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"I didn't learn anything about myself"

New Brunswick chiefs ask for curriculum reform, as per TRC recommendations

by Miles Howe

“We need to start educating students in the province, teaching them the real history of First Nations people. They need to start learning about the Treaties. About Residential schools. About why we're living on reservations. The provincial school system never taught me that.” - Ross Perley, Chief Tobique First Nation [Photo: via Three Nations Education Group Inc]
“We need to start educating students in the province, teaching them the real history of First Nations people. They need to start learning about the Treaties. About Residential schools. About why we're living on reservations. The provincial school system never taught me that.” - Ross Perley, Chief Tobique First Nation [Photo: via Three Nations Education Group Inc]

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) -- Hoping to build on the recommendations contained within the recently-released Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report, on June 28, the Three Nations Education Group Inc, penned a letter to New Brunswick premier Brian Gallant.

The letter, signed by Ross Perley, Chief of Tobique First Nation, along with Chief Aaron Sock of Eslipogtog First Nation and Chief Alvery Paul of Esgenoopetitj First Nation, requested that the premier implement recommendation number 62 of the TRC report, as it pertains to the creation of a mandatory kindergarten to grade twelve curriculum covering “residential schools, Treaties, and Aboriginal peoples’ historical and contemporary contributions to Canada.”

“When I was in high school, we had one chapter on First Nations people,” says Perley. “I didn't learn anything about myself.

“We need to start educating students in the province, teaching them the real history of First Nations people. They need to start learning about the Treaties. About Residential schools. About why we're living on reservations. The provincial school system never taught me that.”

Perley maintains that including such information as part of the mandatory curriculum will not only improve First Nations peoples understandings, but will also facilitate inter-cultural relations into the future.

“This needs to be mandatory, so that non-First Nations people can understand where our grievances come from,” says Perley.

In an email to the Halifax Media Co-op, John McLaughlin, Deputy Minister of the Anglophone Sector of the New Brunswick Department of Educations, shares the concerns of Perley and the Three Nations Education Group. McLaughlin writes that:

"Shortly after receiving the letter, Education & Early Childhood Development Minister Serge Rousselle invited the three chiefs to meet with him to discuss this matter, which is also of great importance to him.  A meeting was held on Thursday, August 6th, and in attendance were Minister Rousselle, Chief Aaron Sock, Chief Alvery Paul, their Directors of Education, the Executive Director of Three Nations Education Group,  the Department's two Deputy Ministers, and other key personnel from the various parties involved...

The Minister had a very productive and informative meeting with the chiefs, and it was acknowledged by all in attendance that Recommendation 62 of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission Report is extremely important. At the meeting, discussion was held about current initiatives in the areas of curriculum development and professional training for teachers, and a commitment was made to continue the discussion so that the recommendation can be fully addressed in the spirit of partnership and collaboration."

Donna LaHache, at the First Nations Perspectives branch of the New Brunswick Department of Education, also remembers an education system that largely by-passed her culture, history and perspective.

“We had one paragraph in a history textbook,” says LaHache. “And it was always skipped over because it was taught at the end of the year when things were wrapping up.”

On the other hand, LaHache maintains a degree of excitement at changes being implemented in the current education curriculum in New Brunswick. She outlines a number of exciting programs, pilots and initiatives that focus on incorporating First Nations issues, including contemporary issues, into the mandatory curriculum. All of these, LaHache notes, were created in partnership with various First Nations partners, including the Mi'kmaq – Wolastoqey Centre at the University of New Brunswick.

“We're currently in the process of working on a middle school curriculum, that would be grades six to nine,” explains LaHache. “We're going to be piloting the grade nine curriculum this fall. We have the grade eight curriculum built and should be piloting it this winter and we want to ensure that this is embedded within the mandatory curriculum and is not something extra to cover.”

This curriculum, notes LaHache, is to be built into existing social studies classes and will update existing First Nations-specific content. While it will not be exclusively a 'First Nations' course, the percentage of content devoted to First Nations issues will be significantly increased.

LaHache explains that the immediate focus on middle school – and in particular grade nine – is related to the fact that several First Nations communities in New Brunswick have their own, on-community, primary and middle schools.

First Nations students might potentially be entering an off-community school for the first time in grade nine, and according to LaHache, it is here that the Department of Education wants them to see themselves “represented.” While this doesn't necessarily go as far as implementing a mandatory First Nations curriculum, yet, it is a start.

As for high school, there is currently only a one-year elective course being offered in Indigenous Studies. LaHache notes that the course content is “very outdated” and has been updated for the fall.

Preserving existing First Nations languages was also a central recommendation of the Truth and Reconciliation Report.

LaHache notes that a three-level language course, in both Wolustuk and Mi'kmaq, is also in the process of being rolled-out by the province. The introductory level course will be piloted this fall, in Wolustuk and Mi'kmaq in “three or four schools” in the province, each. An on-line version of the introductory course, available to all students across the province, will also be piloted in the fall.

“We needed to take time with this,” says LaHache. “We wanted to ensure cultural accuracy. There are a number of different dialects across communities, so teaching language is a bit of a challenge.”

LaHache notes that training-up teachers has also been a serious set-back to incorporating a greater degree of First Nations content into the education system. For generations, First Nations issues were simply not part of the curriculum, so in effect ignorance begat ignorance. Towards remedying this, LaHache notes that the department has been working on on-line professional learning modules for teachers.

“Before we can teach who are First Nations people in New Brunswick, what are the Treaties, what are residential schools, we have to ensure that all teachers have this education,” says LaHache.

Finally, LaHache notes that the province just recently completed a kindergarten to grade eight literacy project, using First Nations literature and content. Every school across the province received “kits” with approximately 60 lesson plans and 50 books, all on First Nation content. If her office can secure the funding this year, LaHache hopes to complete a similar project for New Brunswick's High Schools.

“These modules contained lessons on all kinds of contemporary issues,” says LaHache. “This included residential schools, the reservation system, federal funding and taxation.”

In moving towards incorporating First Nations issues into the mandatory curriculum, the key, to LaHache, is the temper the feeling of urgency with the curriculum development takes time.

“I can understand the frustration, the sense that things are not getting out,” says LaHache. “It's really important to understand that we were implementing these changes before the Truth and Reconciliation recommendations came out. We recognize this as a priority. Curriculum development takes time.”


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