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The Power of Indigenous Control of Indigenous Education

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Photo Credit: photo by congerdesign on pixabay
February 2, 2021

An article by the Globe and Mail states that over 90% of non-Indigenous students in Canada graduate from high-school – this is not the case for many Indigenous students. Métis students graduate at 84%, First Nations students living off-reserve graduate at 75%, and First Nations students on-reserve graduate at only 48%.  

These students have not failed the education system, the education system has failed them. 

Over the years, the gap in graduation rates between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students has been closing, but why does such a gap exist in the first place and how can it be closed?

Canada’s colonial legacy and dark history of residential schooling is to blame. When discussing the lower educational attainment levels among Indigenous students we must also discuss the education system they are most likely being educated in: the Western education system. Education has been a key tool in the assimilation of Indigenous people into a Euro-Canadian identity, and even today, those colonial values are embedded in Canada’s education system as most schools continue to teach and value Euro-centric knowledge.

For Indigenous students, the Western education system values only one kind of knowledge and offers a culturally irrelevant curriculum, a lack of support, and a lack of positive representation. In contrast, Indigenous Traditional education is inherently holistic in nature and offers Indigenous students the opportunity to reconnect with their culture, land, and identities.

Indigenous peoples have been illustrating resilience and resistance to Western education and assimilation for centuries. One way that some Indigenous communities have avoided the Western education system is through Traditional education and the establishment of Indigenous-led learning spaces for Indigenous students. As Canadian lawyer and First Nations activist Roberta Jamieson says, we are “no longer looking for a seat at the existing tables, but new tables”.

With the support of the Misipawistik Cree Nation, this summer I have had the incredible privilege of working with Elders and Knowledge Holders to support the early development of an Indigenous-led Traditional learning place in Manitoba. Through interviews with Elders, Knowledge Holders, and representatives from established Indigenous-led places of learning, I have learned of the intrinsically holistic nature of Traditional education and the various benefits of Indigenous-led education for Indigenous people.

In addition to speaking with Elders and Knowledge Holders from different communities, I was able to interview representatives from four Indigenous-led established places of learning, including the Akwesasne Freedom School, The Kaniyasihk Cree Immersion Land-Based School, The Turtle Lodge International Centre for Indigenous Education and Wellness, and the Misipawistik Pimatisimēskanaw Program. These community-driven schools and programs teach an Indigenous curriculum that immerses students in Indigenous languages, cultures, and traditions, and values the holistic development of the student.

A Traditional education places more emphasis on valuing a student’s ability to discover their identity and find meaning and purpose in life through their relationships to the community, the natural world, and to spiritual values such as compassion and peace. Becky Cook, the program coordinator for the Misipawistik Pimatisimēskanaw Program said, “I think where traditional education goes another step further is that it fosters an environment where we respect each other. That doesn’t happen I think in the western school system as much.”

Holistic education aspires to develop a student as a whole rather than just academically, taking into account the general well-being of a student and their spiritual, physical, mental, and emotional development. Within spaces of Western education, Indigenous knowledge, culture, and tradition are viewed as subordinate and inferior, which can leave Indigenous students feeling alienated and isolated. Traditional places of learning give Indigenous youth the opportunity to build a sense of community, belonging, and pride.

Through my conversations with the Elders, Knowledge Holders, and established school representatives, I learned the term wahkotowin. In English this translates to “all my relations” and emphasizes Indigenous people’s relation to everything in Creation: to family, to community, to other human beings, and to the Earth. This is a meaningful reminder of the importance of relationships, community, and mutual support, and how inclusive, quality education has the power to foster social connection and instill within Indigenous students a sense of pride, identity and right to belong. 

Traditional education uplifts Indigenous students and highlights their value as individuals with unique gifts and skills that can contribute to their communities. As Elder Dave Courchene, Founder of the Turtle Lodge in Sagkeeng First Nation said in our interview, “that’s what we should be teaching our children – and creating those environments for them to find their dream and their purpose that would give meaning to their life.”

To learn more about Traditional education and the history surrounding it, please read: