Revitalizing Indigenous Education and redefining scholarship

Education is considered to be one of the most potent tools to improve the lives of young Indigenous peoples in Canada. And its work remains unfinished, according to one Western researcher.

More than half of Canada’s youngest and fastest-growing population hasn’t finished high school. Only 6 per cent have a university degree. Unemployment among Indigenous Peoples is more than twice the Canadian average.

Western Education professor Brent Debassige wants to change those statistics.

Working with the First Nations With Schools Collective (FNWSC) – a group of schools from eight First Nation communities in Ontario, Debassige is helping the communities independently establish and run a properly funded First Nations education systems for their communities.

“There are leaders and educators in the FNWSC and elsewhere who are working every day to change this reality,” Debassige said. “They are championing this work through the collective with very little financial support from the federal government.

“Within that system are happy and healthy children and educators who are accomplishing excellence in educational achievement and who are adept Indigenous knowledge-holders of their languages and cultures.”

Despite underfunding and provincially mandated curriculums not always culturally sensitive, First Nations communities have administered First Nations education since the 1970s with varying levels of success, Debassige explained.

“There is a lot of expertise within each of these communities, ranging from knowledge about specific medicinal plants to the effects of changing weather patterns on different crops, and sustainable approaches to fishing or hunting deer,” he said. In Indigenous communities, such experts are known ‘knowledge keepers’.

This information, for example, will be critical to helping Indigenous Peoples (and other Canadian populations) cope with the effects of climate change and global warming. Given their traditional lifestyles and geographic locations, they remain extremely vulnerable to such effects.

For his work, Debassige will conduct informal interviews with teachers, principals and Indigenous Elders to identify ‘knowledge keepers’ and develop ways to engage them with young school-going Indigenous children in conventional classroom settings.

Indigenous Educators from Australia are already exploring these strategies and applying them to their own communities. Debassige hopes to create a database of teaching tools and resources that will be used by Indigenous communities across Canada and all over the world.

Through his research, Debassige wants to help rebuild a culture of trust and cooperation between Indigenous ways of learning and knowing, and conventional schooling in Canada.

“My vision is that Indigenous knowledge systems shouldn’t have to lose or compromise their integrity,” Debassige said. “Rather, both Indigenous knowledge systems and conventional schooling should work together.”

In Indigenous communities, knowledge and teachings are passed on in the form of oral traditions, such as songs, stories and poems. Children have long learned valuable life lessons and skills through these methods.

“If you don’t carry it in you, then what use is it?” Debassige said.

Yet, over the two centuries, the conventional classroom-style of education has displaced informal Indigenous ways of knowing and learning in Canadian classrooms, including in First Nations schools.

By highlighting the importance of re-introducing traditional knowledge systems into the schools of First Nation communities, Debassige is making sure that the next generation of Indigenous children have more opportunities to re-acquaint themselves with their languages, cultures and traditions. “This work is a commitment for me and I want to fulfill a responsibility to my own community, which has given me so much,” he said.

Debassige has fostered his relationship with several members of the FNWSC for almost six years, working with Indigenous Peoples at every stage of his research work.

“To me, active community engagement has tremendously more value than me writing an academic publication that may be completely disassociated from people on the ground who need that knowledge immediately,” he said.

In Debassige’s experience, when he works with Indigenous community members, the whole community is involved in the production of knowledge; its application to real life problems is almost immediate.

“We don’t see universities acknowledging that type of scholarship though, and it’s long overdue. I say to the ivory tower, come join Indigenous scholarship in the 21st century,” he said.