Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation
Written by Jens Nielsen. Originally published in the Saskatchewan Bulletin, May 21, 2014
When the topics of racism and colonialism are mentioned in the same breath as education, it can conjure up all sorts of uncomfortable memories in Canada, particularly as it relates to the past with in variable images of residential schools at the forefront.
However, a project entitled Building and Mobilizing Knowledge on Race and Colonialism in Canada that includes educators from Ontario and Saskatchewan is intent on underscoring the reality that this is talking about a systemic problem that needs to be acknowledged and confronted.
Often Canadians like to think of our society as relatively free of such fundamental societal issues, particularly when compared to other nations, such as the United States, for example.
However, a report fostered by a 14-member focus group conducted in Saskatchewan a year ago tells a quite different story based on the experiences of Aboriginal teachers in recalling their own personal experiences within the modern-day education system.
One of those involved in the earlier project as well as the current version is Dr. Jennifer Simpson of the University of Waterloo, along with University of Saskatchewan researcher Dr. Verna St. Denis, whose work in this area has garnered her national attention. They are among a group of four researches (including Dr. Carl James of York University and Professor Liss Platt of McMaster) who are working with Toronto filmmaker Alison Duke, who is wanting to portray the ongoing issues of racism and colonialism in the context of this country’s education system via two short films and a parallel website.
According to Simpson the focus groups have explicitly confirmed the day-to-day barriers that exist within our schools for students who are experiencing marginalization. As a result of having attended the most recent two-day gathering at the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation, she emphasized the importance of acknowledging this reality while striving to spur the conversations that are needed as part of making the profound changes that are seen as necessary.
This research focuses on determining the content and scope of racism and colonialism in Canada as related to education and poverty. The data collecting is intended to contribute to the creation and mobilization of knowledge that illuminates how race and colonialism affects the educational experiences of racial minorities, indigenous, white students, and teachers.
St. Denis said this project is the latest building block on what has been her involvement for the past two decades in her conversations with First Nations and Aboriginal teachers. Duke, meanwhile, has been gathering information for the past four years as the basis of the film’s anticipated release in 2015 that she envisions as being a tool for education.
As funding allows, the group is hoping to have this multi-disciplinary project to have as much access as possible, in particular, universities, fellow researchers and educators.
Given her longtime involvement and historic perspective on the subject of racism and colonialism in the education system, St. Denis stressed how much more still needs to change in order for there to be the sort of equitable system she and her fellow researchers would like to see.
Simpson said there is a notion among some educators that these problems don’t exist to any great extent, but she can’t help but wonder how we can make schools more equitable places in which all students are better off.
“It is a very complex issue and there will always be resistance to systemic change, and we don’t see this as only one project, but hope that changes can continue and be ongoing in nature,” she said.
St. Denis suggested the reason this sort of change hasn’t happened is that there has not been a lot of support for it.
“We have a very limited understanding. It’s been very historic in nature but that doesn’t speak to the realities of today. This is not in the time of slavery or the holocaust, but we have to recognize that it is happening today and we have heard that even though it might be quite subtle, teachers have experienced endless resistance and we have to address these issues collectively.”
St. Denis said it is fundamental to acknowledge that these realities exist, adding that there is still much work to be done rather than clinging to prevailing defensive attitudes.
Simpson noted that the search for improvement is not about casting blame, albeit that there is a need to be explicit about the very existence of these enduring issues.
One of the primary benefits of these focus groups, Simpson said, is that it has allowed teachers and students, in particular, to see themselves differently within the education sector. “It’s a new way of understanding one’s place in the system and it can be quite empowering.”
Duke said just having given folks a voice at the table has been liberating, adding that while they might not like the current system, it has allowed them to see hopeful signs of potential where, with the proper supports, they are no longer undermined.
“We want people to see and acknowledge the gaps that currently exist and that means for the overall education system. Change won’t happen otherwise, or it will only be a surface level change,” Simpson said, while offering that she does see an appetite for change in certain circles at the very least and holds out hope that this will be translated from mainstream society.
“But it takes time, and this is a long-term project. I’m hopeful because there are enough people that want to create an equitable system. For me personally, that’s my accountability to my community and the kind of place where I want to live.”
Duke agreed that this won’t be an overnight fix, but it comes back to building lasting relationships in order to change the framework, and she maintains the most effective way to have social justice changes is to get them talking to one another honestly.
Simpson said this is ultimately about changing people’s minds and practices. “It’s about us as human beings and so we can control the process. That different reality we’re talking about can exist.”
St. Denis said that what her conversations with students have enforced for her is that when these First Nations students become teachers themselves, they want to be strong agents of change. “Once they are involved, they want things to change and they have all sorts of great ideas.”
Duke encouraged people to not be afraid of new knowledge, adding that for teachers in particular, they can fulfill a very dynamic role in this evolution. “You can participate in what it is you want for your students in the future and not keep things in the past. It might not be easy, but it’s exciting to think about.” ■