The Tyee

As Indigenous focus enters second year, students and teachers look at problems and progress.

image atomSarah Humchitt says she hopes BC’s new mandatory Indigenous curriculum will take some pressure off Indigenous students in the classroom

Last school year, Sarah Humchitt explained to her Grade 11 social studies class the history of residential schools. She spoke about the lingering effects they still have on Indigenous people. She used her extensive knowledge of Indigenous history and culture, a love passed down by her grandmother, a cultural storyteller. She talked about her great-grandmother, who had gone to a residential school.

Humchitt, from the Heiltsuk First Nation, was approached by her social studies teacher to help fill in gaps in the curriculum. He knew she was a wealth of knowledge and a history buff, she says. Humchitt had been learning about residential schools since Grade 1 in her on-reserve school in Bella Bella.

She had just transferred to Britannia Secondary School that year, which she chose for its diversity. Twenty-eight per cent of the school’s population is Indigenous, Vancouver’s highest concentration.

Yet some of the non-Indigenous teachers had difficulty in teaching about Indigenous content. “There were only two to three pages on residential schools in the textbook,” Humchitt noted.

A new Ministry of Education initiative hopes to change things.

The 2016 school year was the launch of B.C.’s new mandatory First Peoples curriculum in all Kindergarten to Grade 9 classes, with Grade 10 to 12 to be added this year. While schools might have had units on residential schools, now every subject — from math to science to physical education — must have some First Nations component.

The curriculum guidelines aren’t strict and mainly follow First Peoples Principles of Learning, which include concepts like recognizing knowledge as sacred and that learning takes patience and time.

But the launch has not always been smooth.

While non-Indigenous Canadian teachers may want to teach about residential schools and Indigenous culture, many don’t feel confident enough and are nervous they’ll say the wrong thing, according to a new study from MacEwan University in Edmonton. Not only were teachers apprehensive, the study found, some didn’t even know about residential schools.

Turning to Indigenous students like Humchitt is one response.

She has more knowledge than a lot of the other Indigenous students — she grew up in Heiltsuk Nation territory in Bella Bella, speaks the Heiltsuk language, and became a lover of history, following in the steps of her grandmother.

Humchitt, who is now graduated, says she was happy to share her knowledge when asked, but she hopes the new mandatory curriculum will take some pressure off Indigenous students in the classroom.

She says she experienced disproportionate expectations from teachers to chime in whenever First Nations content came up.

Humchitt was surrounded by Indigenous culture and education when she grew up on reserve. However, she says a lot of urban Indigenous students don’t have the same level of education yet are still called upon as spokespeople.

“They’re put in a lot of pressure by their teachers and peers,” Humchitt reflects. “One of my cousins is one of the only First Nations students in a class. And now that there is First Nations course work, they often look at her to explain. When, for the most part, she doesn’t have any answers because she’s lived in the city for so long. She answers to the best of her capabilities, but she talked about how much pressure it put on her. It was very difficult for her to process. I think that happens a lot.

“[In class], I’m being put under a lot of pressure, mostly because my experience is so different from everybody else,” she continued. “I’ve just recently moved away from the [reserve] and I was exposed to all this cultural knowledge and experiences and that made me so different from all the other First Nations kids. I feel like, I’ve kind of become the unofficial poster child for Britannia.”

The first year of the mandatory curriculum was Humchitt’s last year at secondary. She says the school principal stepped up and made sure that support services were available.