Manitoba’s latest education reform action plan is calling for tangible actions to support Indigenous students in the classroom through access to language and culture.
The provincial government announced its action plan Wednesday responding to recommendations provided by Manitoba’s kindergarten to Grade 12 education commission.
The action plan has four pillars for student success — high-quality learning to improve learning and outcomes for students; student engagement and well-being to engage students with diverse life experiences; excellence in teaching and leadership; and responsive systems to ensure equitable education and inclusion — and includes a commitment to advancing truth and reconciliation.
"There is an urgency to prioritize Indigenous education and strengthen the focus on Indigenous languages and Indigenous ways of being, knowing and doing," reads the report. "This action plan aims to increase the presence and voice of Indigenous leaders and education organizations as part of the journey towards truth and reconciliation. At the same time, it will respect and acknowledge First Nations jurisdictions over schools within First Nations communities and the importance of Manitoba’s First Nations school systems."
Included in the action plan is a commitment to close the achievement gap for Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. In Manitoba, only 50.9 per cent of Indigenous students graduated high school on time in 2020, in comparison 90.8 per cent of non-Indigenous students.
Upcoming action called for in the plan includes creating a workforce planning framework focused on recruitment and retention of school staff in rural and northern communities and increasing Indigenous and Indigenous language educators.
Diana Morrisseau is a former Cree language instructor who has worked with Brandon School Division (BSD) high school students and Brandon University students. At BSD, Indigenous language courses are offered in Grades 9-12 in Cree, Michif and Anishinaabemowin/Ojibwe.
"It’s a very rewarding feeling when someone is interested in the language and they want to learn," Morrisseau said. "A lot of times, it starts with a cultural identity."
Promoting Indigenous language in the Manitoba curriculum needs to take a holistic approach that embraces language and culture in everyday life, Morrisseau said.
It is empowering being able to help revitalize language because it was almost lost due to colonialism. Cree speakers are disappearing from communities, she said, largely driven by residential schools separating youth from their language, families and communities.
Many Indigenous people have lost their language, or have seen a lack of opportunity to practise languages they speak. Language and culture are interwoven, she said, and for many people language is top of mind as a way to connect with Indigenous identity.
It is challenging because students need opportunities to speak to keep practising the language. Morrisseau said language resources need to be readily available in classrooms or in libraries. These points of access are needed for those curious to learn languages — including non-Indigenous students.
"We need more than just having a class an hour a day," Morrisseau said. "An hour a day is not enough if you’re really wanting to learn the language. You have to look at immersion setups."
One of the most powerful ways to learn a new language is using immersion. Morrisseau recommended the creation of immersion programs, along with encouraging students to attend ceremonies and visit with fluent family to create a more promote language fluency.
"I am a person that does ceremony, and once or twice a year I go up north and participate in sun dance," Morrisseau said. "When you go to these ceremonies, it’s immersion. Everything is spoken in the language. Everyone there is expected to speak the language. I learn a lot of new words. I learn a lot of new things."
Incorporating Indigenous languages and cultures into the curriculum has been at the forefront of BSD for many years, said Supt. Mathew Gustafson.
"It wasn’t just a singular piece. It was really listening to our community and trying to be listening to parents and community members about the importance of language and really trying to be responsive to that," Gustafson said.
While the Manitoba Education Early Childhood document released is a framework with included actions, BSD is awaiting further details to be established. Based on what is included in the framework, Gustafson said, there is a desire from Manitoba Education to engage with stakeholders, including divisions and Indigenous organizations and communities.
"A lot of how that roles out will depend on the stakeholder involvement and the implementation," Gustafson said. "All of our work aligns with that framework so I’m not foreseeing any issues coming from that, only the ability to improve."
A focus on Indigenous learners has been a longtime commitment by BSD.
Indigenous students are a significant population and there is a sense of responsibility in meeting their needs, he said. BSD has engaged community partners, including the Brandon Urban Aboriginal People’s Council, Sioux Valley Dakota Nation and the Manitoba Métis Federation, to enhance practices that promote Indigenous culture and language in the classroom.
Over time, listening to these stakeholders the division has recognized the importance of Indigenous languages in relation to cultures. These conversations reinforced in the division the urgency of having Indigenous language learning opportunities available.
There are some difficulties in establishing classes including a limited number of fluent teachers available to teach a language, Gustafson said. These numbers are decreasing and can make it more challenging and critical to find instructors.
"It’s an ongoing piece. We have lots to learn yet and lots of work to do," Gustafson said. "It’s important to not have the mind shift that we have the answers, as opposed to listening to the community and trying to work with them to find the solutions."
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Chelsea Kemp, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun