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How Alberta teachers are walking the path to reconciliation


Tansi Nîtôtemtik,


Today we’re going to focus on the cultural competency aspect of teachers, but first I want to share a story from my school days as a young teenager. I went to a junior high that had almost no visibly identifiable Indigenous children. There were minority groups, but I recall no Indigenous children. For our social studies class there was a big cultural event in the evening for everyone to showcase their heritage. I felt extremely uncomfortable with anyone knowing my Métis heritage. Students did not speak kindly about Indigenous people in those days. I contemplated what I should do. I could have made a presentation about my father’s heritage (English/Irish) but it did not feel right to promote the heritage of a man who did not raise me.


There was one other female student who decided to present her Métis heritage for the event. From that point on, some students would make fun of her for being a “dirty Indian”. That solidified my decision. I decided not to participate in the project. It was safer for me to receive a zero than it was to celebrate my own culture. I was never questioned as to my lack of participation. I questioned if the teachers even understood the difference between Métis and First Nations. I spent the rest of my education learning how to blend in and I could do so because of my recessive genes. School for me never felt like a safe space to be Indigenous.


I know that the education system today is not what I experienced some twenty odd years ago. My experience and possibly that of many other Indigenous students is what makes creating culturally safe spaces for Indigenous students within the school system so important. The Council of Ministers of Education, Canada is called upon to maintain annual commitments to Aboriginal education which includes implementing the history of Aboriginal peoples and the legacy of residential schools into the curriculum. [1] It also calls for sharing best practices on teaching Aboriginal history, building student intercultural understanding and mutual respect, and identifying areas for teacher training and development to achieve all of the above. [2]


Photo credit: Tess Cossey, Indigenous lead from Holy Redeemer Catholic School in Ardrossan


Now let’s focus on what’s happening right here in Alberta. I was blessed with the opportunity to speak with an amazing teacher who works at Spruce Grove Composite High School in the Parkland School Division. She informed me that Alberta teachers are legally bound by Alberta Education’s Teaching Quality Standards. Teachers are mandated to educate about the historical, social, economic, and political implications of Treaties with First Nations, legislation and agreements with Métis, and the legacy of residential schools. [3] The curriculum is designed to help “...develop a knowledge and understanding of, and respect for, the histories, cultures, languages, contributions, perspectives, experiences and contemporary contexts of First Nations, Métis and Inuit.” [4]


This school is educating students by integrating Indigenous content into their curriculum, but I want to highlight some of the ways in which this school incorporates intercultural understanding, empathy, and mutual respect.


The school has an ICE (Indigenous Cultural Educators) team made up of teachers from various departments and various backgrounds. The team identifies First Nation, Métis, and Inuit students to support them in all aspects of their holistic wellness and being. There is also a committee that integrates land based and holistic teachings into the school environment such as medicine collecting and sweat lodges. All students are included and encouraged to participate. This teacher has planned for an Indigenous story bead making event in her classroom for students to learn the importance of oral storytelling and Indigenous beliefs. The school partners with neighbouring band members and elders during graduation to award students with eagle feathers or Métis sashes. Elders are also invited to speak to staff on Professional Development days to share their history, stories, and ceremonies.


I believe it’s important for children to learn about Canada's Indigenous peoples and how we ended up here but also to create opportunities to expose children to the beauty of the culture. Educational institutions have the potential to be leaders in the resurgence of cultural knowledge and practices that were traditionally used to restore health and balance and rebuild a sense of wellbeing. [5] Learning about Indigenous culture could be beneficial for all students because it’s based on human experience and emotion which can help create cross-cultural acceptance and healthy relationships. [6] I think this helps explain why intercultural programming and events are important in our education system.


I wanted to get a different perspective on cultural competence from the inner city, so I had a conversation with a teacher who has fifteen years’ experience working with Indigenous children at Ben Calf Robe School. Ben Calf Robe is a unique school that offers a Cree-based language and culture program. Teachers from this school are culturally competent because they deal with multiple Indigenous students affected by trauma and poverty. The school has two fully employed social workers and a part-time psychologist. This teacher believes that the integration of culture into the classroom along with traditional land-based learning is what helps children from this school to not only succeed but to heal.


The teacher informed me that a few years back new teachers in Alberta became required to complete a cultural competency course to graduate with an education degree. The change was in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. New teachers applying for an Alberta teaching certificate had to meet the Teaching Quality Standards to be recommended for certification. After the introduction of the new requirements, cultural competency courses for teachers already in the field became highly encouraged but optional.


There are some teachers who still feel uncomfortable with their level of knowledge, but they have access to supportive resources. For some schools there are Indigenous leads to help educate teachers or create shared lesson plans. The Alberta Teachers’ Association has a plethora of Professional Development Indigenous education workshops. The workshops were collaboratively developed by First Nations, Métis, and Inuit elders, knowledge keepers, and designed to support teachers and school leaders in the cultural learning process. [7] While majority of teachers who were not required to take a course are doing their best to educate themselves and increase their comfort levels, I am left wondering what the best practice for teachers in cultural competency education would be. Reconciliation is a journey, and this issue may need to be revisited in the future.


For now, I want to extend my heartfelt gratitude to all the teachers who have chosen to become active participants in the healing process by learning the truth and creating inclusive learning environments. I have spoken with other teachers from different schools, and I am elated when I hear about how other schools are actively engaged in walking the path of reconciliation. You are helping to shape the minds and hearts of future generations


Until next time,

Team ReconciliAction YEG



[1] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada “Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action” (last visited 2 October 2022), online: University of Toronto Libraries <exhibits.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/2420#:~:text=Citation,%2Fitems%2Fshow%2F2420>.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Alberta Government, “Alberta Education Teaching Quality Standard” (2020), p.5 online: (pdf) Alberta Education <www.open.alberta.ca/dataset/14d92858-fec0-449b-a9ad-52c05000b4de/resource/afc2aa25-ea83-4d23-a105-d1d45af9ffad/download/edc-teaching-quality-standard-english-2020.pdf>.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Cardinal, T., Lambert, L. & Lamouche, S., “ Living the Good Life: A Conversation about Well-being, Education, and Culture” (2015), at 7, online: (pdf) Érudit <www.erudit.org/en/journals/paideusis/1900-v1-n1-paideusis05496/1071455ar.pdf>.

[6] Ibid at 11.

[7] The Alberta Teachers’ Association, “Indigenous Education Workshops” (last visited 9 October 2022), online: The Alberta Teachers’ Association <www.teachers.ab.ca/professional-development/indigenous-education-and-walking-together/indigenous-education-workshops>.

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