Whitestream Attitudes and the Fate of Aboriginal Education

Posted on November 4, 2012


Aboriginal Education in the City, Part 3

I suppose it was in the late 1990s when the provincial government introduced the grade twelve First Nations Studies course.  The Vancouver School Board duly put together a training workshop for Social Studies instructors on how to teach the course, which, rather than being an actual set curriculum, was really a series of resource modules.  Only two or three instructors from the entire city turned up for the workshop.

What happened?  Reportedly, some instructors simply didn’t like the content of the course.  I understand that.  Any true reporting of what actually happened to the Aboriginal people in British Columbia is going to be uncomfortable reading for a lot of Euro-Canadians, especially since, because of their own educations, most of them will be strangers to the material.  And it’s truly shocking stuff.  On first encounter with the facts of Aboriginal history, a lot of people immediately start reaching for their excuses, and this is just as true for Social Studies teachers as for anyone else.

But there were practical reasons for not attending as well.  For instance, many of these instructors might not have been accustomed to seeing many Aboriginal students attending grade twelve—a demographic reality—and so saw little reason to serve a group with almost no representation in their classrooms.  What were the chances that enough people would sign up for the course anyway?

It doesn’t matter which of these reasons caused the workshop to flop.  Both are discouraging.  Both represent a sad reality about Aboriginal education.

The first one represents an attitude, a widespread and largely unquestioned attitude, that the education that is offered now—what I call whitestream education—is already neutral and fair to all parties.  That implies that alternatives like a First Nations studies course are tainted, inferior—and unnecessary.

The second one serves to question of the competence of the provincial education ministry in regard to Aboriginal education.  It puts in relief how indifferent and out of touch they are in this matter.  Otherwise they wouldn’t offer the first hint of a First Nations perspective in the curriculum only after most Aboriginal students have dropped out of school, thus ensuring that most Aboriginal students will never encounter it.

Practically the only thing most education officials know about Aboriginal education is the First Nations high school drop-out rate, and they chose to ignore that one thing when designing their grade twelve course.

The fate of that First Nations Studies course is in full keeping with what I’ve observed about Aboriginal education all my life, as a student attending grade and high school, as one of the few Aboriginal people of my generation to actually graduate from high school.  I didn’t find that the education I was getting was at all neutral, especially when I compare it to what I have learned since.  And when I first began attending the University of BC in 1975, then a campus of about 20,000 students, the utter failure of the primary/secondary education system to produce Aboriginal graduates became very much obvious.  If there were a dozen other Aboriginal students on campus that year, I’d be surprised.  I remember occasionally spotting one in the distance, a sight that always drew an emotional response, gladness.

Not alone.  Not alone.

Now the Aboriginal portion of the population of British Columbia is about 5%.  If all were well for Aboriginal people educationally, there should have been at least a 1000 of us at UBC that year, and large numbers at other institutions as well.  Obviously, all was not well, a fact which was not lost on other observers within the system.

In fact in 1974 UBC had launched NITEP, the Native Indian Teachers Education Program.  The first two years of that program was designed to be offered at the community college level, after which it was shifted to the Vancouver campus for the 3rd and 4th year.  That meant that the first students from that program to enter UBC did so in 1976, and the difference between 1975 and 1976 in terms of Aboriginal student numbers was startling.

In 1976, even though the number of Aboriginal students attending UBC was still only 10% of where demographically it ought to be, it still felt an awful lot less lonely on campus.

Education students came to dominate the Aboriginal student population at UBC after the advent of NITEP.  For all I know—despite occasional programs which have since popped up in other disciplines such as Law—they still do.  It meant then that I made a lot of friends who became teachers.  I was able to hear a few stories back about their careers after we all graduated.  I have no way of knowing whether the stories are representative of the experience of the graduates of the program generally, but what I did hear was not encouraging.

NITEP graduates had a hard time, it seems, getting actual classroom positions.  Many complained that everybody thought of NITEP, just as they tended to think of every Aboriginal education initiative, as a remedial program for people unable to do the regular classwork according to regular standards.  Graduates of the program were treated as second rate.  A lot of them got into pseudo-counselor jobs such as “home-school coordinators,” poorly paid, low status positions which dealt with Aboriginal children as social rather than educational issues.  The idea that NITEP-trained teachers might to able to add something extra to the educational experiences of Aboriginal students in the classroom never appeared to occur to most school board hiring committees.  Like some of the teachers who declined to attend the First Nations Studies workshop I talk about above, they consider what they are already offering is good enough.

The basic theory appears to be that Aboriginal education problems are a function of Aboriginal social problems, which is partly true.  What they miss that is that those social problems include an irrelevant (read, boring) Eurocentric curriculum and culturally-European social practices and attitudes in the classroom.  What they miss is that the problem is not only in the student but in the teacher.

All of this is highlighted in the experience of one of my friends who actually did get a job teaching.  In his case, he got what should have been a perfect job, teaching in an urban Aboriginal-focussed school.  The school was set up on Hastings Street, a block from Main, an urban ghetto setting entirely in keeping with the school’s unofficial ghetto status within the Vancouver School Board system generally. My friend was proud of the Aboriginal-focused curriculum that his school offered, a valued-added Aboriginal curriculum which wasn’t available elsewhere in the city.  But he was less-than-happy about the way students got referred to his school by other schools in the city.

Fundamentally, if an Aboriginal student was dropping out, failing, or otherwise spinning out of control in his regular school, they sent them down to Hastings Street.  No other students were referred, resulting in a student body that consisted half-and-half of problem students.  It became a dumping ground for students the School Board had otherwise failed to reach, or failed to teach.  The school’s value-added curriculum was ignored.

The whitestream education system in Vancouver fundamentally failed to recognize that some of the problems that Aboriginal students have with education is with the system itself, and what and how it teaches.  The system chronically hung onto the students until the students began to fail, then passed the students onto the school on Hastings Street, rather like bad doctors hanging onto their patients until they sickened enough to be passed onto the emergency ward.

The way students were referred to Hastings Street undermined what the school was trying to do.  Students who were at the school in order to obtain a relevant, non-racist education had that goal interfered with by the fact that teachers were devoting all their time and energy to dealing with the difficult students who made up large portions of all the classes.

Eventually, something had to give.  The school shut down  It was the victim, I suggest, of entrenched whitestream attitudes and institutional racism.

This is the third of three essays on the idea of First Nations schools in the city.

Be clear.  I’m very much in favour of them.  I’ve had a lot of success teaching an Aboriginal curriculum to Aboriginal students, and my students, I’m proud to say, have had a lot of success too.  Aboriginal education works.

But there are real hazards.  Whitestream attitudes can undermine and destroy these schools, and they have already, many times.  They did so with the school on Hastings Street.  They did so with the college I used to teach at, the Institute of Indigenous Government.  Anybody wishing to set up such a school has to take these powerful and entrenched attitudes into account if they wish to succeed over the long term.

To pretend these attitudes don’t exist and don’t influence behaviour, from the whitestream point of view, that’s just self-serving.  From the Aboriginal point of view, that’s just unwise.

The first two essays in this series may be found here: 1. Aboriginal Education, Yes or No https://fathertheo.wordpress.com/2012/08/27/aboriginal-education-yes-or-no/

And here:  2. How I Learned My Place https://fathertheo.wordpress.com/2012/08/30/how-i-learned-my-place/