Taking the time to learn a few words in the local First Nations language or becoming familiar with some of the history can go a long way toward helping aboriginal students feel welcome at school.
That’s why Nanaimo school district staff, in conjunction with Vancouver Island University educators, have developed a workshop to help their employees increase their ‘aboriginal literacy’.
“We need our employees to know we’re really committed to supporting our aboriginal students,” said Stella Bates, district principal of aboriginal education.
“What it is really is a way to raise awareness around aboriginal peoples and issues.”
Six educators – three from the school district and three from VIU – started developing the workshop last May.
Aboriginal communities and elders tell district staff that non-aboriginal people don’t know enough about them, said Bates.
She said some common misconceptions include that most aboriginal people live on reserves – most don’t – or that they don’t pay taxes. The only time an aboriginal person is exempt from paying income taxes is if the income is made on the reserve and the person lives there.
Bates was surprised that some workshop participants didn’t know much about local aboriginal communities.
“It’s really difficult for people who don’t have a glimpse into the aboriginal world to understand the diversity there,” said Bates. “Every culture is distinct.”
The workshop, which can be a half or full day, runs through a basic history of First Nations peoples as well as current issues and offers suggestions on building positive relationships with aboriginal communities and students.
“I don’t think people always understand the generational effects of residential schools,” said Bates.
The most important part of the workshops, she added, is the discussion and interaction.
All six creators of the workshop are from different aboriginal backgrounds and they encourage participants to ask them questions.
“I don’t think any of us has any discomfort at all,” said Bates, a Métis from the Prairies. “You could ask us anything.”
Bates has also just finished an online version of the course.
The group has presented the workshop to some faculty at VIU and about 100 school district employees so far and Bates hopes to make it mandatory for all new employees to the district.
“With a greater understanding between the two worlds, I’m hoping their level of comfort and sense of belonging in our school district will increase and so will their chance of success,” she said.
Sharon Hobenshield, VIU’s director of aboriginal education, said the workshops are optional for faculty, but she hopes that those who take the program will recommend it to others.
“The awareness that it’s creating for faculty will support them in their direct contact with aboriginal students,” she said.
“Hopefully, it will help students at VIU to feel supported.”