This September, School District 47 welcomed its new district principal of Indigenous education, Jessica Johnson. This new role grew out of work that was initiated by Gail Blaney, Betty Wilson, Jasmin Marshman and many other educators over the past decades.
Jessica has been working in Indigenous education for over a decade in both North Vancouver and qathet. “My recent experience in district leadership work has been supporting teachers with the implementation of BC’s redesigned curriculum” she said.
Jessica Johnson grew up in the Okanagan and Westbank First Nation territory in Kelowna. She later moved to the Tla’amin territory with her husband in 2018 to raise their two daughters, Rielle, 4, and Remi, 2, near their family, language, and culture.
Jessica is a citizen of the Métis Nation of British Columbia and is part of the local Métis chartered community. “My ancestry comes from many Métis ancestors from Alberta, the Red River, and the Northern United States,” Jessica says. “The most well known line would be Louis Kwarakwante Callihoo, a Kahnawa:ke (Mohawk) man who worked as a voyager for the North West Company and eventually settled in Alberta. He spoke Mohawk and French, later in life he learned Cree. I believe Cree is the language he taught his children.”
While Jessica is not from Tla’amin, she proudly carries the Tla’amin name čɩgɛtoǰɛ (chih-geh-toe-jeh), which she was gifted by her husband’s grandmother, qaʔaχstaləs (kah-ahk-stahlus) (Dr. Elsie Paul).
Jessica earned her Bachelor of Education from UVIC. Five years ago, she completed a Leadership and Administration Master of Education degree from UBC. She was in the first cohort with a focus on Indigenous education and social justice, for this she had completed a capstone project with four others.
“Our project used a metaphor of the spindle whorl, to conduct an appreciative inquiry about the tensions and balances educators faced while engaging with BC's redesigned curriculum,” says Jessica.
“We wanted to celebrate the successes and important work of educators. Through the use of appreciative and Indigenous conversational methods, we built and established relationships with participants to spin their stories and practices into a strong and resilient yarn of Indigenized and inclusive practice.”
“I see my role as keeping Indigenous student success, and equity for Indigenous learners, at the forefront of people’s minds. My hope is to build allies among colleagues and communities, and help everyone understand that Indigenous education is a collective effort that will benefit all learners in this district” she says.
Jessica mentions that this year, she looks forward to strengthening relationships with Tla’amin Nation, Metis and other Indigenous students and families.
“I believe that this role is a step towards reconciliation by welcoming an Indigenous voice within the district leadership team.”
Jessica is inspired by the decades of work that has been done here by educators such as Gail Blaney, Betty Wilson, Marion Harry and Sue Pielle to promote and include Tla’amin culture and language.
“My work will really stand on the shoulders of the leaders who made space for this new role to exist,” said Johnson. “I hope to contribute to a caring and safe district where Indigenous students recognize their value and potential. Where Indigenous communities’ voices, ideas, and perspectives are welcomed and contribute to the co-creation of a school district that is reflective of, understands, and recognizes the value of Indigenous ways of knowing.”
Along with this role, she is continuing with qathet’s Equity in Action project, which is on to its second year. Province-wide, the Ministry of Education’s Equity in Action project seeks to “address systemic barriers impacting Indigenous student achievement,” according to the website. “A focus on ‘equity of opportunity’ and a co-constructive approach is driving a review of practices and policies that may be creating obstacles for Indigenous learners in the B.C. public school system.”
“I would like to create an advisory group for the project,” says Jessica. “Equity recognizes that not everyone needs the same support to be successful. The project is meant to highlight the areas where different supports or interventions are required to allow each student to reach their potential,” Jessica says. The project also works to share promising practices from this district with other districts around the province.
Two big problems Indigenous students are facing are difficult transitions into high school and lagging graduation rates (see sidebar, right). Jessica hopes to make school more relevant for Indigenous learners.
When children understand their history, culture, and perspectives, Jessica says, they can achieve those better grades, they also bring that knowledge home to their families, which helps history be known.
“These legacies, and societal gaps in understanding, are what I intend to reconcile,” says Jessica. “The legacies of colonialism affecting students today need to be addressed to create equity for Indigenous learners. Creating equity is done at both a systemic level and in an individual student-centred way. I believe that when people learn a more holistic version of history, the more action, empathy, and understanding is created.”
She shares that reconciliation is the collective recognition of the ways the colonial history affects Indigenous peoples in the present and the effort and active pursuit of making amends for that history.
“The timing for reconciliation is hopeful. With the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, and building momentum around and understanding of racial injustices, both historic and contemporary, it seems that district staff, students, and the qathet community are hungry with a willingness to know and learn more,” says Jessica.
“This information wasn’t taught to most of us when we went through the school system. So, without direct personal experience, many Canadians were in the dark about the legacies of colonialism and the very real implications of those legacies in the present.”
Jessica explained, “I hope to put structures in place to support the inclusion of Indigenous themes, world views, and perspective across the district.”
Historically in this district, supports have been primarily at James Thomson Elementary and Brooks Secondary School. Jessica is hoping to advocate for more district-wide inclusion of Indigenous education.
Jessica says she looks forward to helping create a sense of belonging for Indigenous students.
It is important to make sure Tla’amin land is always honoured as the original caretakers for this place, she says.
“I recognize that I am human and will make mistakes along the way. But I hope that by modeling humility, creativity, curiosity, and a willingness to learn, others will join me.”
Abby Francis, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, qathet Living