Transformative Educational Leadership Journal | ISSUE Spring 2023
In this poetic and candid exploration of Truth and Reconciliation, Lori Burger offers a model for truth and reconciliation that invites both an inward and an outward journey.
By Lori Burger
Truth and Reconciliation: the phrase has a familiar ring to many Canadians. Educators in BC are seeking ways to implement the TRC’s (2015) Calls to Action in education amid the provincial curriculum change implementation of 2019. In fact, many provinces in Canada are requiring the implementation of Indigenous content and perspectives in all subject areas and grades in a cross curricular multi-grade approach. However, despite the stated need for learning on this topic for students and staff, researchers such as McDonald and Markides (2018) and Pidgeon (2016) have noted a lack of accountability and implementation aside from smaller scale, content-based or “checklist” type efforts.
Additionally, though educational leaders and practitioners may be vocalizing the need for privileging Indigenous knowledges and perspectives beyond specific content in the curriculum, the task is often not honored by all educators in a consistent way. My experiences in education have spanned from roles such as Reading Assistant, First Nations Support Worker, Kindergarten Worker, Academic Support, Curriculum Specialist Teacher, Primary, Elementary and High School Teacher, Truth and Reconciliation Administrator, and Vice Principal. In all of these roles and contexts within education, one aspect has remained the same:
Based on the experience and learning I have at this point in my life, I can say that Truth and Reconciliation is centered in authenticity, accountability, and humility.
I am the grandchild, and grandniece of residential school survivors. Generations of my family attended these institutions with results that reverberate throughout our family line. Mental, spiritual, emotional, physical, and cultural realms of my family have all been significantly impacted. Yet, I didn’t learn about the residential school system until I was a 24 years old in an university Indigenous Studies class. This revelation was shocking, devastating.
My beloved Uncle Jerry shared parts of his story with me. He asked me to help him to write about his life, and to tell his story. I am sorry to say that I didn’t accept the invitation. I felt I wasn’t worthy of the weight of responsibility this would carry and was terrified of the hurt this could unearth in both of us.
When I was completing my masters project, “Truth and Reconciliation in Education”, I found a means to process my continued learning, an emotionally challenging, continuous, and iterative experience. I was also able to discover, through poetry, an expression of gratitude for the burden he shouldered in being part of my journey. Poetry, in this regard has been essential to my internal processing, learning, and healing in Truth and Reconciliation.
With love and gratitude to my uncle Jerry: he told me parts of his story like picking up shards of broken glass bloodletting in every word he asked me to write it down how they drilled into his perfect teeth how they tried to break him. but he was strong for himself and for us millwright, fisherman, father, grandfather, husband, friend best days of his life in the cannery home with his family at last making memories to fill his heart and mind before boarding the train again in fall across the prairies. But this is not the end of the story. Though he is gone, his laughter still rings true his loving teachings and gentle manner breaking cycles of hurt and trauma the path he forged so that we could empower others with the truth.
This experience speaks to the need for authenticity in Truth and Reconciliation efforts. In the words of Pamela Rose Toulouse (2019), “this history is not anonymous”. Residential schools, Indigenous-specific racism, and systemic racism are part of the lived experiences of Indigenous peoples today. Therefore, in order for Truth and Reconciliation work to remain authentic, the work must be led and facilitated by many Indigenous peoples. Relying on one Indigenous voice risks tokenism and one-dimensional understandings.
Authenticity can be enacted through First Nations representation at all levels to ensure representation of diverse perspectives and experiences. To paraphrase author Jesse Wente, “representation without agency is tokenism”. This representation is not only necessary for authenticity of Indigenous voices, but also to respect and honor those that came before us and were denied their place as rights holders in education. It’s also to respect the experiences of students, that they may see themselves represented in the education system in ways that people like myself, were not.
Reflections on Indigenous Representation: They called me a half breed Which half? my childhood-self wondered... Called my cousin “Treaty” As we learned a fictional history in social studies. Called me a squaw as I walked down the street. Where are the mirrors? Where can I see my face, my family, brown faces, reflected? I see only windows, othering me, pushing me outside. We are not the Indians in those books, movies, jokes or slurs When we are not anywhere, We are erased. But we’re still alive. We are still here.
Authenticity in Truth and Reconciliation looks like leadership opportunities in Indigenous and non-Indigenous specific roles in education, and representation at all levels from support staff to school boards and senior leadership. It will require representation in school libraries in the books on the shelves, the media in classrooms, and the uplifting and empowerment of Indigenous youth.
Accountability moves Truth and Reconciliation from words to action. The How Are We Doing Report in British Columbia reports that Indigenous students experience lower achievement rates than non-Indigenous students. Though there has been more recognition of the need for learning from educators and students about our colonial history, this learning is not enough to remove the disproportionate barriers Indigenous learners face or to make schools safe places for Indigenous children and youth.
Our efforts have not yet eliminated the “racism of low expectations” (2015). Therefore, there is a necessity of accountability through equity. An entry point to creating more equitable systems can be found in educator learning specifically about positionality, privilege, bias, and the myth of meritocracy. Yet, we will need to continue to move beyond these entry points into culturally relevant representation in the classroom, culturally inclusive assessment practices, and combatting Indigenous-specific racism.
In some cases, educators view the concept of relationships as a separation between the academic and the emotional realm. However, we know that the existence of these relationships serves to address and dismantle barriers to success. In addition, research shows these relationships are necessary for students to thrive.
Additionally, this importance is embedded in many First Peoples ways of knowing and learning. Davidson and Davidson (2016) expressed the significance of the mind and heart connection in that “the Haida believe that our mind resides in our chest” (p. 16) and “spiritual practices did not exist separately from the transmission of knowledge. Instead, they [make] up a vital component of … education” (p. 13).
Reflections on the mind and heart connection: The heart-mind Living, feeling, learning Connected to being It is who we are One and the same Connected through spirit
Viewing reconciliation work and Indigenous knowledges as information, rather than a living, breathing, spiritual entity negates the worldview and cultural foundations from which these knowledges are born thus decontextualizing these understandings.
One such decontextualized understanding often shows up in the multicultural approach. “Equality” and “multiculturalism” are part of a continuum of challenging beliefs that provide entry points for conversations and dialogue that could challenge inequality. However, multiculturalism and equality are not end points and do not achieve the goals of equity and Indigenous Education.
Multicultural and equality approaches promote tolerance, rather than an inherent valuing and privileging of traditionally oppressed Indigenous knowledges in a tangible way. We don’t want to fault ourselves for what our entry points are. Yet, we need to focus on a compassionate, accountable inquiry approach to furthering our understandings and action in Truth and Reconciliation so that we go far beyond tolerance and equality.
Accountability is ensuring instruction and assessment practices are responsive to students with diverse needs and reinforce universal supports. Accountability looks like policy and governance practices in the school and district that prioritize enacting equity, anti-racism, Truth and Reconciliation, and accessibility for all. Accountable practice and pedagogy continuously challenge the racism of low expectations, while providing students space and agency to be leaders of their own learning.
As a learner, I have made many mistakes, and I will continue to do so. Humility is necessary in Truth and Reconciliation learning as we learn and unlearn harmful colonial practices and shift internal paradigms. Humility is also a way of being for many First Peoples, which recognizes our need to be learners, to assume with compassion, and to persevere through the learning process. A lesson I hold in my heart from my mother is that you learn more by listening than you do by talking. We must learn when it is our time to share and when it is our time to listen.
As a Nisga’a woman in leadership in Ts’msyen territory, part of this humility has been cultural humility. I was fortunate to learn from a very valued mentor that it is not my role to lead Truth and Reconciliation or set the priorities as a guest of the territory. It would not necessarily be my role to determine these priorities in my home territory. However, it is my role to engage in meaningful ways with those in leadership, and rights holders of the territory so that they may set the priorities of what Truth and Reconciliation in this territory means to them.
Additionally, I have learned that Truth and Reconciliation means recognizing and unlearning the colonial legacies of the past such as residential schools, TB hospitals, day schools and boarding homes and the ways these legacies are perpetuated today. It also means honoring the truth of rights holders of the territory, found in oral histories and ancestral knowledges since time immemorial, and the ways these knowledges inform decision making today.
Reflections on traditional knowledge: Living blood memory Heartbeat and connection Interwoven to the spiritual realm Life giving and complete Awoken and alive Cradled in collective memory
I am humbled to be part of this process in a territory that is not my own, and recognize the work and efforts that have been required by Ts’msyen peoples in bringing me alongside and learning what it means to be a guest in this territory. Humility means continually assessing my role in Truth and Reconciliation. It also means asking questions of myself to continuously monitor, ensuring that what I am doing is making a difference. Lastly, humility is the need to open the door to being wrong, making mistakes, and avoiding detours that would take away from the very real urgency in this work. The time is now.
Reflections on Truth and Reconciliation Work: hesitation masks my fear growing pains within ice cold anxiety as I open the door to feelings and truth laid bare in time for the reckoning. we can’t unsee what we’ve seen or unhear the stories set free The time is now.
Humility is understanding that Truth and Reconciliation is meaningful collaboration with the rights holders of the territory as to setting the goals and priorities of education for all learners; as what works for Indigenous learners works for all learners. It is important to have guidance in this process from local rights holders and Indigenous Education Departments. It is imperative to understand that this guidance should take place with reciprocity, and honors the truth of local rights holders.
Though we are on a challenging road, as part of humility we must remember that the most difficult work was in creating the pathways forged by survivors, like my Uncle Jerry. They are the ones who made our learning possible. As we come together to build on the work that has been taken up before us, I invite you all to contemplate the following questions:
- How do your efforts have a direct impact on student success and empowerment?
- How are you being accountable to the student achievement data in your school? In your district?
- How is your work in Truth and Reconciliation enacted with authenticity, accountability, and humility?