Grade 5 students at Toronto's St. Andrew Catholic School participate in a pilot project which seeks to increase Self ID registration by First Nations within the board by helping those students see their culture in the curriculum. Photo courtesy of Mary Walker

TCDSB project aims to mend poor relations with First Nations

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  • May 23, 2015

TORONTO - In the province’s largest and most urbanized Catholic school board, efforts are being made to mend the wounds caused by Indian residential schools.

A just-completed pilot project, which began in February, visited 25 schools, both high school and elementary, across Toronto. It sought to enhance of the existing content in the curriculum regarding First Nations by showing students living role models of First Nations’ people who support Catholic education.

The Toronto Catholic District School Board partnered with the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education to bring a post-secondary student of First Nations’ descent into the classroom along with an elder. Both spoke for 30 minutes, the student about their modern-day journey as a First Nations’ student in the school system and the elder about First Nations’ history.

“I really felt there was a great need for First Nations people literally to come into the classroom to talk about themselves,” said Frank Pio, a support teacher with the Toronto Catholic board’s First Nations, Métis, Inuit department.

“They have a lot to offer our education system.”

The thinking behind the project was to show the First Nations identity in Toronto’s Catholic schools.

“The idea was to create a curriculum that helped First Nations, Métis and Inuit students recognize themselves in our Catholic curriculum,” said Pio.

“There was a large participation of religious authorship with regard to what happened in residential schools and there is a lot of stereotypical views of our Catholic education” among First Nations, said Pio. “For our First Nations people, because of residential schools over seven generations, education has become something that has been feared. You have to understand children were taken away from their parents without their consent; some of them never saw their parents again.”

Bad feelings continue to plague the Catholic school system today, he added. Many First Nations parents still wonder, “can education really help my child?” said Pio, who holds a PhD in philosophy focusing on aboriginal studies from New York University.

First Nations are more likely to become high school dropouts. In 2011, 58 per cent of those living on Canadian reserves between the ages of 20 to 24 had abandoned publicly funded education before getting a high school diploma.

Pio said it is hard to say how many First Nations become Toronto Catholic dropouts because so few willingly self identify as First Nations students — another fallout affect from the residential schools. This year only about 200 of the board’s more than 96,000 students registered as First Nations in the Self ID program. While that number may seem low it is double what Pio saw four years ago when he began his task of helping First Nations see themselves within the Catholic school curriculum.

Angela Gauthier, TCDSB director of education, praised Pio’s program.

“This kind of innovation in our approach to teaching and curriculum design helps students recognize themselves and identify with the curriculum,” she said.

Pending Ministry of Education funding, the board hopes to continue the program next year.

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