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Waters symposium looks at Aboriginal education for today


By Fred Michah Rynor


It was a near capacity crowd that gathered in the OISE Auditorium on April 17th to listen to three renowned Aboriginal activists/educators discuss the state of First Nations schooling at the Fifth Annual William Waters Symposium on Urban Education.

Taiaiake Alfred, Susan D. Dion and Ellen Gabriel discussed ‘Beyond the Three R’s: Troubling Reconciliation, Restitution, & Resurgence’ with Alfred, a Montreal-born Mohawk of the Kahnawake Mohawk Territory stating that current attempts at Aboriginal reconciliation are actually processes of recolonization that reinforce prejudices.

“The essence of my perspective is that Aboriginal people are still thought of as the problem but we’re opposed to reconciliation attempts because these actions aren’t achieving what we had hoped. This was supposed to achieve a higher standard of living for us, restore our dignity and create fair, equitable relationships between the factions but reconciliation discussions aren’t doing this so instead of asking what is wrong with Natives, ask what is wrong with Canada.”

Alfred, a professor in Indigenous Governance at the University of Victoria, went on to state that today’s First Nations populations are fighting for their very survival.

“You see a lot of Aboriginals who are completely lost due to the loss of our land base, our language and our traditions which causes a feeling of disconnection. What we need is a regeneration of ourselves in our own land and that means restitution before reconciliation. Restore to us what was stolen.”

Gabriel, of the Kanien’kehá:ka Nation, Turtle Clan, stressed that “there is a resurgence of tyranny today of the most evil kind. We need to feel comfortable in our own skins and that means we must have a Native curriculum in all Canadian schools. Yes, what we’re experiencing is a new kind of colonization. It was Canada’s residential school system that made us ashamed of our skin colour, culture, languages and dances. Money isn’t being spent by the government on our languages – only English and French -- and so our cultures are still marginalized. Indian control over Indian education needs to happen today and we have to push for the inclusion of the history of the residential school system into that curriculum.”

Renowned as a human rights advocate for Indigenous peoples, Gabriel also stressed the need for Aboriginal youth to have access to new technologies in schools. “We have to meet our youth with the tools that they use and understand.”

“All students have the right to know about Aboriginal treaties and the effects of the residential school system,” Dion, an Indigenous scholar (Potawatami/Lenape) and professor in the Faculty of Education at York University, re-iterated.

“We teachers have made some progress on Aboriginal inclusion in schools but there is still a serious lack of our culture in the classroom. What is and what isn’t taught concerns me a great deal and there is strong resistance to change. Teachers tell me they know nothing about Aboriginal subjects and so they fear doing the wrong thing but we need to get up and close to this discomfort. Yes, teaching this content is emotional work but we have to face this.”

Dion also wants to see more Aboriginal artists, authors, Elders and speakers in the classrooms “in order to decolonise education.” 

OISE was recognized from the podium for its efforts to include and conduct research on Aboriginal education in its own curriculum and through the Waters Symposium. William R. Waters, creator of the symposium, is Professor Emeritus of Economics and Finance at the Joseph L. Rotman School of Management at U of T.