Q&A with Canada’s Belinda Daniels, ‘Nobel prize of teaching’ contender

Daily Brew
Belinda Daniels of Saskatoon has been nominated for the prestigious Global Teacher Prize dubbed the "Nobel prize of teaching."

A Saskatoon teacher got a wonderful surprise earlier this month when she learned she’s the only Canadian among 50 finalists for the prestigious Global Teacher Prize dubbed the “Nobel prize of teaching.”

“I had to read it over at least two or three times to make sure I was comprehending what it was I was reading,” Belinda Daniels, from Sturgeon Lake First Nation, tells Yahoo Canada News about getting the email notifying her she was a finalist. 

The news means Daniels has a shot at the $1 million prize for the first place winner. The award is given annually to “an extraordinary teacher who has made an outstanding contribution to the profession,” according to the website for the non-profit Varkey Foundation, which runs the prize.

Daniels’ work over 15 years in teaching covers everything from kindergarten to courses at the University of Alberta and the University of Saskatchewan. She helped to develop Saskatchewan’s high-school curriculum for Core Cree after teaching herself the language as an adult, and founded a Cree summer camp.

Selected from more than 8,000 applicants, Daniels is competing against other impressive educators from around the world for the prize.

Humaira Buchal has been teaching in her native Pakistan since the age of 12, fighting against local customs against doing so. Inés Bulacio’s initiative to bring digital education to bedridden children in Buenos Aires has spread throughout Argentina. And Brooklyn principal Nadia Lopez was recognized for successfully founding a high-performing middle school in a disadvantaged neighbourhood.

The list of 50 will be narrowed to 10 finalists in February, and the winner will be announced at a ceremony in the United Arab Emirates in March.

Daniels spoke to Yahoo Canada News from Saskatoon.

Q: First of all, congratulations on the nomination. How did you find out about it? 

I got an email from the Global Teacher Prize a couple of weeks ago. I was really surprised — it was a little bit of a surreal kind of feeling. I had to read it over at least two or three times to make sure I was comprehending what it was I was reading. Once I collected my thoughts I was ecstatic, jumping up and down in my kitchen, yelling “Yahoo!“ And of course I phoned my husband and let my children know. 

Q: Was there a nomination process for the prize — did you know that it was even a possibility?

Actually, there was a secretary who pointed it out to me, early in the year of 2015. And I just kind of casually glanced at it. Then a couple of months later, I had a friend who wanted to nominate me for the Future40 stuff from CBC. And I was more interested in being nominated for this, so I went with Global Teacher Prize instead. 

The actual application process — it’s pretty daunting. They ask some really good questions. You had to answer questions like how did you encourage other teachers to join the profession, what do you do that’s innovative, what do you do that’s student directed, and what other recognitions have you gotten as an educator, just to name a few. 

Q: You’ve taught in mixed classrooms, with both indigenous and non-indigenous students. How do you break down the barriers that might exist between those students? 

I work with this other teacher, Corine, and she has newcomers, refugees, students from other countries. My students are indigenous and non-indigenous students from Canada. So we decided to work on a few projects together. We worked on a murdered and missing indigenous women’s project. We worked on a Christmas tree project for the Festival of Trees. We worked on this huge garden this past spring — we grew a greenhouse for the classroom. We had our classes together and got to know each other and each others’ histories of colonialism and colonization and racism. So we talked about those things. 

Q: What do you find is the biggest misconception non-indigenous students have about their indigenous classmates? 

Of course there’s many stereotypes that are negative in regards to indigenous people here in Canada. I just don’t think that they know about our history as colonized peoples. So yeah, there is a negative stereotype. I talked about that process, about where these negative stereotypes come from, which comes from history. It’s about the untruths of history, and textbooks and repeated lies from over the course of hundreds of years. 

Q: Is there anything that students are most surprised or shocked to learn about in terms of indigenous history in Canada? 

They haven’t heard about residential schools that happened for more than 100 years. They haven’t heard about the reservation system. They haven’t realized that Indigenous peoples were oppressed in regards to the treatment from the federal government. So they’re very surprised about all of those things — same with the decimation of the buffalo and the coming of CP Rail. They don’t realize this whole of history of tragedy. 

Actually yes, a lot of people don’t understand what has happened and what has occurred in Canada, And to be removed from our own traditional lands and territories. So yeah, they’re definitely surprised. And then we can see the connections in their own home countries in regards to being displaced, and the mistreatment. 

Q: You’ve taught yourself Cree, and you teach it now to other people. What inspired you to start that process of learning a language as an adult? 

I was raised by my grandparents and this attitude — this internalized colonialism that we have towards our indigenous languages — it’s a negative one. My grandparents spoke Cree, but they spoke English to me because they thought that I would benefit from speaking English. As I got older and got my B.Ed. and started teaching basic Cree language classes, it really occurred to me that I should know more than what I know. And then I started taking extra classes, I enrolled in a master’s program. I really connected to land-based education and I wanted to go back home and reclaim my own indigenous language. So this is what sparked my interest. 

I put my whole heart and soul into that process, and look where it’s gotten me. I’ve received tremendous success over the last 10 years or so. I’ve been able to travel around the world and visit other indigenous peoples and look at their language programs. I’ve met the best of the best when it comes to indigenous scholars. I’ve had the best mentors — the best peer support in my home community. I’ve had tremendous success and motivation to keep doing what I’m doing. 

Q: You mentioned you’ve travelled a lot as part of your education. Is there a country that Canada could look to as a model or inspiration in terms of indigenous education? 

Oh definitely. The country that I really look up to and want to take their lead is the Maori people in New Zealand. They are so advanced in Maori learning, Maori schools, universities, involved in politics. 

I’m really thrilled, actually, with Canadian politics in that we now have so many [aboriginal] MPs involved in the Canadian federal political system. It’s really wonderful. There was a huge push for indigenous people to vote, right across the nation. It’s remarkable. Indigenous peoples are taking their rightful place in our own country, in our own home. 

Q: You’ve mentioned in the past that there’s a lot about indigenous education here in Canada that needs to change. What do you see as most crucial? 

One of my big dreams is that if we’re going to improve the student outcomes in indigenous education, for one, the monies coming from federal government need to be up to par with mainstream education, especially in First Nations home communities. Indigenous peoples need to be the ones in charge of their education systems. Again, we need to take our rightful place in directing and leading our own people. We have to get rid of this patriarchal system that we have within education. Those two things would be really, really important in regards to change. 

Q: You’re currently working on your PhD. What led you to decide to go back to school, and how do you hope it moves your work forward? 

Again, I’d like to be a part of the process in regards to indigenous learning. I believe in bottom-up initiatives as opposed to the top down. I just want to be the best person that I can be in regards to collaborating with the system that we have now, and then moving forward our own indigenous ways of knowing and being. I want to be part of the process when it comes to change. 

Q: What are you most proud of in your work? 

There are so many things that I’m so proud of. I’m proud of the journey as a nation, how much we’ve strived and have achieved. I’m proud of the resilience of Indigenous peoples. I’m proud to be a part of that collective process as Indigenous peoples because it’s a group, collective thing that Indigenous peoples have. And I’m proud of the fact that I surround myself with amazing people, amazing scholars — people who make things move forward in a correct and respectful way. And I know my grandparents would also be proud of me.