Seven years ago, The Tyee invited Jo Chrona, then-curriculum manager for the First Nations Education Steering Committee, to speak about Indigenous content in B.C.’s curriculum and reconciliation in schools, at a The Tyee event we called The Future of Public Education: Beyond the Headlines.
At the time, the province had made some steps towards affirming Indigenous ways of knowing in the classroom.
Chrona, a former classroom teacher, had helped develop the First Peoples English 10, 11 and 12 courses, equivalent to high school English courses, introduced between 2008 and 2010.
In 2012, the BC Teachers’ Council began requiring would-be teachers to obtain three post-secondary credits in Indigenous education in order to be certified to teach.
And the newly redesigned kindergarten to Grade 9 curriculum wove Indigenous ways of knowing, history and culture throughout all courses, as would the redesigned Grade 10-12 curriculum released in 2018.
Despite that work, Chrona, who is Ganhada of Waap K’oom of the Kitsumkalum First Nation, is surprised at how far Indigenous education in schools has come in the last decade.
“If we look back at the conversations that we were having five years ago, I couldn’t imagine we would be at this place right now. It’s looking so hopeful in this province in K to 12,” she said, crediting the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action for some of the progress made.
These changes include the introduction of a ninth professional standard from the BC Teachers’ Council for teachers that lays out the importance of respecting, understanding and valuing the cultures, ways of knowing and histories of Indigenous people.
The passage of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act in B.C., which recognizes the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People in provincial legislation.
And the change coming to graduation requirements next school year, requiring students complete four credits in “Indigenous-focused coursework” to earn a high school diploma, known as a Dogwood diploma in B.C.
Chrona also credits the formal and informal networks of educators and First Nations who push people to do more than just understand Indigenous ways of knowing and histories.
“The work requires that they be able to sit in discomfort and recognize it’s not just about understanding, but then taking informed action. What are we going to do differently in our classrooms? In our schools? In our school districts? As a province?” said Chrona, who now works as an independent education consultant.
Her latest book Wayi Wah! Indigenous Pedagogies: An Act for Reconciliation and Anti-Racist Education, published last fall by Portage & Main Press, puts these questions to non-Indigenous educators.
In a phone interview with The Tyee, Chrona discussed her new book, why non-Indigenous people must do the work to create systems where Indigenous students thrive, and how those outside the education system always have a role to play.
The Tyee: You’ve said this work is ‘intensely personal for everyone.’ Can you expand on what you mean by that?
What I’ve seen over the years is that when we’re talking about Indigenous education and Indigenous specific anti-racism, it’s most impactful when we understand that the work needs to begin with ourselves.
And, yes, it’s important to have authentic, respectful, rich resources. But if we don’t do that first piece of work with ourselves, then a lot of what we’re going to do might not be as effective as we hope. And that includes understanding our roles within a system that has been and continues to be systemically racist. We have to be in places of discomfort in this work in order to really grow. And it’s really personal for folks because it requires a level of vulnerability that we’re not used to expressing and showing in our professional lives.
I can see for non-Indigenous teachers where the vulnerability and discomfort might come in, like in fear of making mistakes. But is there a vulnerability and discomfort for Indigenous educators and students as well?
There’s been a level of discomfort for Indigenous educators and students in this system for decades and decades. Sometimes when we’re talking about the discomfort that non-Indigenous folks have to enter into, reminding them that this has not been a welcoming, warm place of belonging for many Indigenous folks, including educators, students, families and communities.
This is something that needs to lay on the shoulders of non-Indigenous folks. It’s part of the growth and understanding.
Five or more years ago in school districts when we talk about Indigenous education, about equity, everybody would say, “Yes, this is important.” But then they would say, “It’s the responsibility of Indigenous education departments to do the work.”
And this is part of that growing understanding that no, this is the responsibility of the non-Indigenous folks to be doing the work, to be guided by Indigenous education departments, the folks whose role it is to support educators.
What do you think about the work done in the past six years?
There’s been significant growth. Sometimes it feels like a lot’s happened overnight. But it hasn’t. It’s been the result of decades of advocacy by individual people, organizations and First Nations in this province. But what we’ve seen in the last five or six years is more people willing to dig a little deeper to understand their roles in this work.
The First Nations Education Steering Committee, having a united First Nations voice in this province, has had a significant impact on policy change. That is one of the foundational reasons for some of the changes that we’ve seen.
In addition to that there have been so many informal and formal networks of educators in different roles who are saying, “We need to continue to do the work,” and “What can we do within our spheres?”
Indigenous kids are still overrepresented among those assessed as having disabilities and in kids enrolled in alternate programs. How do we go about changing that?
Part of that is helping people do the work of understanding the biases we have. Recently I’ve been reading research coming out of the States where you see so many Black, Indigenous or learners of colour overrepresented in “behaviour” categories or reported for “discipline problems.”
It’s not Canadian. But we need to be thinking about and understanding why we have the perceptions we have about learners who might look different from us or come from different cultural heritages.
The other piece is — and this is not new — the racism of low expectations. If we look at the auditor general’s report in 2015, that was highlighted as one of the challenges endemic within our system: we have perceptions that Indigenous learners cannot or do not want to achieve and thrive in a holistic way.
We create these patterns, processes and structures in our school districts that reinforce that. So we have things like, in previous years, more Indigenous learners leaving school with a certificate instead of a Dogwood diploma.
That has been and continues to be addressed. But now there are conversations about why there are a higher percentage of Indigenous learners in adult Dogwood programs than receive a regular Dogwood. To me, it’s part of a tendency for us as systems to want to take the easiest way, rather than saying, “What are we doing that’s going to be the best for learners? How are we going to expect that learners can achieve and thrive? How do we create the processes for instructors to support them doing so?”
If we don’t expect that they can achieve and thrive, then we will create the circumstances where they won’t.
You told me before that it is not just about getting grad rates up, but it’s about students being inspired and impassioned by their education. How would you measure that?
It has to be both. If we decide that we’re not going to look at graduation rates, we’re defeating the purpose of our education system.
But then let’s look at student satisfaction surveys when they come out of school. What are students’ options when they leave Grade 12? Do they have the option to do what they want whether it’s to go on to a trade school, a research university or into the workforce? If we’re seeing that there are barriers, that’s a challenge.
The other piece is around the voice of Indigenous learners, ensuring that we know from their voice, their perspective, that they are graduating with a strong positive sense of who they are and where they come from.
There’s a phrase coming out of one of the formal educator networks in B.C., where it’s expected and wanted that every student graduate with dignity, purpose and options.
And I look at those three, like dignity: who they are has been valued in our education system, and that they feel that. Options: to do what they want to do. And purpose: they have a sense of who they are in this world.
At the very least, at the starting place when we see the disparity in graduation rates, we see that as a giant flashing red light that we need to be doing things differently.
What responsibility is there outside of the school system to ensure that First Peoples are thriving in school? Are there other boards, people, organizations that hold responsibility?
I think we all do, in our various roles. But I will say this: it’s not effective for me to engage in narratives that things need to change, but it’s other people’s responsibility to change them. Think about what it is that each of us can do within our own spheres of influence. And that’s where we’ll see the most impact.
For someone who doesn’t work in or have kids in the education system, what kind of work could they do?
There’s an amazing quote from Ben Okri, a Nigerian storyteller, around the stories that we tell about who we are. It reminds me that the stories that we choose to tell about who each other is, will impact our future.
Think about what the narratives are that you tell, that you believe in, about First Nations communities in B.C. About Indigenous peoples, families, learners. Recognizing that how we choose to describe who each other is has an impact on our relationships.
What’s next for improving education?
Continuing to dig deep in what it means to be able to support learners with high expectations: to create circumstances where they will achieve, not be afraid to talk about achievement, success and graduation. At the same time supporting them holistically to thrive.
We have to have more conversations about the various ways that racism manifests itself. When we talk about racism, people will have different reactions to the necessity for that conversation. And often, they are reacting based on a very narrow definition of what racism is.
I think if we want to continue to improve our education system, we have to be talking about systemic and epistemic racism. It’s not always the interpersonal, easy to identify racist incidents that most people think of when we talk about anti-racism education. It is about those really deeply buried biases and perspectives that shape the decisions we make, that create the system.
Your book’s descriptive copy mentions benefits to not only Indigenous students, but all students. Could you expand on how it impacts all students?
We don’t want students coming out of our K to 12 education system with the same gaps in knowledge that so many of us adults had. In order to be an informed British Columbian or Canadian citizen, we need to have a breadth and depth of knowledge. And this was absent, both from the historical and the contemporary context of this country, when I went to school.
The other piece is when we create an education system that is supporting every learner to achieve and to thrive, then we’re creating structures and processes that benefit all learners. We’re going to create systems that ensure students are strong academically; healthy in social-emotional ways; in a system in which they see themselves, and they see themselves as valued, belonging and contributing to. That is a precursor to a healthier society.
What role does education funding have in creating this system?
We know that if we have a well-resourced system, it will make a difference. Here’s the tricky part: we will never get to a place of creating a better education system through funding alone.
Now, does it make it easier if there’s funding to resource everything that we want? Absolutely. But if we keep sitting back and saying no, we can’t do anything, because the funds aren’t there, then that’s not actually addressing that personal work we need to be engaged in.
And that personal work, that’s filling in those gaps that you missed out in school?
If you’re in the education system right now, and you hold a certificate to teach, we have professional standards, myself included, we have to abide by. And that ninth professional standard means that we need to be doing this work regardless. That’s part of the work.
But the other personal work is around engaging and understanding those different ways that systemic racism shows itself and saying, “What is my role in making changes within the system to help eliminate that?”
Whenever there’s a move forward for social equity or justice, there are folks who push back, who aren’t comfortable with changes to the status quo. We’ve seen pockets of that in this province with trying to make our schools more inclusive, safe and welcoming for students of diverse genders and sexual orientations; when there has been a push for anti-racist education. I’m hoping folks understand that pushback should not deter us from continuing to move forward in a good way.
In B.C. we are leading the country in many ways with respect to this work. It’s kind of scary, because we don’t have other people’s footsteps to walk in. But it’s also exciting, because when those actions happen, they are concrete, informed actions.
It will be messy for a little while. But it will eventually have incredibly beneficial results, not just our system, but for our society. I always think about what impact what we’re doing in our system has when all of those learners leave our system and become the folks in the workforce, the parents and grandparents of the next generations?