Teaching a new story of Indigenous experience

Mandatory course challenges future teachers to gain the knowledge they need to engage all students.
Scott Lingley | Wed Sep 14, 2016

Evelyn Steinhauer said her dissertation for completing her PhD in the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Education began with a story about a young Indigenous girl starting her first day of school—a story drawn from her own childhood.

“She’s all excited, she can’t wait for the big yellow bus to drive up, she can’t sleep the night before. But when she walks through the school with a busload of kids from the reserve, every child that’s been playing stops and they begin laughing at her. She can’t understand why people are laughing, why people hate her,” Steinhauer said. “That story should have changed by now. But my grandkids are telling the same story when they get home from school that I told 50 years ago. I want them to tell a different story.”

Since well before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action and the Alberta government’s recent commitment to train K-12 teachers in delivering Indigenous content, changing the story for Indigenous students by making schools more welcoming, inclusive and respectful of Indigenous ways of knowing has been a big part of Steinhauer’s professional focus. It’s a cause she’s advanced as the director of the U of A’s Aboriginal Teacher Education Program, as a professor in the Department of Educational Policy Studies and as a member of the Faculty of Education’s Indigenous Education Council (IEC), the group of Aboriginal scholars that advises the dean on matters pertaining to First Nations, Métis and Inuit (FNMI) education.

She’s not alone in her wish to change the story. The federal and provincial governments have pledged to improve educational outcomes for Indigenous youth, whose high-school graduation rates and participation in post-secondary education are lower than the general Canadian population. Initiatives like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Alberta’s recent commitment of $5 million over the next three years to help train K-12 teachers in fundamental Indigenous knowledge “for the betterment of all students” seem to echo the sentiment expressed by some Indigenous educators: it’s not a segment of the population that’s failing school, but school that is failing a segment of the population.


“I want our children to graduate from high school, to build careers for themselves. I want our children to be confident and feel that they belong in the school system. The only way that’s going to happen is if we start training teachers to think differently.” —Evelyn Steinhauer


Steinhauer, who comes from the Saddle Lake Cree Nation, was a graduate student at the U of A when she first took part in discussions around incorporating more FNMI content in education courses in the early 2000s. Later, when she joined the Faculty of Education, she and the IEC pressed for a mandatory course that would introduce all bachelor of education students to Indigenous history, culture and knowledge, but also to the devastating impact of colonization and the intergenerational trauma that is the legacy of residential schools.

Their efforts yielded the introduction of EDU 211: Aboriginal Education and Contexts for Professional and Personal Engagement as a mandatory course in 2013. Steinhauer and colleagues Cora Weber-Pillwax, Dwayne Donald and Rebecca Sockbeson were awarded the University of Alberta Human Rights Education Recognition Teaching Award that year for creating the course.

Sockbeson, a professor of educational policy studies, said the award was a reflection of the unprecedented consultation within the faculty that helped with getting EDU 211 as a mandatory course.

“This is a large faculty, so to bring together varying ideologies and expertise within the same discipline was a first for this faculty,” she said. “We received real positive feedback from our faculty colleagues to such a degree that it was recognized this was unlike anything they’d seen.”

Another distinctive aspect of EDU 211 is that the course is designed and team-taught by five Indigenous scholars with the assistance of predominantly Aboriginal graduate students, PhDs and other instructors working both in the lecture hall and in seminars. The sheer volume of BEd students necessitates the approach, but Sockbeson said team teaching is intrinsic to making the course work.

“What distinguishes EDU 211 is that we have these five scholars and we each contribute within our own areas of expertise,” she said. “We knew as we were coming together who would be taking on what, but as we developed the course outline, we had to figure out how we were going to reach 1,000 students a year so that they can have exposure to our scholarship and expertise. It was actually very arduous, a rigorous process to figure out how we were going to do that.”

The course also provides two experiential components for every student, whether that’s meeting with an elder, participating in a smudge ceremony, taking a guided walk in the area around the campus or watching and discussing a documentary about Indigenous experiences in Canada’s education system.

“That’s what the students claim is the area of transformation for them because it’s hands-on,” Sockbeson said. “Although we give them lots of information before they engage with the experiential, we were committed as scholars of the course that they would be experiencing the theories. And that underpins for many of us the significance of an Indigenous pedagogy, too.”

Sockbeson added that it’s not strictly a course about “studying the other.”


“If there’s an expectation you’re just coming to study Native people, that’s not what underpins this course. Much of it has to do with putting a mirror up and looking at themselves and their own teacher identity. Who we are impacts who we are working with, particularly children.” —Rebecca Sockbeson


“We give lots of information—history, policies, legislation—but we also expect students to engage with their own ethnicity, their own race, how they come to be here and what is their lineage, what does that mean to them. For many of them, they’ve never stopped to think about it, and that’s a very central part of the course.”

Donald, a professor of secondary education, said he sees many students struggle with questions of their identity and their relationship to systemic racism, cultural displacement and colonization. Many become “stuck” in self-defensiveness or guilt, he said, and helping them work through those feelings has become a significant part of the job in teaching EDU 211.

“That’s why in this course, a central part of it is asking them to try to study themselves—who are you, what’s the story you’re living by—and there’s a lot of pushback that comes with that.”

The refusal by some students to engage with course material can be difficult for EDU 211’s instructors as well, especially when the knowledge of systemic racism and marginalization they share comes from a personal place.


“I don’t expect every student to agree with what I say, but this is a professional responsibility to engage with these issues. Our job isn’t to convince them of anything, but to continue to support them in the messiness of trying to work stuff out.” —Dwayne Donald


“The one thing people don’t recognize is that those of us who lecture on these topics have experienced every one of those things,” Steinhauer said. “When I tell a story of kids in a playground playing a game called Indian germs, that’s my story. When I talk about a kid not getting picked for sports teams because she’s Native, I’m that little girl. When children are being apprehended from their homes and placed in non-Native homes, those are our experiences. It takes an emotional toll on you because you can’t step away from something that’s been your whole experience.”

Malinda Smith, a professor in the U of A’s Department of Political Science whose scholarship focuses on decolonization, said the destabilizing nature of a course like EDU 211 puts its professors in a tough position.

“When students come into our classrooms, they come with this baggage and it’s a challenge then to unsettle that. The problem is that professors who are tasked with teaching these so-called difficult knowledges carry the weight of this knowledge for the university and are disproportionately impacted,” Smith said. “So, paradoxically, we want to recruit and retain more Indigenous faculty but at the same time we’re putting them in conditions that make their teaching experiences more difficult than for other professors who don’t have to teach this kind of content.

“These are real professors. This is their career, this is something they love, and they are doing it as part of their professional obligation, but they also think it’s the right thing to do. I think students have some obligations to be open, but where do they learn that? That’s also in the classroom.”

Smith said the real test of Canadian universities’ commitment to truth and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples is how widely the professoriate will support the process of incorporating Indigenous knowledges into curricula, so that challenging topics raised in one course can be addressed in other courses.

“This is the challenge we’re facing in the 21st century, and this is our opportunity as non-Indigenous peoples and as a university committed to the public good to think about how to do the right thing, and how to do it well for the students, the faculty teaching it and the broader community. I don’t see how you can do that without widespread conversation throughout the university, across disciplines. We can’t have a handful of professors feeling isolated or alone, or that they alone are tasked with doing this for the rest of us, so that we can say we are doing our bit. We are all obligated to do this work.”

Smith added that it may be the human tendency to focus on problems elsewhere in the world and overlook similar problems at home that present a barrier to change. It goes back to the fundamental question of what kind of graduates universities want to produce.


“If we are encouraging students to be global citizens, how can we be inattentive to the questions about Indigenous people here in Canada?” —Malinda Smith


“Education faculties have led conversations about global citizenship. So if we are encouraging students to be global citizens, how can we be inattentive to the questions about Indigenous people here in Canada?” Smith said. “We are able to see these questions more clearly from a distance, in other countries, rather than what’s visible in plain sight around Indigenous conditions. I think curriculum content is key around such issues.”

This notion rings true to Salman Ahmed, a third-year education student who took EDU 211 in the winter of 2015. Ahmed said he had planned to finish his degree and pursue his interest in social justice outside Canada. But after learning about the difficulties faced by northern communities in staffing their schools, he’s considering a different career trajectory.

“Before the course, I was extremely naive in thinking I like volunteering and I’m into human rights, I’ll just get a teaching degree and go halfway across the world to help some disenfranchised person. But after that course, I learned how high the turnover rate is among teachers up north. Our education system doesn’t have a great history with Aboriginal people, so families that are just starting to entrust school systems with their children and then have them treated this way—I mean, if the teachers aren’t able to stay and show their willingness to help, what motivates the kids to go to school?”

Ahmed said he wants to get involved in helping marginalized youth in the Edmonton region and may start his teaching career at a northern school.

Joanna Gill, who completed a bachelor’s degree in anthropology before pursuing an master’s in educational policy studies, said EDU 211 helped her think more deeply about being the kind of teacher that all of her students need.

“The instructors did point out that, no matter where you are, you will have Indigenous students in your class. Even having that level of awareness and the background of what they might be facing is good,” she said. “As a social studies teacher, I think that being able to provide accurate or a greater breadth of information in terms of Aboriginal history is going to be very helpful as well.”

The problem with a one-semester course like EDU 211 is that it may not be long enough to resolve some of the issues the coursework brings to the surface, Gill added.

“Experiencing the knowledge of racism in Canada, that’s where a lot of the discomfort lies. A lot of students wished they could have had an opportunity to get more information about where we go from here, what we do with the discomfort we have from learning these things.”

And though he acknowledged there’s nothing easy about questioning the social underpinnings of inequality and one’s own privilege, Donald said learning about Indigenous knowledges and perspectives could take students past defensiveness to a more constructive way of thinking.

“I think if we critique the systems that govern us now, a lot of times it’s a bit of a trap because there’s no escape from those philosophies; people don’t have anything else to hang onto. Indigenous wisdom provides that possibility for a different way to proceed,” he said.

“I think that was the vision of the treaties, that there would be this learning from each other, there would be a balanced way of looking at the world. This wisdom I’m talking about has been here a long time, so it’s connected to this place. So if you’re going to live here and rely on the resources here, you should know that as well. It shouldn’t be an imposition, but an opportunity.”