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BC is the first province to require mandatory First Nations studies at high school

Seth Spotted-Eagle, a syilx and Dene (Navajo) dancer, participates in a Grand Entry Powwow that was hosted at the Okanagan Indian Band’s grand reopening of their Cultural Arbor on May 28, 2022.
Image Credit: Photo by Aaron Hemens

For the first time, all secondary students will be required to complete Indigenous-focused coursework before they graduate from BC’s K-12 education system.

Anne Tenning is the Director of Instruction for Indigenous Education and Equity for School District 23, a new role for the district aligned with the new provincial learning requirements.

Tenning told iNFOnews.ca that she is excited about the new requirements.

“It just makes me so happy,” she said.

Tenning has been an educator for 24 years. Indigenous studies have been part of school curriculums for a long time, she said. However, they have not always received a lot of attention.

“Up until the requirement came into place…(out of all the) students graduating from public schools in BC, only about 5% had participated in a full four credits of an Indigenous-focused course,” she said. “The courses have been available for about 20 years, but the uptake was minimal for a variety of reasons. And now that there is a requirement, we're going to see 100% of students graduating from public schools in BC with an Indigenous-focused course. And this really speaks to the provincial government, to their dedication to the (The Truth and Reconciliation Commission's) calls to action.”

Having taught Indigenous focused courses for many years, Tenning said that she personally understands the benefits of teaching Indigenous material in schools.

“When I taught the courses, the students that signed up… there were Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, international learners and learners with all variety of academic ability,” she said. “But what came out of the Indigenous courses each and every time was a deep sense of community and understanding each other and having more understanding of history and knowing that sometimes the way history has been taught hasn't included all of the perspectives that are out there.”

Under the new model, students who are currently in Grade 10 will be the first group to complete a course on First Nations history and culture, starting this school term.

Before the new requirements were mandated, the First Nations Education Steering Committee held regional workshops on the new graduation requirements. Tenning said that during these workshops, and during her visits to numerous regions throughout BC, there were some concerns expressed by parents about the sudden changes to the curriculum.

“Some people felt the timeline was quite sudden,” she said. “But the response to that from Indigenous communities and Indigenous rights holders is, we've been waiting a long time for this. We've been asking for this for a long time.”

The new requirements are a result of years of important work and investigation carried out by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The commission spent six years travelling across Canada to interview more than 6,500 witnesses and victims of the residential school system. It created a historical record of residential schools with the information and testimonies and from five million records provided by the Government of Canada.

In June 2015, the commission presented the multi-volume final report, including 94 "calls to action" (or recommendations) for further reconciliation between Canadians and Indigenous Peoples.

Tenning said there had also been some trepidation on behalf of educators who were nervous to teach Indigenous courses when they themselves are from non-indigenous backgrounds.

“Understandably, there is some nervousness on behalf of educators because the vast majority of educators who are teaching the required Indigenous-focused course are of non-Indigenous ancestry,” she said. “But we consider that a celebration because it is a collective responsibility and it's not meant to be the sole responsibility of educators of Indigenous ancestry.”

Since the new requirements have been implemented this September, the response has been positive from students and teachers alike, Tenning said.

“There’s some nervousness, but there's also a lot of excitement,” she said. “Also, I think it's important to recognize that the teaching of Indigenous-focused courses isn't new for a lot of schools. They've been offering the courses for many years.”

Todd Manuel, Superintendent of School District 67, told iNFOnews.ca that education is a vital step towards reconciliation.

“We have a clear commitment, certainly in our district and provincially to truth and reconciliation,” he said. “Being able to offer these courses is critically important in that work and these are really great pieces to learn about. To learn about the truth of the history of the country and of Indigenous peoples' experiences in our country, of local knowledge keepers and rights holders and their ways of knowing.”

Manuel said high school students throughout Penticton, Kaleden, Summerland and Naramata will be learning Indigenous knowledge from dedicated teachers and First Nations educators.

“We are really in a strong place to move forward with this new grad requirement,” Manuel said.

The province will be implementing the new requirements for all students in BC public, independent and offshore schools.

“We are deeply committed to lasting and meaningful reconciliation in BC,” Jennifer Whiteside, Minister of Education, said in a news release. “This new requirement will deepen students’ understanding of the experiences, cultures, histories and knowledges of Indigenous Peoples. This will help us to understand the truths of our shared history, while also building knowledge so all students feel a sense of responsibility for our collective future.”

British Columbia is the first Canadian jurisdiction to implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action #62 which includes a call to make age-appropriate curriculum on residential schools, Treaties and Aboriginal peoples’ historical and contemporary contributions to Canada a mandatory education requirement.

“The introduction of a First Peoples course requirement is an incredibly important milestone on our shared journey of truth and reconciliation, and something the BCTF has advocated strongly for over many years," Teri Mooring, president, BC Teachers’ Federation said in a news release. "It will be important that this policy change be supported by a focused effort to recruit more Indigenous teachers to ensure truths can be taught from a place of lived experience wherever possible throughout B.C.'s public education system.”

You can find more information about the new requirements on the BC government website here.

You can read more about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada on the Government of Canada website here.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Georgina Whitehouse or call 250-864-7494 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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