Learning from Wab Kinewo

I’m getting ready for Wab Kinew’s visit organized by Vancouver Kidsbooks this Wednesday.  I finally read his book The Reason You Walk (2017 edition) from the stack beside my bed.  This book brings to life the negative impact of residential schools on the parenting of the children who attended. It is a very personal story of Wab’s relationship with a father suffering from his years in residential school.  I will never understand what overtakes people that allow themselves to treat human beings with such cruelty, let alone the most vulnerable. Repeatedly.  This is one of the dark stains on Canada’s reputation as a country that champions human rights.

Many of us have witnessed the apology for residential schools to Indigenous People in Canada by Stephen Harper when he was Prime Minister in 2008. The question that lingered was “What now?”  Certainly the first step was acknowledging what had happened and why it happened.  The attempt to “Kill the Indian in the Child” can only be understood in the context of cultural genocide.  As a country, we have a long way to come back from decisions that were made in our infancy as a country but sustained for way too many years after.

Wab Kinew has written a book that is truly a book about acknowledging what has happened but also moving beyond the atrocity of residential schools.   Wab Kinew (pg 211) tells us: “Reconciliation is realized when two people come together and understand that what they share unites them and that what is different about them needs to be respected.” That is an achievable goal to strive towards. And I am inspired.

The title of the book, The reason you walk or “Ningosha anishaa wenjii-bimoseyan” comes from the lyrics of an Anishinaabe travelling song. Wab Kinew’s dad, Ndedeiban, passed on the teaching to him: The words are interpreted as a direct message from the Creator aka God (The Reason You Walk, pg. 252):

  • “I am the reason you walk. I created you so that you might walk on this earth.
  • I am the reason you walk. I gave you motivation so you would continue to walk even when the path became difficult, even seemingly impossible.
  • I am the reason you walk. I animate you with that driving force called love, which compelled you to help others who had forgotten they were brothers and sisters to take steps back toward one another.
  • And, now my son, as that journey comes to an end, I am the reason you walk, for I am calling you home. Walk to me on that everlasting road.”

This book is as much about a father-son relationship as it is about larger political issues. It helped me to better understand my own mother’s long lingering journey towards death. And the all too soon deaths of my aunt and brother.  This book is testament to the fact that different faith traditions can speak universal truths that cross religion denominations.  As human beings, we are all on the same journey of joys, defeats, celebrations and sorrows.  The end goal is to allow people to define their own journey and support each other along the way.

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A New Age of Joy & Optimism for Indigenous Peoples in Canada

I love the picture of this little guy on the front page of The Vancouver Sun.  The sparkle in his eyes and the look on his face remind me so much of my son at that age.  With life comes the opportunity for grand adventure!  Joy is suppose to be part of every child’s life.  I hope that all things good unfold for this little man.  The title of the Vancouver Sun picture: “A New Age is At Hand”.  Colonialism did not work for the Indigenous people of Canada.  But there is hope and there is unprecedented optimism for the future.

A fierce pride in Canada’s accomplishments throughout its almost, 151 years of nationhood, is strong.  The is a realization that north of the 49th parallel existed for thousands of years prior to confederation.   The learning from the Indigenous people was invaluable.  Finally it is part of the national conversation.  Within the field of Education in British Columbia, there is a quest to embrace our history, even when it includes the shame of colonial structures and prejudice that allowed children to be separated from their parents and basic human rights to be ignored.

Summer solstice,  the longest day of the year, was chosen to be THE day to celebrate, recognize and honour the heritage, cultures and valuable contributions by the First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples of Canada.  The Northwest Territories has celebrated this day as a statutory holiday since 2001 and The Yukon followed suit in 2017.  The day started with one of the teachers engaging me in a conversation of the use of “Indigenous” rather than “Aboriginal’ and the implications.  I had my phone out, googling, so we could determine why Metro Vancouver Celebrations were mostly using the word “Aboriginal” and “Indigenous” was being used on the national stage.   What was most respectful?  How do we explain the difference?  What I thought was indicative of this “new age” was  that it mattered.

One of our Grade 3 teachers, Janet Logie, is a committed student of history and volunteer at the Hastings Mills Museum at the Old Mill Park by Jericho Beach.  As a kid, my sister and my cousins, would regularly swing into the museum to check it out when we were at the park.  It still smells the same but the context has changed.  Amazingly intricate baskets and artifacts that were purchased as parts of private collections have been curated and recognized as significant parts of the history of Vancouver.  Recently there was a special event to publicly thank the Indigenous First Responders during the Great Vancouver Fire of 1886 who saved many lives.  Marissa Nahanee, of the Squamish Nation, performed the Paddle Song beside the replica of the historic “Tent City Hall” and volunteers served Indigenous herbal teas by Raven Hummingbird Teas in the museum. Our MP, Joyce Murray, brought formality, acknowledgment and thanks of the government.  It was a great event.  Our children are growing up with an appreciation of the contributions by the Indigenous community in our shared history when they go out to play.

The focus on the herbs grown and used by the Indigenous people has been a focus for Grade 2 teacher, Joan Phoenix.  Our PAC (Parent Advisory Committee) supported her financially in designing and planting a butterfly garden that would attract the butterflies once the primary children had observed the life cycle indoors and freed them into their natural habitat.  One of her parent volunteers, Sara Baren, teaches Urban Forestry at UBC.  She enlisted the help of Emily Tu, newly accepted to do a MA in Landscape Architecture, to work on the project.

They were instrumental in helping Ms. Phoenix to plant indigenous plants that would serve this purpose.  The Grade twos used books and iPads to research the traditional uses of the plants by the Musqueam and that are now widely available in grocery stores.

Our Grade 5 teacher, Melody Ludski, is currently doing her graduate work while teaching full time.  She has extensive background knowledge on Indigenous ways on knowing, as well as incredible sensitivity to the protocols required because we work, learn and play on the unceded lands of the Musqueam people.  To celebrate National Indigenous Day, Ms. Ludski booked accomplished Pow Wow dancer Shyama Priya, who has Cree roots on her mothers side.  She was taught by Coast Salish pow wow dancer, Curtis Joe.  She took the time to share the story of creating her regalia and engaged kids and teachers in dancing that reflected amazing skill and athleticism.  I was fortunate to go to a few pow wows with my friend, Latash Nahanee, many years ago and join in the dancing during the grand procession.  The only word for the heartbeat of the drum and the communal participation – Joy!  You could see it on Shyama Priya’s face and those of the children.

The Garden Committee, headed up by Grade 1 teacher, Kate Foreman, for many years has been planning an outdoor learning space.  Two portables were removed from our school site this year and the perfect opportunity presented itself.  Many teachers were very inspired by the idea of a circle with twelve large rocks for seating an entire class.  The size of the rocks and the placement to reflect true north, south, east and west were carefully planned and facilitated.  As a history major, I loved the possibility of reflecting Indigenous Culture as an early instigator of a democratic system.  Everyone has a voice in the talking circle and respect for divergent opinions is a basic tenet.   The Vancouver Board of Education was gifted a Musqueam word by Shane Point:  Nə́c̓aʔmat ct  It means ‘we are one’.  Our Nə́c̓aʔmat ct Circle will be a talking circle for problem solving, a listening circle to teach empathy, a way to incorporate medicine wheel teachings and understanding of the circle or life and the seasons and relationships with ourselves, others and Mother Earth.

The work of Laura Tait has been inspirational in helping our staff “to push the paddle deeper” in our School Growth Plan.  We will be developing and progressing through our own adapted version on the rubric based on her Aboriginal Understandings Learning Progression from SD68 Aboriginal Education.  I am so excited that another inspirational colleague, Joyce Perrault, will be helping us to navigate the path.  With her drum and her newly published book, All Creation Represented, we will be exploring the Medicine Wheel from an Ojibwe perspective  while sitting in our Nə́c̓aʔmat ct Circle.  The book states that it’s a child’s guide to the Medicine Wheel but with all I’m learning, the next hardcover, coffee table edition will be marketed to adults.  The book provides insight into relationships with ourselves, each other and Mother Earth.  I am feeling joyful and optimistic too.   We are heading out on a promising journey with optimism and joy and determination that the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples  will be respected in this chapter of Canadian history.

Note:  The phonetic pronunciation of nə́c̓aʔmat ct  is knot-sa-mots.

Weaving Together the Stories of Reconciliation

Latash Maurice Nahanee performed his first national premiere on Thursday night as part of the cast of Weaving Reconciliation – Our Way.  It is presented not only as a play, but also as a cultural encounter, written by Renae Morriseau, Rosemary Georgeson and Savannah Walling with contributions from the cast, knowledge keepers and partnering communities.  I was honoured to be a witness to the stories that unfolded.  The pre-show weaving demonstration, a metaphor for the play, was the focus in the middle of the circle when you enter the room, which later becomes the stage.  The stories of the struggles of one Indigenous family unfolds in the centre of the circle.  They are supported by four relations, arranged like compass points around the stage, from the past, the present and the future.  Their voices have an ethereal quality and speak to their friends and relatives, ready to support the tormented soul of the characters that weave in and out of the spotlight.  Just when the pain and tragedy of the story became too overwhelming, in enters the Trickster, Sam Bob, with his hopeful, young sidekick.  This character has a big physical presence with a lightness of spirit and sharp wit which mirrors the comedic element in Shakespeare’s tragedies.

The sharing of the stories, intertwined with other stories, intertwined with past injustices, intertwined with other injustices, give light to the complexities of the process of reconciliation with Indigenous families.  The struggle and the promise of moving forward is a testimony to the resilience of Indigenous people emerging beyond the constricting yoke of residential schools, systemic racism, dislocation from support structures and pain.  Part of the hope felt at the end of the play comes from the characters moving forward towards reconciliation with family, with history and with a stronger voice to recapture the power over their own lives.

The power of good theatre is the capacity to draw us into the story and help us to empathize with the characters.  Watching the play, I believed that each story represented the lived experience of each actor.  Their intensity of emotion was palpable.  The story of the experience of Indigenous people in Canada belongs to them and their story of reconciliation belongs to them.  How that story intertwines with our individual story and our colonial past is defined by us.  Latash has been a mentor and a friend in helping me on my own personal path towards understanding and reconciliation.  We met “many moons ago” when we were both working in Coquitlam.  Latash was an Aboriginal support worker and I was a teacher at a middle school.  Some of our shared students were some of the most vulnerable in the district.  Latash was masterful at stepping back from judgement and accepting where these kids were and providing much needed support.  He helped me to begin to understand the complexity of supporting these young people as they tried to forage a new path that was far beyond the scope of learning to read.

Latash invited me to be the sponsor teacher in a cultural exchange program with indigenous students in the Coquitlam School District and indigenous students who belonged to a Friendship Centre in Ottawa.  These students came bubbling with enthusiasm to seek out understanding of their cultural roots.  Students spent time as a large group in both Vancouver and Ottawa.  It opened up new world of experiences, cultural learning, and access to history not included in my classes at elementary school, secondary school or university.  As the sponsor teacher, I was in charge of expectations for behaviour, timelines and safety.  This was my first glimpse into the challenges that come with the role of principal.  It was also my first understanding of my role as the “one outside” who carries a completely different frame of reference and experience within Canada.

Latash, helped me to grapple with the notion that my path towards reconciliation was my own.  Learning the history was not enough.   Looking to the indigenous community to reconcile on their own was not a viable option.  Feeling guilty wasn’t the point.  The discovery that residential schools existed in Canada, let alone in my lifetime was as much of a shock as the dawning realization that Canada was not the champion of the Universal Declaration of Rights and Freedoms that I had believed.  The initial defensive move was the desire to distance myself from any responsibility and create a rationale for unacceptable decisions.  The dawning realization was that the decisions made and perpetuated throughout our history could only have been motivated by a belief in cultural supremacy and monetary gain.

Our challenge is to decide to open our minds and hearts to the stories and weave a new chapter that is based on a reconciliation of the past, and lay a new foundation based on  respect for basic human rights and freedoms.   It is to ask questions.  How does one woman decide hitchhiking is her only option and no one ever sees or hears from her again or knows what happened to her?  How does that happen once, let alone hundreds of times?   Why do indigenous people struggle to graduate?  Represent such a high number of the prison population?  Suffer from high rates of addiction?  As Latash aptly describes, Canada for indigenous people “is like the albatross that was hung around the neck of the Ancient Mariner.”  Resilience will be the story of the Indigenous people in reconciling within their families, communities and Canada.  The story of the reconciliation of “a settler” such as myself, is still to be written.  It will be a journey and it will be woven with a myriad of other stories.  It will be a story of hope and of justice.

My advice.  Go see the play.  It’s in Vancouver for another three days, then off to Pentiction, Toronto and Winnipeg.  It may make you cry.   It will make you think.   It will make you hopeful.  And surprisingly, it will make you laugh.

Indigenous Ways of Knowing: Transforming our Relationships

I believe in Aboriginal Enhancement agreements.  For some, they represent a token of political correctness which can be limited to lip service.  For others they focus our attention on something that matters not only in terms of facilitating basic human rights, but developing a culture of kindness and respect that we as Canadians have built our identity on.

John Hattie points to a large body of research that informs us that the largest predictor of health, wealth and happiness is not grades achieved by students, but the number of years spent in school.  Low graduation rates of indigenous students have meant that part of our job as educators is to create a learning environment in which all students find something to stay for.  Obviously we want this for all of our students.

Daniel Wood wrote an article in the travel section of The Vancouver Sun newspaper (Apr.28, 2018) on Easter Island:  “And once the last tree was chopped down, there was no wood to make a boat and leave.”  The habitat once plentiful with fish, birds, palm trees and fertile lands was left an archeological site on grassland.  Like those who inhabited and devastated Easter Island thousands of years ago, we too have much to learn.   The FNESC materials give us with tools and insight into how we can draft meaningful goals to incorporate indigenous ways of knowing into our curriculum.

What is frequently lacking is a clearly articulated learning intention so we can determine if we are making an impact.  From this intentional stance, we are able to devise a plan that serves the needs of all of the students in our care:

  1.  To create a culture of kindness and respect.  For our indigenous students, it means listening to the stories and rather than rewriting history.  It means finding a way to move forward together.
  2.  To create a learning environment where students are engaged in learning.
    • How can we support students in their ability to self regulate so they can learn?
    • How do we incorporate student choice and provide clarity and high expectations into our learning contexts?
  3.  To incorporate indigenous ways of knowing into our lives.
    • What does it look like when we understand the First Peoples Principles of Learning and incorporate them into our lives and stories?

In response to stereotypes of indigenous culture that have pervaded our culture, and appropriation of cultural items to gain profit, we are left unsure of truly what is respectful.  Anthropologist, Aaron Glass states in his interview with Heather Ramsey of The Tyee ( March  2011):  “Totem poles, he says, have been added to the stereotype of the North American Indian, along with the teepee, the tomahawk and the feathered headdress.”  If we are earnest in our intention, this fact makes us wary when we see these images and concerned that we may be perceived as a part of the system that perpetuates negative stereotypes and gets in the way of developing respectful relationships.

The Tomahawk Barbecue was the first drive-in restaurant in Vancouver started by Chick Chamberlain in 1926 just off Marine Drive.  Chick learned to cook in the early 20’s when he opened a small coffee shop in a cabins to rent business with his brother.  The drive-in part of the restaurant wasn’t a huge success because of the dust from the unpaved roads.  It did evolve as a community hang-out.  One of the patrons of the restaurant mounted a big tomahawk over the door and the name stuck.  It managed to stay open through the “Dirty Thirties” largely because Chick would accept payment in curios, hand made pots, drums, cooking utensils, large and small totem poles, masks and other beautifully carved objects from those who couldn’t afford the food.  He started to purchase indigenous art long before it was recognized as valuable.  “Tomahawk’s famous hamburgers are named after some of the Indian chiefs Chick had known over the years, as a sort of memorial to his friends: Skookum Chief, Chief Capilano, Chief Raven, Chief Dominic Charlie, and Chief August Jack.”  Chuck Chamberlain is Chick’s son and has maintained his father’s legacy.  Chuck was happy to share stories of the his Dad, his restaurant, and his friends over the years when I came for breakfast on a rainy Saturday morning.  A painting of Chief Simon Baker graces the wall when you enter.  Chuck is proud of this friendship and was honoured to be a pall bearer at Chief Baker’s funeral.

The story that was most powerful was the story of the Wild Man of the Woods Mask used in the Squamish ceremony of boys moving into manhood.  When the mask is needed for a ceremony, it is taken down from the special resting spot in the restaurant, and once it’s purpose is fulfilled, it is returned to a place where it rests with the spirits of the ancestors.  This is so different than the experience of another friend of mine who is a member of the Squamish Nation.  He took a special basket made by his grandmother to the Museum of Anthropology with an inquiry about how best to preserve it.  The Museum of Anthropology explained they could help.  When my friend and his family returned to request it for use in a special ceremony, they were denied access.  Two similar scenarios with the biggest difference being the respect demonstrated and the dynamic of power and control.

I remember going to the Tomahawk Restaurant for breakfast as a very little girl, one weekend when my aunt and my Mom ventured over the Lion’s Gate Bridge to go to Capilano Canyon with my sister and cousins.  My husband remembers not being able to finish the Skookum Chief burger, nicknamed The Hulk burger, when he was a little boy.  Yet, I paused to return because of the name – Tomahawk.  As a student of history and an educator wanting to rectify past wrongs, I had many questions.  Was it respectful?  Was it appropriate?  Was it a remnant of past uninformed representations of indigenous culture?  Tomahawks were from the prairies, weren’t they?   It wasn’t until I did some internet research, listened to an interview and did some the reading, that I gave myself permission to return for a visit and a questions to ask.  And yes, I was dying to see the art.  While I was there, chatting with Chuck, I kept thinking of the First Peoples Principle of Learning:  Learning is embedded in memory, history, and story.  Listening to the stories always needs to proceed formulating the judgement.  What I heard on Sunday, was pride in respectful relationships and families that have become intertwined over many years.

Recently I cited Byrd Baylor’s book, Everybody Needs a Rock in reference to an Indigenous sharing circle of large boulders that we are installing in our playground.  The intention is to help students understand the very beginnings of the concept of democracy in giving everyone a voice.  One of my respected colleagues, questioned my reference to a non-indigenous author.  Again I did some internet research to discover that she has maternal Native American decent but grew up in a largely non-indigenous culture.  However I went back to the First Peoples Principle of Learnings:  Learning is holistic, reflexive, reflective, experiential, and relational (focused on connectedness, on reciprocal relationships, and a sense of place).   Ultimately, isn’t our intention for all people to embrace these principles because it represents universal learning that matters.  And isn’t it our intention for all people to share the stories that come to form their understandings.

Anthropologist, Aaron Glass also stated in his interview with Heather Ramsey of The Tyee (March  2011):  “What we argue in the book is that the totem pole has been a constantly evolving form, so there was never a moment when “it” almost died. It kept changing, migrating, transforming. This is not a story of death and rebirth it is a story of continual transformation.”  As with the totem pole, the relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous people will continue to evolve and transform as we open ourselves to new learning.  Hopefully this time we get it right, and that relationship will be based on respect, honesty, shared power, and a willingness to be open to learning from each other.

Challenging “Alternative Truths”

“Honesty is the best policy” is an adage that has been kicked to the curb openly of late.  The “alternative truth” is the actually emerging as “a thing”.   I was brought up with several “alternative truths,” but even as a young child I identified them as nothing more than lies.  I also knew that championing the truth was futile in some cases.  It was better not to ask questions.  However the question “why” didn’t disappear.  The people that I most trusted and respected were the people who told me the truth.

The ability of the “alternative truth” to survive, depends largely on the power of the person or institution serving it up as the truth, and how desperately they strive to sustain it.  However the quest for truth  is an long established practice.  The imagery of light is also used to explore the notion of truth, throughout many religions and social justice groups.  If something can bear scrutiny, we can hopefully re-emerge better – more just, more empathetic, more inclusive, more willing to identify similarities and more willing to value differences.

The study of history and political science in university taught me how to adopt a position, create an argument and then switch sides.  The facts and arguments you chose to expound or omit, allowed you to take both sides.  Yet, sometimes the facts were significant enough to define the truth or reality of that time in history.  There is no alternative truth.  Sometimes there are just fears and insecurities that allow people in power to manipulate with Machiavellian intent.  Our minds easily shift to south of the border, pre-World War II Germany or apartheid in South Africa.  Our minds don’t as easily shift to our reality as Canadians.  The Chinese Head Tax, the internment of the Japanese and treatment of our Indigenous people are all examples of that same Machiavellian policy that grew out of fears and insecurities.  Yet, if we never explore our history, we can never understand our current realities or a path to move forward based on understanding rather than ignorance.


I had an amazing week of professional learning this week thanks to Brad Baker and his team of inspired educators from the North Vancouver School District.  My friend, Latash (Maurice) Nahanee, was the first person to ever help me begin to understand the legacy of residential schools and other forms of institutionalized racism.  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada brought the conversation into mainstream.  People such as Martin Brokenleg, DeeDee DeRose and Don Fiddler  have done an amazing job of helping us to understand why Aboriginal Education is necessary for us to understand our own history and the importance of changing our relationship with Aboriginal families.

On Wednesday night, Brad Baker presented at a PDK dinner meeting for instructional leaders.  He explored some of the ways how we can move beyond tokenism and engage in meaningful Aboriginal education for all of our students throughout the year.  This can be a basic as including an acknowledgement that we live, work and learn on Aboriginal lands.  Yes, this does mean that we need to find out who were the Aboriginal people that first lived on the lands we now inhabit.  Although I grew up in Vancouver and studied history, I learned relatively recently that I grew up on the ancestral lands of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh.

On Friday at the Professional Learning Rep Assembly for BCPVPA (British Columbia Principal and Vice Principal’s Association), I participated in the Blanket Activity for a second time.  This activity is very powerful and includes excerpts from government documents and statements from Aboriginal people.  Participants begin standing on blankets that represent Turtle Island in Ontario.  Blankets are manipulated or removed as the story unfolds, as are the people on them.

I participated in this activity for the first time as part of district professional development.  I read passages both times, that reflected Aboriginal voice.  This made both experiences very personal.  However the first time I participated, I was removed from the group relatively early when land was encroached upon and my blanket was removed.  From outside the circle, it became more of a cerebral experience.  On Friday, I was never removed from the circle.  I watched as others were lost to disease, residential schools, placed on reserves or lost status because they left the reserve.  The experience remained very personal and the feeling of waiting for “my turn” ever present.  I can’t imagine anyone participating in this activity and not empathizing with the fate of these participants in our collective history.

Brad Baker emphasizes when he speaks that goal of Aboriginal Education is not to inspire guilt but understanding.  Laura Tait’s video about The Principles of Learning is on my repeated watch list to focus my attention on looking at the world through an Indigenous lens. The inclusion on these principles in the new BC curriculum provides a meaningful way to engage students in learning that has taken place over thousands of years.  There is no “alternative truth” to what happened in our history.  Let’s participate in Jan Hare’s MOOC at UBC – Reconciliation Through Indigenous Education , keep talking and and learning, and step away from judgments and thinking that obscure a respectful path forward.  Most of all, to quote Brad Baker – “Go Forward with Courage!”