Truth and reconciliation in the classroom

Teaching future teachers about the legacy of residential schools is a lesson in opening education to Indigenous world views.

Nicholas Ng-A-Fook et Kiera BrantKiera Brant and Nicholas Ng-A-Fook in a classroom on the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation, Que.

“We need more Indigenous perspectives, more Indigenous content in the teacher education curriculum.”

– Kiera Brant, Master’s in Education student

When Kiera Brant studied the War of 1812 as a Grade 8 student on the Tyendinaga First Nation near Belleville, Ont., her class spent the entire year learning about Mohawk and Iroquois contributions to the war. “Then when I left the community, I started to realize that other people had a very different educational experience than mine — an experience very exclusionary towards Indigenous history,” says Brant, who is Mohawk.

Other Ontario students, Brant discovered, studied the War of 1812 from the colonizers’ perspectives. If they learned about the Mohawk and Iroquois allies of the British and the Americans, it was only as a footnote to the main narrative.

Brant, 22, is now a Master’s in Education student at the University of Ottawa. She and her co-supervisor, Nicholas Ng-A-Fook, a professor in the Faculty of Education and the director of teacher education, want to change the way the Ontario curriculum and teacher candidates treat the contributions of First Nations, Métis and Inuit people to Canadian culture, history and society.

As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission pointed out last year, “education has been used as a tool for colonization and marginalization of Indigenous people,” says Brant. “The Faculty of Education that prepares future teachers to go into the classroom can either continue to perpetuate this process of colonization, or it can challenge this process … and actually contribute towards reconciliation.”

Much of Ng-A-Fook’s research involves challenging the discrepancy between the explicit curriculum, which the province provides teachers, and the lived experiences of students in the classroom — the hidden, or implicit curriculum. Until recently, Ontario’s explicit curriculum either excluded or minimized the lived experiences of Indigenous students, he says.

“If your community has different concepts of what it means to be a citizen — for example, the idea that a First Nations, Métis or Inuit community is sovereign — then there are certain things being taught through the provincial curriculum that don’t necessarily speak to Indigenous students.”

Ng-A-Fook is striving to ensure teacher training responds to the Truth and Reconciliation Committee’s recommendations that all Canadian students learn about the repercussions of the residential schooling system and intergenerational trauma. He is also examining how the University is incorporating the Accord on Indigenous Education, signed by many deans of education across Canada, as well as the Principles on Indigenous Education that Universities Canada adopted to narrow the achievement gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.

In her master’s dissertation, Brant will study how the University of Ottawa is implementing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s call to action. “We need more Indigenous perspectives, more Indigenous content in the teacher education curriculum,” says Brant. “Currently it’s largely absent, and when it is present, it’s more or less superficial.”

One of the pedagogical tools Ng-A-Fook uses to help teacher candidates better understand and communicate Indigenous viewpoints involves creating digital oral histories.  For the past eight years, he has worked with teacher candidates and students in grades 5 and 6 on the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation in Quebec, about an hour north of Ottawa. He has the two groups document the stories of residential school survivors.

Interviewing Elders who attended residential school “brings history alive,” says Ng-A-Fook. Digital storytelling also deepens digital literacy, and requires students and student teachers to record the account of an experience, document it, record it, archive it and edit the narrative into its most powerful, salient points.

Many of the teacher candidates learned about residential schools for the first time during the storytelling exercise, says the professor. “After they were done, they had a much richer sense of the intergenerational impacts of the Indian residential schooling system as a part of Canada’s history… they were able to develop a much better sense of empathizing with those individuals’ experiences,” he says.

Ng-A-Fook believes the University of Ottawa has a lot of work to do to implement not only the educational mandates of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations, but also the overall spirit of reconciliation. With the help of a First Nations, Métis and Inuit advisory committee, the faculty administration and his colleagues, he has established the introduction of a mandatory course on Indigenous perspectives for all students in the Faculty of Education. He and local Indigenous communities hope this course will help teachers become better prepared for incorporating those viewpoints into whatever courses they teach.

Only then, he thinks, will teachers be able to address the Commission’s educational mandates with future Canadian students, both inside and outside the classroom. 


by Laura Eggertson

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