Section III: Teachers, Classes, and New Curriculums

New selection of texts for the grade 11 English course, some of which are by Indigenous authors. Photo taken by Ms. Knox.

Clubs and events aside, there has been a province-wide emphasis put on including Indigenous issues and representation in courses, on the recommendation of the school board.

Mr. Chapman, vice-principal at WCI, explained that in staff meetings, they had been reciting the board’s territorial acknowledgement for a while, but it soon became repetitive. So, as an extension of that, staff were asked to share about how they have been addressing Indigenous issues in their own classes. This started a dialogue and an exchange of ideas between staff on the best way to do so.

A folder was created in Google Drive for staff members to use. Whenever anyone had a thought or idea, they could put it in that folder for other teachers to look at and potentially investigate further.

Ms. Chin, a science teacher at WCI, has been taking on a leadership role in this area. She has been meeting with teachers who want to incorporate Indigenous issues into their classes, but are having trouble doing so. She has been helping them brainstorm ideas and research topics to discuss in their classes, without compromising the requirements for that class as mandated by the board.

She emphasized that “teachers, no matter what [they] teach, can indigenize their content, and still remain within their curriculum.”

In the grade 11 biology class, a course that Chin teaches, one of the projects that students have to do as part of the plant unit is to create a poster detailing a plant of their choice: how it is used, what social, economical or environmental implications it has, etc. She had students pick plants which hold some Indigenous significance. The rubric stayed exactly the same, the only difference in the project being that students had to include an explanation of how the plant is used by Indigenous communities.

Before Mr. Peterman was a woodworking teacher at WCI, he spent two decades in the navy, and a lot of that time was spent on a naval base which bordered an Indigenous reserve in Victoria, British Columbia. There were a lot of cross-cultural ties between the base and the reserve, and at certain times he worked with some Indigenous people.

With the time he spent stationed at the naval base, combined with his own personal interests in woodworking, Peterman created a small unit for his grade 11 custom woodworking course on the Haida and Coast Salish uses of cedar. He did so during the online portion of classes last spring.

The unit covers many of the uses for cedar, such as using the lumber for constructing longhouses, canoes, paddles, and boxes, the bark for turning into textiles and rope, and the roots for making rope and fishing line. It also covers some ingenious uses of the tree, such as harvesting boards from the tree without killing it, and carving an entire 30-35 foot long canoe out of a single log.

“It’s kind of mind-blowing when you start looking at that,” he said. “[This is] the kind of thing that just blows my mind.”

Peterman explained how he does feel capable talking about the Haida and Coast Salish uses for cedar, as well as how they may have felt about cedar and its religious significance, but not any deeper than that. “For fear of getting it wrong, honestly,” he said, “I’m happy staying where I feel comfortable.”

Something he has gotten out of teaching about cedar is an understanding of how versatile and elegant Indigenous technical solutions were and are. He explained, “It was a highly developed culture that our settler-forbearers came in and just did not see […] We chose not to see the culture, and we chose to ignore a lot of the things that we could have learned and profited from.”

He spoke to what work needs to be done, saying that “we need to come to some understanding and recognition and respect of Indigenous people and their place in our history […] it’s going to take a long time, but I think we need to make those efforts and I think this kind of thing is where we need to start.”

Mrs. Martin-Argueta is an English as a Second Language (ESL) and English Literacy Development (ELD) teacher who mostly teaches the language courses, as well as some geography. In the last two years especially, she has been starting every ESL Geography class with a recognition that Canada can also be referred to as Turtle Island, and that the Indigenous population were the first people living on this land, since it is a course that introduces Canada to students who are new to the country.

When the course covers different land regions in Canada, she has also been including some content about how the Indigenous population in that area use the land.

“Just in little ways, like whenever it would kind of fit into the course, I would just bring in little references to Indigenous learning,” she explained.

She has also been doing some work in this area in her languages course. One of the units is about folk tales, mythology, and fables. Throughout the unit, she includes Indigenous stories as well. She has students watch a video of a visual retelling of an Indigenous story. Then, as a follow up, the students write out a story based on what they saw in the video.

One of her main goals in this is to have her students understand that the land acknowledgement every morning is more than just words, and have them experience not only what is being said, but why it is being said.

She also feels as though it must be recognized that “our whole society, our whole country, needs to change and needs to value this group of people that have been not valued, and worse, for so long, […] and hopefully by instilling that into this generation that life is better going forward, that relationships and issues that arise are dealt with in a better way.”

Ms. Rasi, an English teacher at WCI, said that this was a main point of focus in the English department last year, and the department had many serious discussions about how to change their content.

The big idea that has been altered is the notion of having to read a mandatory text in English courses. Instead, students are given a choice between several different novels, a portion of which are by Indigenous authors, the goal being to bring in books from all different perspectives.

New book selections made by the English department to introduce voices from different cultures into the curriculum. Photo taken by Mrs. Crowell.

She has also been trying to equalize the four strands that are featured in English courses: reading, writing, oral communication, and media studies. “I think it is a bit of a Euro-Western bias to put all the emphasis on reading and writing, so I think moving towards equalizing that oral communication piece is also a way to honour so much of the oral tradition that exists here.”

She emphasized that when it comes to structural oppression, being a large institution, education plays a big role in that. She continued, “I don’t think that I’d be able to do this job if I didn’t really feel like there were ways that we could keep changing, and keep trying to make a difference in how we do our work.”

Ms. Knox, another English teacher, has been doing similar things to Rasi when it comes to book selections. She has also been altering her approach to teaching to value the voices of each student in the classroom, which she said is something that Indigenous teaching methods support. She has been including times of sharing in her lessons where she invites each student to speak.

“I both want to learn who my students are, acknowledging what they bring to the classroom, and to hear what students would like to see in the class,” she said.

In one case, she got a request from a student to include more Indigenous content into the course. So, during the documentary unit, she showed the documentary My Name is Kahentiiosta, by Alanis Obomsawin, a documentary about the Oka Crisis in 1990. That documentary led to many critical discussions within the class, while managing to meet curriculum requirements.

Knox brought up the fact that it is important to learn about other people’s perspectives, and to reflect on our own perspectives. “This helps us understand that what we might think is normal is not universal,” she explained, “Our experiences are often much more personal than we think. By learning from others, we gain access to a wealth of new ideas.”

She also mentioned that recently, there has been a push by the English department to implement and offer a new course called “English: Understanding Contemporary First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Voices” (NBE3U, NBE3C and NBE3E). This is a course that would run as an equivalent to the compulsory grade 11 English course, the main difference being that along with the four aforementioned strands in English, this course would have a fifth: “First Nations, Metis, and Inuit Perspectives and Text Forms in Canada.”

The way new courses are created and offered at schools across the province is first, the Ministry of Education designs courses and creates a curriculum document outlining those courses. Then, based on a number of factors, such as student population and magnet programs, each school will decide individually whether or not to offer it.

The NBE course exists as part of a larger new curriculum that was updated by the province in 2019, all about First Nations, Métis and Inuit Studies, with courses for grades 9-12. The “Essential Understandings and Key Concepts” that are presented by these courses include traditional and ancestral knowledge, cultural diversity, and treaty rights.

The updated curriculum offers eight new courses including the NBE course. In grade 9, a course that focuses on Indigenous art forms (NAC1O) that can be put towards the compulsory art credit can be offered. A grade 10 course offering investigates the histories of First Nations and Inuit in Canada from precontact, and Métis from their start, until present day (NAC2O).

In grade 11, along with the NBE course, three courses which explore issues, world views, and perspectives that are relevant to present-day Indigenous communities can be offered (NDA3M, NBV3C, and NBV3E). Two more courses were created for grade 12, the first of which covers Indigenous governance (NDG4M), and the other examines contemporary issues concerning Indigenous peoples in a global context (NDW4M).

According to the curriculum document created by the Ontario Ministry of Education, the goals for these courses are to “make personal connections to advance their understanding of and respect for Indigenous cultures, languages, histories, rights, and perspectives,” to “make personal connections to advance their understanding of and respect for Indigenous cultures, languages, histories, rights, and perspectives,” and to “build respectful and reciprocal relationships to support reconciliation between Indigenous peoples and Canadian society.”

According to English department head and assistant head Mrs. Crowell and Ms. Doelman, it takes about a full semester of continuous meetings and conversations with a team of teachers to prepare a course to be offered.

Members of the English department were having these discussions, trying to prepare the NBE course, but due to the pandemic, those discussions were paused. It remains unclear when the course will be offered, because “[They] want to be sure that our wonderful teaching team feels confident in the delivery of the curriculum content.” Crowell and Doelman believe that teachers within the department are enthusiastic about running the course.

“We believe that the NBE course offers an incredible opportunity for students to learn about Indigenous Canadian perspectives,” they said. “We hope that students will gain an understanding of the power of Indigenous representation in literature in order to spread awareness, kindness, and compassion.”

Mr. Pavey, a politics/law/history teacher who taught at WCI for 28 years before retiring in 2019, remembers that when he first started teaching, “Indigenous issues were not even an afterthought.”

However, because of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in 1991 and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015, there was a push for telling a broader and more complete narrative of Canadian history, which he noted as a remarkable difference from when he started.

Pavey said that these changes first started coming up around ten years ago, one development being the alterations to the Canadian history curriculum between five and eight years ago. WCI’s history department also rewrote the grade 10 Canadian history course trying to include more Indigenous history. One of the main challenges in doing that was how to do justice to that history, given the time constraints and how the course was already structured.

Mr. Witmer, also a retired history teacher, who taught at WCI for 24 years, said that whenever the chance to teach about Indigenous issues arose, the department would take it. However, Witmer added, “Did we take an entire section of the course out to specifically delve into that? No. The opportunity was never there.”

Speaking to some of the discussions that were happening between staff on this topic, Witmer remembered that during staff meetings, they would discuss the land acknowledgement that is played in the morning. In addition, at every staff meeting, a staff member would share about their connection to Indigenous peoples, whether they themselves identified as Indigenous, had worked with Indigenous peoples, or taught at Indigenous schools.

They never got to a good, hearty discussion about these issues though, at least while he was there. “Not to say that we weren’t moving in that direction,” he said, “but while I was there, we could have probably done a lot better.”

He also mentioned that, although there was never an explicit order to talk about Indigenous history, “We all understood the reality of what we were capable of doing, and we did what we thought we could do, and what best served the interests of the students.”

When talking about the importance of teaching about these issues, Witmer explained that through learning of Indigenous history, it helps “to better understand who we are as Canadians, to get a better sense of ourselves.”

Pavey said that when one studies history, they gain an understanding of other people’s perspectives, and more importantly, an empathy towards others.

“I mean, that’s the purpose of studying history,” he said, “for people to gain an understanding of other people’s perspectives.”

Witmer discussed how the initiatives that have been taken thus far, while they are more plentiful, are still not of a high quality. He also explained that even though what has been done already is good, such as the garden, that does not mean that the school has done its part. There is still much more that needs to and could be done.

Pavey mentioned that an essential thing to do is to bring Indigenous leaders into the school, and include them in the conversation. A message about reconciling the past is far more powerful coming from someone who lived through or experienced intergenerational trauma from the residential school system.

He added that when it comes to incorporating Indigenous issues into the curriculum, it works best when each teacher, through their own creativity, finds a good way to do it. “Where it doesn’t work is when it’s a top-down approach,” he said, arguing that it ends up being artificial and inorganic. Whereas, at the classroom level, it can be done more effectively.

Featured photo was taken by Ms. Knox.