School boards in Northern Ontario are taking the lead in incorporating Aboriginal education in their schools. Photo courtesy of the Kenora Catholic District School Board

Northern schools lead on reconciliation

By 
  • September 10, 2017

To see the impact of engraining Indigenous cultures and languages into Ontario’s schools — a practice encouraged by the Ministry of Education — one needs to simply look north.

In the Kenora Catholic District School Board, where about 30 per cent of the students self-identify as First Nations, efforts to bring Aboriginal perspectives into the classroom have been taking place for close to two decades.

“Our role, being in northwestern Ontario, was to take a bit of a lead in that because of our high Aboriginal population,” said Phyllis Eikre, Kenora Catholic’s director of education. “We are in an area that was highly populated by residential schools so we have that history behind us.”

Last fall, the Ministry of Education drew attention to the importance of incorporating Aboriginal language, history and traditions into the curriculum by introducing a policy framework for school boards and committing $28.3 million over three years to support First Nations language and curriculum development.

The strategy came in response to the 94 recommendations, of which 12 directly relate to education, put forward by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015.

The Kenora board offers all students the opportunity to study Ojibway rather than French as their second language, from kindergarten to Grade 12.

“It actually parallels the core French program,” said Eikre. “So the kids take Ojibway in kindergarten and then starting in Grade 1 they can determine if they want to go French stream or Ojibway.

Eikre said incorporating the Aboriginal perspectives, traditions and Ojibway language helps First Nations students, a group more prone to dropping out than non- Aboriginals, see their education through.

“I see in the kids who are graduating now compared to 25 years ago we have a lot more Aboriginal representation on the stage,” she said. “(And) our First Nations students are more involved and more vocal in student voice and what they need for their education.”

Offering a First Nations language program requires numerous bilingual teachers fluent in both English and Ojibway.

“Finding and keeping our native language staff, that’s probably the biggest challenge,” said Eikre. “We are so fortunate, I almost hate to say it out loud, to have the native language speakers that we need to run our programs and that is a huge gift because our teachers are of the generation who’ve almost lost their language.”

Currently the board employs eight educators fluent in Ojibway.

In another northern Ontario board, Nipissing-Parry Sound Catholic District School Board (NPSCDSB), the integration of Ojibway and local First Nations culture has been going for about 10 years.

“We’ve taken some positive steps towards... reconciliation and we have a whole plan on how we are going to go about ensuring that our curriculum reflects our Indigenous cultures and traditions, ” said Anna Marie Bitonti, the director of education for NPSCDSB.

“Our First Nations students see themselves more in the curriculum and in the schools. They are assuming more and more leadership roles.”

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