Art teacher Donna Sistilli, left, and English teacher Rita Sarra Macchios with some of the artwork that is part of the exhibition on Indigenous themes by adult students at Toronto’s Msgr. Fraser College. The teachers are part of the team in the Native Studies program at the school. Photo by Michael Swan

Catholic schools sow seeds of understanding Indigenous culture

By 
  • June 10, 2018

As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was wrapping up its work in 2015, commission chair Justice Murray Sinclair repeated over and over, “Education got us into this mess and education will get us out.”

Catholic schools are doing everything they can to prove Sinclair right.

“My teaching background says you go into teaching to make a difference. You go into teaching to ensure that future generations learn from past (generations),” said Tammy Webster, an Indigenous education support teacher with the Waterloo Catholic District School Board.

It makes sense that a generation of Catholic school kids who are learning something about Indigenous history and culture every year from kindergarten to Grade 12 will emerge with a different set of attitudes and ambitions than their elders. As of next year the Indigenous education curriculum will be mandatory in Ontario, but it is already almost universal. 

But it isn’t automatic that just because teachers inject a certain amount of Indigenous content into the curriculum we will achieve reconciliation, said Webster, who hails from the Kitigan Zibi Algonquin First Nation in Quebec.

“When people say, ‘How are you doing reconciliation?’ Well, they’re not tick boxes,” she told The Catholic Register

“It goes back to some of the Catholic teaching about, really, what is reconciliation. What are some of those core values that drive the Catholic faith?”

For Webster, success in reconciliation means upsetting, interrupting and questioning our colonial past and our current colonial assumptions.

“We’re asking students to identify (as Indigenous). We ask them to come out and to do an opening, a performance. But we’re perpetuating that sense of tokenism,” Webster said. “We’re really not disrupting the system itself — that colonial system. That’s where reconciliation comes in.”

In Kenora, Ont., aboriginal education co-ordinator Shelly Thom is getting ready for the Kenora Catholic District School Board’s June 14 coming-of-summer powwow. It’s one of two powwows the Catholic schools in Kenora put on every year.

“We put it on our board website and invite anyone who wants to come,” she said. 

When Thom was growing up in the Noatkamegwanning First Nation in Whitefish Bay, the divide between native and non-native in Kenora was deep and bitter. The communities looked on each other with suspicion and often with contempt. As young Indigenous and non-Indigenous grow up side-by-side in Catholic schools today, the atmosphere is changing.

“I really see the difference,” Thom said. “You’ve got to build those relationships.”

In Kenora’s Catholic schools Ojibway is offered as a language to all students, no different from French classes. All students in Grades 4, 5 and 6 take part in the northern studies program. High school kids go on extended excursions to learn about living on the land.

“I just got back last night. We were out for three days,” said Thom. “They learned how to build wigwams. It was all community led, so it was hands-on, experiential.”

In the Toronto Catholic District School Board classrooms across the city will be marking National Indigenous People’s Month throughout June. The board declared June 4-8 Indigenous Education Week. A mini-powwow was set for June 4 and the board offices on Shepherd Avenue hosted an art exhibition on Indigenous themes by the adult students of the Isabella Street campus of Msgr. Fraser College. The student artists created their pieces around the seven principles of Catholic social teaching — from the dignity of the human person to stewardship of creation — in Indigenous imagery. The show is called “Bridges.”

“When you’re looking at the students of Msgr. Fraser-Isabella, they are marginalized students, right? They are maybe immigrant. They are over 21. But they are learning about Indigenous people,” said TCDSB Indigenous Education Resource Teacher Vanessa Pinto. “At the end of the day, Indigenous education has to be for all people. You need Indigenous people involved, but you also need non-Indigenous people involved.”

Pinto is far from Indigenous. She stumbled into Indigenous education as a high school English teacher at Mother Teresa Catholic Academy, where she took up the challenge to teach a course in First Nations’ literature. 

She arranged a Skype conference between her students and writer Joseph Boyden. She had the kids reading Thomas King’s book of essays from his CBC-Massey Lectures, The Truth About Stories.

Students were so enthused they were passing their school books on to members of their families. One student wanted to buy her classroom copy of The Truth About Stories from Pinto.

“Nobody has ever wanted to buy Romeo and Juliet off of me,” said a bemused Pinto.

The enthusiasm of immigrant kids from Scarborough’s Malvern neighbourhood has spread to Catholic teachers who want to incorporate Indigenous content into their lesson plans. Pinto’s most recent professional development session attracted over 100 teachers.

“There are teachers calling, wanting to know how to use books, how to use resources in a better way,” said Pinto. “Catholic education can, indeed, support Indigenous content being brought into the classroom for the benefit of all students…. What you’re going to have now is students and teachers moving forward, knowing about Indigenous people, which is something in my educational experience that’s never been the case.”

This year the Toronto Catholic board has launched a new department of “equity, diversity and Indigenous education.”

“At the end of the day, this idea is that we’re trying to teach students that there are three founding groups of Canada. It’s not just English and French. It’s English, French and the Indigenous communities,” Pinto said.

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