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Cultural Participation and Academic Learning Challenges

Tansi Nîtôtemtik

While the TRC’s Calls to Action for education and culture are intended to provide opportunities for learning and growth to Indigenous students, it is ultimately the school system that will dictate how Indigenous youth and students can learn in schools and life.

“Indigenous peoples’ experiences with education in Canada have been [contentious]... The focus from the outset of imposed, colonial-based education has centered on assimilation and/or segregation of Indigenous peoples from their communities and worldviews (National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health et al., 2009).”[1]

People for Education, through their Measuring What Matters Initiative, have offered perspectives on student competencies by assessing schooling success beyond test scores and standardized curriculum.[2] Even though Canada - provincially and federally - seems to have adopted a willingness to implement Calls to Action for education and culture, it is secondary, post-secondary, and many other educational learning institutions that have restricted Indigenous students’ abilities to engage fully in cultural and academic learning. Let me explain.

In undergrad, I lost relationships with elders and Indigenous members of various communities because of my post-secondary commitments. Papers, projects, presentations, and exams created a schedule where my flexibility to join in on spontaneous invitations was limited. When an elder would ask me to go to a sweat, a hunt, or a tea ceremony I had to say no because I did not want to suffer academic consequences. Eventually, after saying no a few times, I was no longer asked to join elders for events and ceremonies. Some might say that I could have asked for extensions on projects, or skipped out of class; but there were measures in place where I needed attendance signatures from every class to receive funding, along with other timeline constraints. Rather than point the finger at the student for a supposed inability to prioritize, we should look at the institution's systemic practices of placing value on academia over community life and culture. The traditional approach of European-inspired posy-secondary advantages one type of student, and while rigid measures of attendance, deadlines, class participation, and test performance grade students, it is an arbitrary benchmark that can hinder growth.

Indigenous pedagogy (that is, the philosophy of teaching, learning, strategy, and evaluation) needs to be intertwined with the colonial traditions of education. It has been proposed that perhaps education should take a holistic approach, focusing on the classroom, school, community, and globe for learning. Professors, teachers, principals, deans should be open to the idea that connection to community and culture may be more important to a student’s learning and growth than measuring their intellectual worth with a letter grade.

Wherever students are attending, having a focus on the Indigenous nations local to the area, to incorporate their methods of learning, will create acceptance and understanding when an Indigenous student has to attend a ceremony and maintain their relationships with elders and community members.[3]

Dear readers, what is being suggested is not that Indigenous students receive guaranteed extensions on exams and papers, but rather a structural overhaul on how secondary and post-secondary is delivered for Indigenous youth to gain an education without sacrificing relations or losing culture by being taken away from its immersion. If we want education and culture to be prioritized as the TRC has recommended, then academic institutions need to genuinely understand the importance of multi-faceted educational approaches.

“Indigenous epistemologies and Elder/Metis knowledge can facilitate this much-needed education change.”[4] Culture and education can and should be taught hand-in-hand, as many academic subjects have ties to, and can strengthen and grow, Indigenous knowledge between non-Indigenous and Indigenous teachers and learners.

Indigenous students have given up so much to go to school; relationships, community support, cultural opportunities.Surely we can not take their ties with relations and culture as well? So dear reader, think of how we can break the “glass wall” between Indigenous community involvement and institutional learning, and let us know what you think.

Until next time,

Gavin and Team ReconciliAction YEG

[1] “What matters in Indigenous education: Implementing a Vision Committed to Holism, Diversity and Engagement”, People for Education (March 2016) online: <>

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

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