Indigenous culture and education: What the numbers tell us

Photo: kris krüg

This year schools across Canada are stepping up efforts to add new lessons with a focus on Indigenous peoples. These measures are intended to improve on the failure of Canada’s educational systems to accurately reflect history.

What about education within Indigenous communities themselves? The results of a new survey shed light on the essential work of keeping the “home fires” burning.

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Teaching Indigenous traditions to his children is routine for Robbie Wabasse of the Webquie First Nation, located in northwestern Ontario. Since his kids were infants, ceremony and language have been part of their lives.

Wabasse says it’s not seen as just an activity, but as something embedded within their family. He refers to this as his “home fire.”

‘The substance of resilience’

“Your home fire is nourished by the things that you do, when you drum in the morning, when you rattle, when you sing, when you go to ceremonies,” says Wabasse. “You grow with them.”

His three-year-old daughter, Keesis, has already been exposed to powwows, round dances, and fasting ceremonies.

“That’s the substance of resiliency,” says Wabasse, who sees passing down the Anishinaabe language and culture as pivotal in his family.

Wabasse is hardly alone, according to new statistics recently released by the First Nations Information Governance Centre, a national Indigenous organization based in Ottawa.

A survey of education and employment

A survey about early childhood, education and employment in First Nation and northern communities in Canada drew from interviews with over 21,000 adults, youth and children in 243 communities across the country. The data touched on a wide range of topics, including Indigenous languages, traditional teachings, youth employment, and overall well-being.

Some of the keys findings include the following:

  • 90 per cent of First Nations parents reported their children’s school was supportive of First Nations culture
  • 86 per cent of the parents said it was important for their children to learn traditional teachings
  • 40 per cent reported their children attending a regular cultural activity
  • 66 per cent reported knowing traditional teachings was important
  • 43 per cent First Nation adults has less than a high school diploma, 32 per cent had a high school diploma, and 24 per cent had completed some post-secondary education
  • Nearly 80 per cent of First Nations work within their community, while 20 percent commute outside of their community for work
  • More than 40 per cent that work within their community work in governance, community services or related fields

“It was a challenging survey to undertake because it was a complicated survey given the areas that it covered,” says Gail McDonald, executive director of the First Nations Information Governance Centre. But “we still incorporated many of the other holistic areas that impact childhood development, employment and labour.”

Working as a cultural enrichment coordinator, Wabasse says he strives to teach and share the culture and language with others in the community.

“Language is the most crucial part of connecting because language connects us linguistically to the land and resources and to the universe,” he says, adding it is how individuals can identify themselves as First Nation persons.

‘A spirit of real resurgence’

“The things that we teach to our daughter, to our kids, is about responsibility,” says Wabasse, emphasizing that teaching ceremonies are instruments to teach others about mindfulness or, for example, how to handle anger in a healthy way. “You teach resiliency at the early age so they can normalize it.”

“There is a spirit of real resurgence with a lot of our people to restore what was taken away.”

That more people are reviving their culture and traditions comes as no surprise to Dave Courchene, who is also known as Nii Gaani Aki Inini (Leading Earth Man), a spiritual Elder from Sagkeeng First Nation, Manitoba.

“I think what’s happening is there is a spirit of real resurgence with a lot of our people to restore what was taken away,” says Courchene. “One of the most challenging things that we’re facing, particularly with our young people, is their loss of identity.”

Courchene has been instrumental in helping bring back that identity through ceremony and teachings at the Turtle Lodge in Sagkeeng, where he works. It's an identity stripped away by a century of Indigenous people being forced to go to residential schools, where they were often forbidden to speak their language or practise their culture.

“My belief is that something was taken away, something very important that reflected our identity as a people. I think that those that took away have a shared responsibility to restore what they took away.”

McDonald is happy there are people like Courchene and Wabasse doing cultural work. The new statistics suggest they are far from alone.

“When you look at the bigger picture of things out there, for an example, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls to action, there are some any elements that speak to culture and language and all the other key actions that they put forth really tie in closely with some of the findings that we’ve had in our survey,” she says.

McDonald says the numbers released in November are only early findings. By March 2016, the full survey results will be released.

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