In a nod to the treaties and traditional lands on which K-12 classrooms in Manitoba operate, the new provincial education plan states there is “an urgency” to prioritize Indigenous education, especially language programs, in public schools.
Following the release of Manitoba Education’s latest reform plans, readers were quick to notice repeated references to truth and reconciliation and closing the achievement gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students throughout the 26-page document.
The Better Education Starts Today strategy, the original reform planning document published in 2021 alongside Bill 64 — the highly controversial and now-defunct Education Modernization Act — mentions “truth and reconciliation” once. The latest iteration has 11 such references.
“This is an improvement from last year,” said Frank Deer, a professor of education and Canada Research Chair of Indigenous Education at the University of Manitoba. “In a sense, (what’s in this document) is what was missing from Bill 64.”
The obsolete reform bill sought to replace elected school boards with a centralized authority made up of government appointees.
Critics raised concerns about the loss of local voice in decision-making and implementing a top-down approach that could set back progress on community-based Indigenous education initiatives.
Deer said he is “cautiously optimistic” about the updated plans, given the advancement of truth and reconciliation is on top of the province’s new to-do list and it has promised to work alongside stakeholders, including the Indigenous Inclusion Directorate Advisory Council.
On the subject of Indigenous language instruction, the former inner-city teacher, who is Kanienkeha’ka, said the province will have to make a significant financial commitment if it is serious about recognizing it as a bona fide discipline.
“The difficulty we’ve been having in graduating semi-fluent to fluent speakers is that we’re teaching our Indigenous languages as subjects rather than infusing all subjects with Indigenous language,” said Kevin Tacan, language co-ordinator for Sioux Valley Dakota Nation.
Tacan, a board member at Indigenous Languages Manitoba, said immersion programs are critical to improving fluency — but they require qualified educators, who are in short supply. Post-secondary institutes need to create more opportunities for distance education so Indigenous people can access teacher training, he said.
The updated strategy states reforms will be guided by a policy directive titled “Mamàhtawisiwin: The Wonder We Are Born With”, which aims to support “the holistic achievements of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit learners by assisting Manitoba educators in incorporating Indigenous pedagogy, languages, and cultures into their teaching.”
While acknowledging student success is individual, it states youth should attain mino-pimatasiwin (a Cree phrase that translates to “The Good Life”), a balanced life where emotional, physical, mental and spiritual needs are met.
The leader, who oversees Indigenous education in the Seven Oaks School Division, said she’s “really hopeful” about the document’s emphasis on her field.
Sherri Denysuik said the future of Indigenous education in Manitoba should involve the expansion of immersion programs, after-school programs and land-based learning.
Reform work is already underway to improve age-appropriate curriculum on residential schools, treaties, land-based education, Indigenous languages and the historical and contemporary contributions of Indigenous Peoples.
Among the actions on the provincial to-do list: develop a plan for the recruitment and retention of Indigenous and Indigenous language educators; ensure Indigenous perspectives are embedded in curricula and assessments; and require principals to take concrete actions to improve the achievement of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit pupils.
Jordan Bighorn, co-director of the Community Education Development Association, said he’s “skeptical — to put it mildly” about the changes in store because the priorities are vague. It is not lost on Bighorn that there is no mention of systemic racism or its impact on Indigenous learner outcomes in the report.
At the same time, Bighorn called the new plan a “doorstop” because the use of terms such as equity, inclusion and reconciliation in it suggest the province’s door remains open for community members’ equity initiative pitches.
Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press