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Aboriginal teachers feel discriminated against: study

Katie May
Northern News Services
Published Monday, March 22, 2010

SOMBA K'E/YELLOWKNIFE - Although a national study has found racism towards aboriginal teachers and students remains an issue across the country, an Aklavik teacher and the president of the NWT Teachers' Association say it's not a problem in the North.

NNSL photo/graphic

Aurora College's Thebacha campus in Fort Smith offers a bachelor of education program in partnership with the University of Saskatchewan. A recent study has found discrimination against aboriginal teachers and students is still prominent in much of the country, but it's not a factor in the North, according to an Aklavik teacher and the president of the NWT Teachers' Association. - photo courtesy of Aurora College

Graduates of Aurora College's teacher education diploma program

  • 1998-99: 3
  • 1999-2000: 4
  • 2000-01: 2
  • 2001-02: 0
  • 2002-03: 12
  • 2003-04: 6
  • 2004-05: 9
  • 2005-06: 3
  • 2006-07: 5
  • 2007-08: 7
  • 2008-09: 0

Graduates of Aurora College's Bachelor of Education degree program:

  • 2007-08: 8
  • 2008-/09: 2

Sheila Greenland, who has been teaching in her hometown of Aklavik for nearly 15 years, said "For me, working in my own hometown and my own region, I personally have not experienced that. It could have been indirectly or I just wasn't aware of it, but I haven't had that level of experience when it comes to racism amongst co-workers."

She added, however, that she does see some teachers lower their expectations for aboriginal students. Participants in the study reported that they felt this attitude is widespread in schools across the country.

"It is a reality. There are some teachers that have that attitude towards our aboriginal students, and I find that's very wrong because we should be giving the same opportunities to any student that comes in our school doors, aboriginal or not," Greenland said. "We are the key to their doors of opportunity and we need to give them as much as we can for them to reach their goals."

The results of a national survey of 59 aboriginal teachers in every province and territory, released March 10, found that most felt aboriginal culture was not promoted in school and experienced discrimination from their non-aboriginal colleagues and community members.

"For example," the report stated, "participants in this study reported the following: that problems in aboriginal families and communities could negatively affect their classrooms; that they sometimes encountered a lack of support and at times hostility from the community and parents toward their work; and a lack of aboriginal leadership about educational issues, both within and outside aboriginal communities."

Mary-Lou Donnelly, president of the Canadian Teachers' Federation, said the study is being presented to governments and education ministries across the country in hopes that it will influence policy on instilling mandatory aboriginal content in schools for all students.

Yet most of teachers' recommendations included in the study - such as teaching aboriginal content in all subjects everyday, offering mentor programs to aboriginal teachers, using the knowledge of local elders in schools and training, hiring and keeping more aboriginal teachers - are already being done in the Northwest Territories, said NWT Teachers' Association President David Reid.

"We're probably ahead of the rest of Canada in that sense," he said. "Could they be done better? Probably. I mean if the training is slow, you're not getting the numbers of aboriginal teachers that you would like to see, but they are producing teachers on a yearly basis that are moving into the school system and taking up positions in the school."

Reid said he has never received any complaints of racism or stereotyping from aboriginal teachers.

"I wouldn't say it's a problem in the Northwest Territories," he said. "You have to remember that the comments (from teachers in the study) were across Canada and I think those things probably happen more often in the south," where aboriginal people are the minority.

Fourteen per cent of teachers currently working in NWT schools are aboriginal, according to the Department of Education, Culture and Employment. Of the NWT's 744 teachers, 106 are aboriginal.

Aurora College has offered Teacher Education Access programs in Behchoko, Fort Smith and Inuvik to prepare students for the Bachelor of Education degree program in Fort Smith, which is run in partnership with the University of Saskatchewan. The four-year degree program first started at the college six years ago and two years ago it celebrated its first graduating class of eight people. In 2008-09, two people graduated with teaching degrees.

The college's two-year teacher education diploma program has been around since 1969. Over the past 10 years, it has graduated 51 people in the territory.

But more needs to be done to encourage and train aboriginal teachers, says Liz Drescher, a concerned Inuvik resident. She said the government needs to go "full-force" in marketing teaching programs and attracting young NWT residents to the profession.

"We should have been caught up by now to have at least 50 per cent aboriginal teachers in the schools in every community," she said. "Where are they?"

The money the government spends hiring and replacing new southern teachers every couple of years should instead be invested into aboriginal education, she added.

"Where's the investment in our people?"

"I'm tired of the aboriginal people just being educational assistants or janitors. Help us."

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