Back to the Land: Indigenizing Education for All

Photo by Landon Parenteau/Unsplash

Reconciliation is vital to social justice and progress for future generations, regardless of settler or Indigenous status. As Canada carries out reconciliation actions, we are all learning how we can better integrate Indigenous Canadian cultures in our everyday lives.

Indigenous populations are increasing at rapid rates across the country: between 2006 to 2016, “the Aboriginal population has grown by 42.5 per cent—more than four times the growth rate of the non-Aboriginal population over the same period. And, the average age is young, sitting 32.1 years in 2016.”1 The land we all call home is positioned as a catalyst for reconciliation through education initiatives.

Because of the pandemic, many of us have also reconnected with nature and the land over the last year. We see people creating opportunities to reconnect with nature; it is a pervasive movement: from plant collecting, walks, mushroom picking, and camping, to land-based learning.

Taking Action

Education at all levels across the country are incorporating indigenous learnings into their curricula to make good on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Calls to Action.2 The Calls to Action set out by the TRC under the “Education” heading read:

“We call on the federal government to draft new Aboriginal education legislation with the full participation and informed consent of Aboriginal peoples. The new legislation would include a commitment to sufficient funding and would incorporate the following principles:

  • Providing sufficient funding to close identified educational achievement gaps within one generation.
  • Improving education attainment levels and success rates.
  • Developing culturally appropriate curricula
  • Protecting the right to Aboriginal languages, including the teaching of Aboriginal languages as credit courses.
  • Enabling parental and community responsibility, control, and accountability, similar to what parents enjoy in public school systems.
  • Enabling parents to fully participate in the education of their children.
  • Respecting and honouring Treaty relationships.”

Collectively, Indigenous peoples and settlers alike are working to help educate through multiple avenues.

In The Classroom

In April 2021, Dr. Holly Graham, a member of Thunderchild First Nation, was awarded a $1.05 million-dollar Indigenous Research Chair in Nursing. The Research Chair is one of six awarded and is funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation (SHRF), and the Canadian Nurses Association. Its purpose is to incorporate Indigenous ways of knowing to the University of
Saskatchewan’s nursing curriculum.

Graham calls the Research Chair “Wahkohtowin” meaning “we are all related”. Her goals for approaching Wahkohtowin are: “First, do no harm. Second, create the space and opportunity for personal, community, and collective healing, and last, transform relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.”

Photo by Oliver King/Unsplash.

With nursing, incorporating land-based education has not and will not happen right away, but may in the coming years. Dr. Graham suggests including honour codes and Indigenous worldviews in academic settings may come first, and that implementing land-based education right away is difficult. “People don’t know the truth without knowing the history and want to skip to reconciliation right away,” she says. Land-based education can cost more, but nurses get clinical time in northern communities like Île-à-la-Crosse.

Tracy Conrad, post-secondary program coordinator at North West College spoke with us about their innovative programming and its impact. The school’s Forest to Fork program combines cooking with wilderness exploration and students learn how to identify plants, trap humanely, process meat and more.

“Meadow Lake is surrounded by several First Nation communities, many of whom are incorporating land-based learning models into their K-12 education. The idea of pursuing land-based learning into post-secondary was something of great interest to me so I began doing some research,” says Conrad. She works closely with Saskatchewan Polytechnic on many programs and through consultation with their program heads, a collaborative arrangement was arranged. The Ministry of Advanced Education granted Forest to Fork an applied certificate accreditation in March 2020.

“Unfortunately, we were only able to deliver the program once before the pandemic,” says Conrad. “However, there has been significant interest from First Nations partners as well as the Ministry of Trade and Export development’s Japan office. It’s a combination of industry credit (safety tickets), institute credit (Saskatchewan Polytechnic courses), and value-added (beading) courses.”

Conrad says the credit pieces of the program allow students to get familiar with three separate certificates at Saskatchewan Polytechnic: Retail Meat Specialist, Professional Cooking, and Integrated Resource Management. “Besides ‘test-driving’ these programs, it offers excellent opportunity for students to become entrepreneurs in professions such as guiding and outfitting across the province,” she says.

Changing for the Better

Correcting historical trauma takes generations, but steps are being taken from the individual level to the federal level to Indigenize and decolonize through education at all levels. Support to close identified educational achievement gaps within one generation is a lofty goal, but the work being done today shows that there is significant possibility to make change for the better that benefits us all.

1Aboriginal peoples in Canada: Key results from the 2016 Census, Statistics Canada, https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/dailyquotidien/171025/dq171025a-eng.htm
2 Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action, http://trc.ca/assets/pdf/Calls_to_Action_English2.pdf