TORONTO — The very first cohort of high school graduates from l Kâpapâmahchakwêw – Wandering Spirit School in Toronto are celebrating the impact of their Indigenous-led education.
“It is just an exciting time to be transitioning from high school to university, especially coming from a very Indigenous-based school,” said graduating student Ella Laforme to CTV News.
LaForme and her peers make up the very first high schools graduates at Kâpaâmahchakwêw, where Ojibwe language and Indigenous cultures, values and traditions — particularly from the Anishinaabe perspective — are “interwoven” through the curriculum, which is taught by Indigenous educators, elders, and knowledge keepers.
The school was founded in 1977 by Pauline Shirt and Vern Harper who were looking for a safer school for their own child – and when they could not find one that “nurtured their son’s Indigenous identity” — they founded their own.
In 1983 the school was recognised by the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) as a Cultural Survival/Native way program instead of an alternative school, and what started as an elementary school, began accepting secondary school students in 2017.
For Laforme, the school presented the opportunity to learn the opposite of what she had repeatedly been taught in mainstream schools about Indigenous people.
“It was always the downfall of Indigenous people,” LaForme said of her education prior to Kâpaâmahchakwêw. “It was always just the same things just being repeated over and over again.”
It was the same message hammered home generations before LaForme when Tanya Senk, the assistant superintendent of Indigenous education at the TDSB, went to school.
“My schooling, I never saw myself represented and if I did it was a gross representation,” Senk said to CTV News.
But in order for that to change in the mainstream school system, there needs to be a concerted effort to overhaul the current curriculum – and that would require the country to make Indigenous education mandatory, something that falls under the jurisdiction of the provinces and territories.
And when it is not mandatory, the issue of curriculum presents a moral issue for teachers and principals.
“In order to make this mandatory across Canada, there needs to be political will,” Senk said. “To not do anything would mean you’re implicated in this on-going colonial project.”
Education about Indigenous history is one of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee’s Calls to Action which asks for “curriculum on residential schools, treaties and Indigenous people’s history….[and] contemporary contributions to Canada be made mandatory education for all grades.”
And experts like the Director of Reconciliation at Canadian Geographic Enterprises Charlene Bearhead want the curriculum literature overhauled too.
“There are racist resources that are being used that sadly, the level of ignorance is still so high,” Bearhead told CTV News. “In some areas that people don’t even get that that’s racist, which is a scary thing.”
With files from CTVNews.ca writer Jeremiah Rodriguez