Viewpoints: Reconciliation is a process that’s impacting teachers

January 16, 2018
Hali Heavy Shield, Walking Together Consultant

This June will mark two years since the signing of the Joint Commitment to Action: an agreement between Alberta Education, the Alberta Teachers’ Association, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation and other provincial stakeholders with the vision of ensuring that all students will learn about the histories, cultures and world views of First Nations, Métis and Inuit people.

This historic signing led to the creation of the ATA’s Walking Together: Education for Reconciliation project, which is being led by six consultants from across Alberta, all of whom are experienced classroom teachers with strong knowledge and expertise in Indigenous education. The Walking Together team acknowledges the traditional knowledge keepers, elders, residential school survivors and community leaders who have contributed to the positive changes we are seeing today, and who continue to guide and inspire this work.

There is a willingness from teachers to teach First Nations, Métis and Inuit foundational knowledge. However, at times, teachers have shared feel-ings of uncertainty for fear of “getting it wrong” or “offending others.”

Those feelings are valid. The Walking Together team has been working closely with teachers and school jurisdictions to provide support and resources toward teacher professional growth. In part, it is about being open to learning Indigenous history, creating a safe space for dialogue, and dispelling myths and stereotypes of First Nations, Métis and Inuit people and their communities.

We may be at different areas in our professional learning journey, but what is more important is that we are moving in the same direction, one that includes a path towards reconciliation.

For Blackfoot people, storytelling has always been a powerful way of passing on knowledge and cultural teachings. Perhaps this is why I have gravitated towards telling personal narratives throughout this work. Teachers will sometimes respond, “Why didn’t I know about this?” after learning about Alberta’s history and legacy of residential schools. Sharing my own story and listening to the stories of teachers helps to connect knowing with the mind to knowing with the heart.

My mom attended St. Mary’s Residential School, but I didn’t learn about what a residential school was until I was an adult. Being a mom myself, I now recognize the intergenerational effects of the Indian residential school system, such as loss of language and connection to place. Establishing authentic relationships and having honest conversations with educators has provided me with a great sense of hope for our youth. I am confident that we will continue to move forward in this work in a good way, one that gives voice to Indigenous people.

How do we know the Walking Together project is having an impact on teachers’ professional learning? The answer is in the stories that are shared during professional learning workshops and fieldwork. Teachers regularly share stories, whether great or small, that tell of their experience with the touchstones of reconciliation: truth telling, acknowledging, restoring and relating.

One example happened this past December, when five school boards in Treaty 7 — Kainai Board of Education, Holy Spirit School Division, Lethbridge School District No. 51, Livingstone Range School Division and Westwind School Division — all participated in the Blanket Exercise together. I believe this is a first in our province, and it shows how far we’ve come in terms of the willingness to learn and work together. Concluding the session, one elder expressed how proud he was of the participants, saying that he could never have imagined such a session happening even 10 years ago.

We may be at different areas in our professional learning journey, but what is more important is that we are moving in the same direction, one that includes a path towards reconciliation. As I am often reminded, reconciliation is a process, not a destination.

During convention season this spring, the Walking Together project will offer three new workshops:

Indigenous Alberta; Indigenous Ways of Knowing; and Collective Memories: Braiding Our Stories Through History. Be sure to attend one of our workshops to engage in dialogue and professional learning for reconciliation. ❚

Hali Heavy Shield is from the Blood Tribe of southern Alberta and has been an educator with the Kainai Board of Education for 12 years. She has been seconded as a Walking Together consultant for the Treaty 7 area and is currently a PhD student at the University of Lethbridge.

Walking Together

Visit the Walking Together website for more information on the initiative.

You can also contact WalkingTogether@ata.ab.ca.