunate to take the spice out of the spice cake. How unfortunate that the federal government used residential schools to extract Aboriginal culture from so many Aboriginal students. In a broader context, Keith Osajima laments about
those who do not know about or have never experienced a Japanese or Chinese New Year celebration or a family gathering of any sort in the African-American community[. They've] missed something. For those who have never heard a Native storyteller or who haven't danced the salsa, [they've] missed something. (1992, p. 92)
The federal government of Canada did not appreciate the wealth of Aboriginal culture, and consequently "missed [more than] something"; it missed/sank (whichever you prefer) the boat of honor and instead sailed the boat of racism. "[Racist] Imperialism and its ethos permeated B.C. textbooks between 1885 and 1925" (Stanley, 1995, p. 45). "British Columbia texts assured students that the Indians of the province were in the process of transformation from 'savages'" (Ibid.).
These "savages" "became subject to the provisions of the British North America [BNA] Act  which made Aboriginal peoples 'wards' of the federal government" (Barman, 1995a, p. 58). This guardianship lumped all Aboriginals into one collective Indian. The BNA act "made no attempt to distinguish Aboriginal peoples in all their diversity and individuality" (Ibid.). The federal government's Imperialistic parenting, or tyranny, used its teeth through the "deployment of law to produce social or cultural homogeneity in the establishment of the Indian residential school system" (McLaren, 1995, p. 147).
The federal government used the Indian residential school system to promote Indians "to learn White people's [Imperialistic] ways" (Clare, quoted in Barman, 1995b, p. 339).That meant removing first languages from Aboriginal mouths.
Children were often harshly punished for any use of cultural practices or their languages. Haig-Brown documents the following horrendous experience of an interviewee: "My father who attended Alberni Indian residential school in the twenty's [1920s] was physically tortured by his teachers for speaking Tseshat; they pushed sewing needles through his tongue, a routine punishment for language offenders" (1988, p. 16). During the time they were at the residential schools, the children were required to speak English and were taught a curriculum that contained virtually nothing which recognized even the existence of them as people. (Maina, 1997, p. 297)
Residential schools went even further in the wrong direction. They created a terrible inferiority complex in many Aboriginals. "The constant message [was] that because you are Native you are part of a weak, defective race, unworthy of a distinguished place in society. That is training for self-destruction" (Sellers, quoted in Barman, 1995a, p. 74). In the words of Lois Guss,
a lot of us left residential school as mixed-up human beings, not able to cope with family or life. Many of us came out with a huge inferiority complex realizing something was missing, but not knowing what it was. Many searched for love and support in the wrong way. Girls became promiscuous, thinking this was the only way they could feel close to another person. Never having learned to cope with the outside world, many turned to drinking and became alcoholics. (quoted in Barman, 1995a, p. 74)
Separating Aboriginal children from siblings, parents, and other family members to attend residential schools did worse than create inferiority complexes, it created cultural genocide.
Students of different sexes were almost always separated in residential schools, and siblings in the same school often could not even speak to each other for months and years on end. "I never did get to know my brothers. We were kept away from each other for too long. To this day I don't know much about my brothers. I just know that they are my brothers."2 "After a year spent learning to see and hear only what the priests and brothers wanted you to see and hear, even the people we loved came to look ugly."3 (Barman, 1995a, p. 73)
In the words of Justa, "Children were removed from their communities and placed in an alien environment that almost destroyed their culture and their language; we call it cultural genocide" (Justa, quoted in Barman, 1995a, p. 73).
Cultural genocide. Where was the dignity of Aboriginals in that? And what about the quality of schooling for these students in residential schools? It was poor quality:
Aboriginal children were allotted less time in the classroom than were their non-Aboriginal counterparts[,] Aboriginal schooling was carried on with few exceptions by Christian missionaries primarily concerned with saving souls, only secondarily with literacy education[, and] funding of schools for Aboriginal children quickly fell below provincial funding levels for public schools. (Barman, 1995a, p. 58)
Too bad the federal government had not "ensure[d] that students of Aboriginal ancestry [were] provided with the opportunity to gain an education and work experience [at the community level] that [met] individual needs, and honor[ed] their culture and heritage as Aboriginal people." Too bad it hadn't "enable[d a good] working relationship between [White] and Aboriginal communities." Too bad teachers had not "promote[d] cultural growth in first Nations students which [would have] assist[ed] them in their academic success within the school setting and [would have] support[ed] them in remaining in [community-, not residential-based] school[s]." Too bad everyone concerned with Aboriginal education had not "assist[ed] First Nations students with their social/emotional development" and "provide[d] assistance to students in support of their academic programs." Too bad. Think about what the possibilities could have been.
Which would be another chapter. Which would highlight, at the least, the positive experience of many Aboriginal students at McNaughton Centre, who are completing high school.
I have compared the principles of Aboriginal education in Quesnel now to the principles of Aboriginal education during the residential school-era. On one side stands nurturing and positive efforts to provide quality education; on the other cultural genocide and a poor education. On one side stands, I hope, dignity; on the other, unfortunately, inferiority complexes. Apparently the faculty of church-run residential schools of the past that stood joined to the federal government through the umbilical cord of funding and policy had not remembered or heard (at Acts 10:34) that "God is not partial" (NWT, 1984). And clearly that government had no interest in quality education for Aboriginal children.
1 "Beginning in the late 1800s, the federal government [of Canada] began removing Indian children from their families and placing them in church-run residential schools. There were 14 such schools in BC. The last one closed in the mid 1980s" (Bell, 1997, June 27, p. A3).
2 Rosa Bell, quoted in Barman 1995a, p. 73.
3 Manuel and Poslums, quoted in Barman 1995a, p. 73.