Ontario’s Indigenous Studies gap is bigger than post-secondary education

Erin Clancy argues that teachers are being underprepared for teaching Indigenous studies in public school curriculum.  

Students aren’t learning enough about Indigenous studies, but neither are their teachers.

To combat this knowledge gap, some Canadian universities, such as Lakehead and Winnipeg University, have implemented mandatory Indigenous credits for all students.

This will help to educate post-secondary students, but it doesn’t address the systemic knowledge gap at the primary and secondary school levels in Ontario. While some faculties of education at Ontario universities are incorporating Indigenous education for teachers into their programs, it strikes me as too little too late.

As a Queen’s teacher candidate currently enrolled in the Faculty of Education, I have experienced this knowledge gap first-hand throughout my primary and secondary education.

One of the first times I was exposed to the histories of Indigenous populations in elementary school was when I was instructed to participate in a frankly offensive skit in the sixth grade.

In high school, we briefly touched upon the subject of residential schools in one lesson in our tenth grade history class. 

My first real exposure to Indigenous cultures, histories and mistreatment in Canada was at Trent University, and this was largely because I was a history major who took an interest in Indigenous Studies.

Most teachers had similar experiences in their primary and secondary educations, and may not have pursued subject areas that addressed Indigenous histories and issues in their universities or education programs either. This means that teachers, who we place the onus on to educate our students on Indigenous Studies, are unfamiliar with the content and, therefore, lack confidence in teaching it.

In Canada, education is a provincial matter, making each province’s curriculum for kindergarten to grade 12 unique. Ontario has no mandatory Indigenous Studies courses but has created ten elective courses in First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Studies. According to research by the People for Education advocacy group, only half of Ontario high schools actually offered one or more of these courses in 2015.

While the mere offering of these courses is a step forward, the fact that they’re not mandatory means that students will likely opt for something more traditional, as they’re only required to take one senior-level credit under the umbrella of Canadian and World Studies.

Ontario has made strides to embed Indigenous Studies into many courses across the primary and secondary level, however, the problem persists because of the knowledge gap and lack of support for teachers who have never been exposed to the content they're expected to teach.

According to a Toronto Star article, Nicole Bell, an Anishnaabe scholar and Trent University’s Faculty of Education’s senior Indigenous education adviser, stated that “many teachers say they feel inadequate to do these topics justice in the classroom — or they’re so afraid they’ll teach it wrong, they freeze and don’t really do anything, which is not what we hope for.”

Through my experiences as a teacher candidate, I’ve found that educators are pressed to include all the required curriculum content, and as new content becomes added, such as Indigenous Studies, teachers struggle to exclude content they know very well to teach content they’re unfamiliar or uncomfortable with.

In 2015, Ontario’s teacher education program was lengthened from a one year, two-semester program to a two year, four-semester program. Since then, more Indigenous learning is offered for teacher candidates in select universities, but according to People for Education, the majority still don’t require teacher candidates to take Indigenous focused courses.

The Faculty of Education at Queen’s offers Native Studies as a high school teachable subject, which is available for those who took Indigenous Studies in their undergraduate degree.

Queen’s is also unique with its Aboriginal Teacher Education Program, which is designed for a select number of teacher candidates to specialize in Indigenous Education.

Now that the education program is four semesters, there’s also a new course called Introduction to Aboriginal Studies for Teachers.

However, there are still some teacher candidates, like myself, who went through the Concurrent Education Program, and are only required to complete two-semesters of the four semester program. These concurrent teacher candidates don’t receive the introductory course offered in the later semesters of the program, and neither have all of the teacher candidates that graduated before 2015.

Even if teacher candidates today are receiving more Indigenous education than in the past,  it doesn’t translate to the present teaching force, especially when schools are limited to how many new hires they can make and are largely relying on tenured teachers that lack knowledge in Indigenous material.

There has been increased pressure for Ontario’s Ministry of Education to make major improvements in Indigenous Studies since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released their final report in 2015.

The TRC created the Call to Action 62.1, which calls for “age-appropriate curriculum on residential schools, Treaties, and Aboriginal peoples’ historical and contemporary contributions to Canada a mandatory education requirement for Kindergarten to grade 12 students.”

Despite some small steps forward in the curricular response to the TRC, there’s still much work to be done in teacher preparation.

The TRC’s Call to Action 62.2 states that governments should “provide the necessary funding to post-secondary institutions to educate teachers with respect to integrating Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods into classrooms.”

This rightfully takes the onus off of individual teachers and places the responsibility directly on our government.

Ontario is making improvements in providing professional development for teachers in Indigenous studies, as research from the People for Education illustrates. In 2015, 31 per cent of Ontario elementary schools and 53 per cent of high schools provided professional development in Indigenous Studies for staff, which is a 6 per cent increase from the 2014 elementary numbers and a 19 per cent increase for secondary schools.

Although an improvement, if Indigenous education for teachers is only a priority for half of the schools in Ontario, we’re going to continue to see students graduating from high school without an understanding and respect of the cultures and experiences of Indigenous peoples.

Until more progress is made, Ontario’s universities may have no choice but to implement mandatory Indigenous studies credits to make up for the gaps persisting at the elementary and secondary levels.


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