Last week, I had the privilege of attending the 1st annual First Nations, Metis & Inuit Education Symposium in Edmonton. The conference theme was Listening, Understanding and Moving Forward Together. Our Division sent a team of 10 including two of our highly respected elders.
It should come as no surprise that a central theme to the symposium was the importance of building relationships. Regardless of the position, teacher, principal, central office personnel or Board, building effective relationships are integral in being successful. In fact, the evaluation criteria for all of them calls for this ability. Through my work up north in proximity of Cree Nations and Metis Settlements and most recently in Blackfoot Territory, I’ve come to fully appreciate the importance of developing a strong and trusting relationship with our FNMI communities. This is not an easy feat given the history of residential schools and the inter-generational trauma that still exists. There is still a certain amount of shame felt when I’m around my aboriginal friends caused by the sins of generations past. All of us, whether religious or not, should shoulder that shame.
Building effective relationships with anyone, but especially with our FNMI people, require us to listen and understand first. Listening and understanding are far more important than speaking and teaching. Rather than tell our perspective, we need to be able to hear their stories. I’m always amazed at the wisdom I learn when I just listen to our elders speak. Their stories provide for incredible learning when we just listen to hear instead of listen to speak. Understanding comes through an open heart and mind and a willingness to challenge our own beliefs which are usually quite naive and more based on what we think we know rather than the actual truth. Remember history is generally written by those in power!!!
The importance of building effective relationships must always be a primary goal. However, to eliminate the gap of achievement and opportunity for our FNMI students and continually raise the bar, requires a clear focus on learning as well. To paraphrase a speaker at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission event held in Edmonton in 2014, “Education is our new buffalo.” Education acts as the bridge between two sides of the river as described by Chief Tony Alexis (@Tony_Alexis) last week. The river banks do not need to look the same or be the same but there needs to be understanding about both sides.
Learning, both cultural and academic, must be parts of the equation for FNMI success. This is not an either/or decision but rather a both/and process. Moving together in unison, utilizing the strengths of all involved will bring about more success. And raising the bar and closing the gap requires high expectations, empathy and support not sympathy and excuses. Our provincial schools need to listen and understand and then teach with cultural awareness and sensitivity. Watching the success of our grad coach program, Oohkaanaayiikaakii’moap- “We are all striving for success” reinforces my belief that we can achieve both goals.
Our FNMI students deserve an education system that speaks to their culture and appreciates their languages AND sets high standards for education. The goal must be an education system that allows our FNMI students the ability (with their choice) to walk successfully in both worlds. Until we can replicate that system, the many negative cycles will continue to plague our FNMI people. That is not only unfair, it is unjust!
Relationships and learning- It is not one or the other- it is both. Relationships, always first but learning comes in a close second.