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New Beginnings

Education stakeholders are collaborating to bring Indigenous culture, knowledge, perspectives and language into the Ontario curriculum.

By Jennifer Lewington
Illustrations: Bruce Beardy, OCT

An Anishinaabe interpretation of the Ethical Standards for the Teaching Profession by Bruce Beardy, OCT.

Last year the Ontario College of Teachers published new teacher education resource guides that explored the Standards of Practice for the Teaching Profession and Ethical Standards for the Teaching Profession from the perspective of a First Nations visual artist.

Then, something very unexpected happened.

The Anishinaabe images created by lifelong artist Bruce Beardy, OCT, to represent the knowledge, skills and dispositions of teachers and their ethical commitment to care, respect, trust and integrity, proved so popular that the College received more than 100,000 reprint requests from teachers, school boards and non-education organizations. (The posters may be downloaded at

Another piece of Anishinaabe art by Bruce Beardy, featuring five people surrounded by various birds on the ground, and two eagles in the sky.

“It is really a gift to the profession and the public,” says Déirdre Smith, OCT, manager of the College’s Standards of Practice and Education Unit.

Two years after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) call for Canada to write a new history with its Indigenous peoples, the collaboration between the College and Beardy is one example of steps now being taken in Ontario teacher education on the road to reconciliation.

“It is really good to see that the Ontario College of Teachers is including the Aboriginal perspectives into the curriculum it is designing,” says Beardy, a member of Muskrat Dam First Nation. “It’s a start to begin listening to Aboriginal ideas and perspectives on education.”

An artist, Indigenous languages teacher and former university instructor, Beardy is currently education adviser to the Independent First Nations Alliance that serves five communities in northwestern Ontario.

Formal relationship-building between the province’s education sector and First Nations, Métis and Inuit predates the TRC, but its 94 “calls to action” are widely credited with accelerating the pace of change.

"One teacher doing something important each day with every student ... Will create change." — Former TRC Chief Commissioner Murray Sinclair

“The College has been working with the faculties of education and the Ontario Ministry of Education to set the groundwork for successful programming in the province,” says Roch Gallien, OCT, the College’s director of Standards of Practice and Accreditation.

Over the past two years, the College has accredited a new teacher education program for self-identified First Nations, Métis and Inuit students (with more pending), has developed new teaching guidelines and resources with input from Indigenous education organizations, has offered treaty education sessions to developers and instructors of Additional Qualifications courses, and has approved 22 new (and draft) First Nations, Métis and Inuit ongoing education courses for teachers.

Another piece of Anishinaabe art by Bruce Beardy, featuring a landscape with a person in the foreground, wildlife and various other people engaging in a variety of activities.

Another piece of Anishinaabe art by Bruce Beardy, featuring seven people in the foreground surrounded by wildlife, including a large turtle, fish and birds.

Stephanie Roy, OCT, executive director of Kenjgewin Teg Educational Institute (KTEI), an Indigenous education institution at M’Chigeeng First Nation on Manitoulin Island that works with the College and Queen’s University faculty of education, also sees promise in the work being done by education stakeholders. “[The TRC] has allowed those difficult conversations to happen in a safe space, and allowed everyone’s voice and intention to be heard,” she says.

As the College, faculties of education and the provincial Ministry of Education respond to the TRC’s education recommendations — including respect for Indigenous Peoples, closing the gap on student achievement, promoting Indigenous language rights — teachers are seen as key to the new beginnings expected in and beyond the classroom.

“One teacher doing something important each day with every student they come in contact with will create change,” says former TRC Chief Commissioner Murray Sinclair, Canada’s second Indigenous judge and a member of Canada’s Senate.

Sinclair sees “very positive” first steps since the release of the Commission’s report two years ago. But he also thinks it will take generations to overcome Canada’s tragic legacy of residential schools.

Lagging education attainment is one measure of the negative repercussions that have reverberated through generations. Statistics Canada reports that, among 25- to 64-year-olds, 45 per cent of those of Indigenous descent had a post-secondary qualification in 2011 compared to 64.7 per cent among non-Aboriginals. In the same cohort, 34 per cent of Aboriginal people had no certificate, diploma or degree compared to only 12.1 per cent of those of non-Aboriginal ancestry.

“I hear from people who run institutions — whether it is schools, school boards or universities — about what they are intending to do,” says Sinclair. “The question is not whether we want to do the right thing; the question is ‘are we doing the right thing?’”

For many in education, the answer to Sinclair’s question begins with some of the Commission’s own calls to action to engage with First Nations, Métis and Inuit representatives as allies. These include “the full participation and informed consent of Aboriginal peoples,” “respecting and honouring treaty relationships,” an acknowledgment that “Aboriginal rights include Aboriginal language rights” and the creation of new post-secondary degree and diploma programs in Aboriginal languages.

“The TRC operated as a further catalyst,” says Cathy Bruce, dean of education at Trent University, which has a long history of First Nations engagement. There were a lot of things that were already in play but [the Truth and Reconciliation Commission] gave us even more opportunity.”

In early 2016, after the province expanded new teacher education programs to four terms from two, Trent received accreditation from the College for a new bachelor of education program designed for First Nations, Métis and Inuit students.

“We believe that students need to see themselves in their teacher,” says Bruce, “and right now there are very few First Nations, Métis and Inuit teachers in our schools.” Importantly, she adds, the degree program introduced last fall was developed with local First Nations leaders, Trent’s department of Indigenous studies and other on-campus Indigenous advisers and elders.

Trent is among a growing number of faculties introducing a mandatory course for all teacher candidates to gain Indigenous knowledge and understand perspectives. This September, at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), candidates in the Grade 7–12 Master of Teaching program will take a new required course on Indigenous experiences of racism and settler colonialism in Canada.

“[Now teachers will] have a more accurate, more complete historical understanding of essentially the very harmful colonial practices that have happened,” says Arlo Kempf, associate program director of the Master of Teaching Program.

Meanwhile, other education faculties with established relationships with Indigenous partners have created new programs for First Nations, Métis and Inuit teacher candidates so they can pursue a degree without leaving their home, a job or family.

Another piece of Anishinaabe art by Bruce Beardy, featuring two people surrounded by various wildlife. The largest person is gesturing towards a moose.

Queen’s University has offered a part-time Indigenous teacher education program on Manitoulin Island since 1991 but has developed a new model with KTEI. The program will be fulltime, delivered largely on the island with a language immersion component (consistent with KTEI priorities for language preservation). Instead of a 15-day alternative practicum, students can opt to complete 90 hours of activities to qualify for KTEI’s Anishinaabe Odziiwin certificate.

“It is very important to support the learning of languages in those communities in a way that helps them recover some of the cultural and historical knowledge that was lost because of residential schools,” says Rebecca Luce-Kapler, OCT, dean of Queen’s education faculty.

Starting in summer 2018, students will attend Queen’s for the first summer term and spend the remaining terms at KTEI. The experiential-based program provides 17 weeks of practice teaching in First Nations or provincial schools, with required course content in Indigenous teacher education, theory and practice.

KTEI’s Stephanie Roy says the revised community-based program illustrates the deepening relationship between her institute, Queen’s University and the College, fuelled in part by the commission.

“What the TRC has done for us, working with our partners in education and training like the College and Queen’s, is that we have been able to go beyond not just looking at what we do but how we do it,” says Roy. “We have been able to look at the relationship that we have together, really looking at respect and diversity. It is an Indigenous voice that seems valued.”

At Lakehead University’s faculty of education, with long-standing ties to Indigenous communities in northwestern Ontario, students of Indigenous descent who want to teach kindergarten to Grade 6 earn a four-year Honours bachelor of education, while those who want to teach Grades 7 to 12 take the Native Teacher Education Program, both focused on Indigenous heritage, identity and language. The faculty also offers a certificate and diploma program for Indigenous language instructors during the summer.

" [The TRC] has allowed those difficult conversations to happen in a safe space and allowed everyone’s voice and intention to be heard." — Stephanie Roy, OCT, Executive Director of KTEI

“Lakehead University was strongly committed to Indigenous education but the TRC really pressed that home,” says education dean John O’Meara. This fall, in a new agreement with Sandy Lake First Nation, the faculty plans to offer its Honours bachelor of education as a six-year program on site in the northern community, with an expected cohort of 20 to 25 students.

“We wanted to increase the opportunity for people [to become teachers] by doing on-site instruction and using online delivery for some courses as well as some face-to-face [time] in Thunder Bay,” says O’Meara. “We see [the Sandy Lake agreement] as a model for working on future agreements. We would like to extend those opportunities to other parts of northwestern Ontario where there is a real pressing need for teachers.”

At North Bay’s Nipissing University, which has offered programs for people of Indigenous descent for 35 years, recent initiatives to boost recruitment of self-identified Indigenous students and mandate learning about Indigenous history and culture for all teacher candidates respond to the expectations of the TRC, says Carole Richardson, OCT, dean of the university’s Schulich School of Education.

“[The TRC] did cause us to step back and look at what we have been doing and how can we make those efforts more consistent throughout the institution,” she says.

Another piece of Anishinaabe art by Bruce Beardy, featuring a flying creature.
Another piece of Anishinaabe art by Bruce Beardy.

In a new option, the school offers its long-running Indigenous classroom assistant program in the community in partnership with the 10-community Bimose Tribal Council in Kenora. “They asked us to bring the program to their area in Ontario because of the need to build professional development in their education assistants and teachers,” says Richardson.

Collaboration, a distinguishing feature of new programs for teacher candidates, is an increasingly important component in the offering of authentic professional learning for teachers already certified by the College./p>

“Our members are living out those ethical standards by engaging in ethical practices with First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities,” says the College’s Déirdre Smith. “That is a principal that guides our processes. We recognize ownership lies with those communities at all levels of the process.” She adds: “We have been able to remove barriers to enable access, ownership and leadership [by Indigenous organizations] of those Additional Qualifications.”

For example, the Ontario Native Education Counselling Association (ONECA), which has delivered its own native counsellor program since 1977, now sits as an equal partner with College and other officials to draft guidelines for a new AQ course for teachers who counsel Indigenous students.

“Now I am seeing, maybe as a direct result of the TRC, a shift where the Ontario College of Teachers is asking Indigenous people to help write the guidelines,” says Roxane Manitowabi, Executive Director of ONECA. In the past, she says, her organization was expected to fit into already-set guidelines with little flexibility on their application in a First Nations, Métis and Inuit context.

Another participant in drafting the counselling guidelines is Tungasuvvingat Inuit, a 30-year-old organization that provides social support, cultural activities and counselling to its community in Ontario.

“Half the battle for Inuit organizations and Inuit living in the south [of Canada] is that nobody knows about the Inuit,” says Qauyisaq Etitiq, education policy adviser for Tungasuvvingat Inuit. “It is a much-needed engagement with the educators.”

In working with the College as an equal, he says. “We are walking toward reconciliation together.”

In a significant milestone, Six Nations Polytechnic, an Indigenous-founded post-secondary institution of the Grand River First Nation in southern Ontario, is the second Indigenous education organization certified to provide AQs. “It is not that all of a sudden we appeared on the scene,” says Six Nations president Rebecca Jamieson, OCT, whose 25-year-old institution is currently assisting the College on a new AQ guideline for teaching and leadership in a First Nations, Métis and Inuit setting.

“We have always kept at the periphery of what is happening in education,” she says. “That is changing.”

Six Nations is working with the College to become a provider of a College-accredited Indigenous-focused Principal’s Qualifications Program. “This helps us impact the profession at the leadership level as well as at the instructional level,” she says.

True to its roots, Six Nations is also working on the development of new immersion-language programs, as recommended by the TRC, so students can learn in their own language.

Meanwhile, a charitable foundation, the Martin Family Initiative, established by former prime minister Paul Martin to raise educational outcomes for Indigenous youth, approached the College in 2015 to discuss accreditation of a Principal’s Qualifications course for leaders of federal government-funded First Nation schools.

“We know in First Nation schools there is very little opportunity for professional development and focusing on leadership activities as they do in the provincial system,” says Carlana Lindeman, OCT, education program director at the foundation, which worked with OISE to put the course together.

Despite some new beginnings in teacher education and professional learning, there is universal agreement that only a sustained commitment by all parties can ensure a brighter education future for Indigenous students.

To those who have taken the first steps, the commission’s Murray Sinclair offers encouragement: “If we hold to the vision we set out in the [TRC] report, we will begin to see systemic changes that ultimately will achieve reconciliation.”

Indigenous Resources for Professional Learning