Bill C-33: A Lost Opportunity to Rethink First Nations Education

What bothers me the most about C-33 as currently written —NOT being as the title (First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act) suggests— is this:

It’s the lost or postponed opportunity at stake in genuinely returning control of First Nations education to First Nations communities. First Nations educators could lead the way toward reforming the current paradigm of education, gifting the rest of Canada, and even the world, with it ending up being called an ecological model of education where young people learn about things in relationships, not in abstracted isolation.

There are many efforts going on to revive traditional knowledge and, most importantly, ways of knowing, through bush camps that are often framed as healing for Aboriginal youth—for instance, among the Cree of James Bay, the Eeyou Istchee, and the Deline of Sahyoue and Edacho, around Great Bear Lake in the NWT.

I sense many parallels to my own traditional knowledge and knowledge practices, from when my ancestors lived in direct relations with the land in self-governing commons that had evolved from traditional homelands as hunter-gather traditions gave way to those of hunter-farmer and then, largely farmer. Their ways of knowing flowed from that intimate connection with the land, that immersion in the habitat of both community and the natural world that the commons was.

As I tried to imagine my way into what these ways of knowing involved, I was hugely helped by the work of anthropologist Tim Ingold, who has pushed back centuries of misinterpretation about First Nations culture to argue that to understand their ways of perceiving and knowing the world, you have to take their position as participants dwelling in the environment as the starting point. It’s very different from the remote, objectified perspective associated with modern ways of knowing. This is more knowing as mastery versus knowing as attuned attention and empathetic understanding.

In my new book, Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good, I talk hopefully about reviving traditional knowledge practices and blending the best of these with the best of modern knowledge practices and producing a model that expands current understandings of literacy to include eco-literacy —knowing through relating to elements of surrounding habitats in much the way you get to know a person; oral literacy— the ability to articulate observations in dialogue and story, and the equally important ability to listen; literacy of the written word and numeric literacy, which is the ability to work with numbers, with data sets.

I would like to support First Nations in their efforts to negotiate the kind of education act they need, and I look forward to learning what their enactment of this legislation has to teach us all about living in right relations within all the habitats of our world.

Excerpt from Reclaiming the Commons:

“Reclaiming this immersed way of knowing is part of reclaiming the commons. It’s part of reclaiming our agency as subjects implicated in the larger contexts and habitats of our world. But reclaiming that agency won’t come easily. It might require some affirmative action, some unlearning of deep-seated habits of deferring to experts and officially sanctioned knowledge. Reclaiming our agency also means deliberately tuning in to what we sense and notice as we immerse ourselves in a particular habitat. It means embracing what Tim Ingold calls “an original condition of engagement, of being-in-the-world.” In a way, it means becoming ecologically literate, or ecoliterate, although not in the way the term is generally understood today.

“The term ecological literacy, or ecoliteracy is associated with educator David W. Orr and physicist Fritjof Capra who coined it in the 1990s. They wanted to bring a sense of the inherent value of the Earth and the importance of its well-being into the school system.12 They weren’t inspired by the heritage of premodern knowledge, however — almost the opposite. Their thinking was grounded in postmodern knowledge, notably systems theory and the new physics which demonstrated that energy and matter are intricately interconnected, as are time and space. Everything needs to be understood as in relationship.

“That’s what ecology is about too. It’s about the relations between organisms in a habitat, or environment. Still, it’s one thing to study them and quite another to live attuned to them, and I think this is what premodern practices (immersed, dwelling in a habitat) have to contribute to our understanding of ecoliteracy: we come alive to these relationships by being immersed in them, engaged in the habitat itself. It’s from these relationships that people can develop “a feeling for the organism,” even a feeling for the Earth and its venerable groundwater being blasted by hydraulic fracturing (fracking) or exhausted from over-pumping.

“To me, the essential thing in people, especially kids, becoming ecoliterate is creating opportunities for ongoing participation in particular local habitats. It’s learning to read not just a text but the land. It’s the ability to relate to the land, to read it empathetically as one would read the expression on a friend’s face. It’s the ability to know the soil of your garden or field through the process of relating to it over time. Ecoliteracy emerges not so much within the walls of a classroom but from prolonged participation in a habitat as living classroom. It’s an apprenticeship in the traditional sense of what apprenticeships have
historically involved, which is learning by doing, by attuned attention, by the head and hands working together, the senses alive to nuances of change in the living context. It’s not just the sum total of knowledge (as object) that matters. It’s the subject position, of implicated knowing through engagement in habitats and in situations within them, that
matters.

“I think of my father and what he had inscribed on a chunk of granite that’s long stood at the base of that first hillside we planted with trees and which a stone mason’s inscription turned into a memorial: “They cared for this land.” The words are his take on what we as a family did over the years to reclaim the land as fecund. The trees we planted now tower over my head as I walk through them; they overshadow the stone with its enduring statement of what mattered to some people who inhabited this land.”

To order my book, request it at your local bookstore or order your copy from New Society Publishers today!

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