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College Quarterly
Summer 1994 - Volume 1 Number 4
Native Education at Georgian College.
by John Hodson

Faculty at Georgian College are exploring the challenges and curriculum implications of an educational Needs Assessment Study completed recently by representatives of all the First Nations within the Georgian catchment area. To foster a clearer understanding of the issues involved, this article discusses some important historical and philosophical perspectives. It also explores possible approaches that may enhance the effectiveness of the college experience for Native Canadian students.

Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic, and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department and that is the whole object…. - Duncan Scott, 1920.

Perhaps no other author has more thoroughly encapsulated the driving principle behind Canadian Native policy development than the 1920 declaration of Duncan Scott, father of the Indian Act.

Three quarters of a century after Scott expressed his overall goal, his final objective appears to be within reach. In a recent announcement Ron Irwin, Minister of Indian Affairs, revealed his “intent on dismantling his department.” Further, he urged Manitoba Native leaders to “begin the process.” It would appear that the last piece of the puzzle is about to fall into place.

What about absorption into the body politic? What success has been achieved, what has been accomplished?

The overall outcome on Native communities has been the establishment of an oppressed minority within a First World context a community whose individuals endure more violence, more family breakup, more suicide, more imprisonment, more economic inequity, more substance abuse, and more failure within the educational mainstream than any other identifiable group within Canada.

For generations the dominant culture has laboured under the mistaken, misdirected belief that given a combination of the right stimuli or circumstances “they” could be made just like “us.”

This mindset provided the justification that allowed the establishment of an educational system that kidnapped and incarcerated Native children in residential schools where language, culture and spirituality were systematically stripped away leaving the children emotionally damaged, unable to function in either the dominant culture or their own Native world. Modern day educational experiments have fared no better, when one considers that the majority of Native Canadian students never graduate from high school let alone enter college or university settings. As Paulo Freire argues, “Educational plans have failed because their authors designed them according to their own personal views of reality, never once taking into account (except as mere objects of their actions) the men-in-situation to whom their program was ostensibly directed.” (Freire, 1970)

Clearly the problems go deeper than just a lack of interest, an unwillingness, or an inability to learn within a Euro-Canadian educational context. Rather it is the development and internalization of a complex set of spiritual, sociological, and, psychological barriers that have become a culture of oppression in which 3.9% of the Canadian population live and that affects everyone.

At this point in the twentieth century there exists a dawning sense that the western style of capitalism, by which we mean materialism, has not fulfilled what was promised. We grudgingly acknowledge that something is not quite right with what we have created, but we persist in ignoring the physical evidence of destroyed ecosystems, homelessness and societal breakdown. The reality of what has been wrought is the creation of an oppressive system that only values what it can fix a monetary value on, and measures individual success by the accumulation of “stuff”.

“For the oppressors, what is worthwhile is to have more-always more-even at the cost of the oppressed having less or having nothing.” The natural evolution of this mindset is the establishment of two groups, the “haves” and the “have nots.” The haves eventually believe that to have is an irrevocable birthright, and those who do not have are banished to the margins of the society where their “resentment” and “envy” become endemic. Any movement they make towards humanization is seen as a subversive activity by the oppressor to be resisted by any means necessary.

Clearly we are not ready to look to alternatives; we content ourselves with “tinkering” in hopes of falling on the magic combination that will correct all things.

There is, however, evidence to suggest that the collective conscience of Canadians may be unwilling to ignore the reality of the Native experience any longer. This discomfort that the evidence of the past invokes may be the starting point for the creation of a national educational vision that will free both the oppressor and the oppressed. Freire concludes, “only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both” the oppressor and the oppressed.

Just as Scott's narrative encapsulates the main motivation in the Euro-Canadian historic dealings with Natives, the adoption of a revolutionary set of values will institute a positive outcome.

There are spiritual principles, or what some call values, by which solutions can be found for every social problem. Any well-intentioned group can in a general sense devise practical solutions to its problems, but good intentions and practical knowledge are usually not enough. The essential merit of spiritual principle is that it not only presents a perspective which harmonizes with that which is imminent in human nature, it also induces an attitude, a dynamic, a will, an aspiration, which facilitates the discovery and implementation of practical measures. Leaders of governments and all in authority would be well served in their efforts to solve problems if they would seek to identify the principles involved and then be guided by them. (The Universal House of Justice, 1985)

James Dumont, Department of Native Studies, University of Sudbury, believes that five hundred years of colonization have developed an attitude of dependency and that the first step to break out of the oppression is for both oppressed and oppressor to decode the collective thinking of the resulting oppression and then systematically move away from the values that have been imposed by colonization.

Mezirow [1990] suggests that the first step in societal transformation is to transform the individual. Freire proposes a two stage transformational mechanism that partners both groups and begins by “unveil[ing] the world of oppression” and explores “their view of the world and their ethics.” Once the collective “oppressed consciousness” has been revealed to both oppressed and oppressor both are committed to transformation through the praxis.

The second stage recognizes that the “reality of oppression has been already transformed” and the resulting pedagogy becomes the property of “all people in the process of permanent liberation.”

Both stages call for an element of action in depth in confronting the culture of domination. Freire warns that the emerging structure will be “haunted” [by] the spectres of the old order and that it will be characterized by the initial “fear[ful] of Freedom.”

The Anishnabe Education and Training Circle (AETC) is an organization that represents all of the First Nations with the Georgian College catchment area. Recently the AETC completed a Needs Assessment Study (NAS) of stakeholders and key informants within the post secondary system. One of the main findings of that study clearly suggests that “many native students suffer from an inferiority complex”, this points to the need for transformative education and suggests the important role that it plays in ensuring personal growth, development and academic success.

It must be recognized that transformative education is an individually driven process and that the transformation is done by challenging what has been taken for granted, or has been perceived as every day truisms. Stephen Brookfield comments about the process, “When people question the assumption underlying habitually accepted ideas or actions, they end this process by discarding some of these.” (Brookfield 1990) This becomes the key goal of the Transformative Year: to begin the process of challenging ideas and embracing new ones.

This can not be attempted without considering the makeup of the learner.

Characteristics of the Native Learner: Values

Native culture has produced a distinctive learning style that is based in the very mists of time. Native mythology contends that when the four races of mankind went out from the Creator each was given a gift that was to become the primordial difference of each race. The red race received the gift of total vision, says J. Dumont; “vision that was 360 degrees and took into consideration both the physical and the spiritual aspects of the world.” Within the contemporary Native community “everything begins with a holistic vision, that generates a level of respect that comes from understanding the intrinsic wonder of creation, knowledge, wisdom and the dignity and freedom of others.” (Dumont, 1993)

Not surprisingly this has historically been the basis for continued cultural conflict between the oppressed and the oppressor, especially when one realizes that the white race's primordial gift is movement that carries with it the tendency to not consider the ramifications of actions.

Learning Style

The same values also form the basis of a distinctive learning need which is characterized by a hands on approach and a high degree of participation.

Richard Courtney recounts his experience teaching a course on Indian Dance at a college in British Columbia. Being totally unprepared, and knowing nothing about the subject he “sat cross legged on the floor and began to beat a drum to an Indian rhythm.”

To his astonishment and “within an hour, the whole group was dancing, learning from each other, demonstrating, gesticulating.” This self educating went on for six months after which part of the group “formed a professional dance company that toured Canada.”

According to the learners, two factors were responsible for the course's success. “First, they said, I took their time, respected them as people, and did not try to impose my mental structures upon theirs; second, that what was being done and the way they learned it, was from their point of view from their total context.” (Courtney, 1992)

Academic Delivery

Delivery of the academic component poses unique multi-level challenges. The fact that the learner feels fundamentally inferior and is an adult learner would imply the need for a highly skilled multi-dimensional team, comfortable as facilitators and capable of challenging learners to go beyond their own beliefs, as well as conveying knowledge and skills.

The Transformational aspects of the program will depend on an interdisciplinary team who would seek out, through observation within the community and in various circumstances the “generative theme(s)” of oppression. Through the process of “decoding”, writes Freire, the themes are rendered down to their “basic contradictions” which become the basis of course content. The learners externalize their themes and make explicit their “real consciousness” of the world. As they do this, they begin to see how they themselves acted while actually experiencing the situation they are now analyzing, and thus reach a perception of their previous “perception.”

Success of this process is dependant on the use of culturally sensitive college faculty, administration and support staff who have completed a Native Ways Training Program and can design, create and promote a culture of empowerment within the learners.

Curriculum Design

To assure that the academic courses are relevant and address the needs of the individual learner, modular courses would be developed allowing the learners to progress at their own speed and to ‘test out’ of sections that they are competent in.

This is especially important for learners who wish to ‘fast track’ through the program. Flexibility within the program design and delivery is an especially important consideration when one considers the varied needs of the Native learners. In fact the AETC projects that fully “65% of the learners would be considered Adult Learners”, with the balance falling well outside of the range of current academic qualifications for College entry. (NAS, 1993, p.45) This suggests that the college faculty, administration and support staff should also have a strong background in Adult Education.

On completion the learners would have the maximum number of transferable skills and credits to ensure success in a college setting as well as courses that will enhance the self-esteem self-confidence, and related life skills.

The Case For A Transitional Year Program

Freire's call for “action in depth” is achieved through a Transitional Year of Education. The program would be delivered at the First Nation level, and would recognize the need for community control and input as well as the opportunity for including the whole community in the praxis of Transitional Education.

A great deal of the adult educational literature agrees that praxis is not purely an intellectual process, rather, adds Freire, it must involve action, “nor can it be limited to mere activism but must include serious reflection: only then will it be praxis.” Perhaps most importantly the process taps into the strength of the community in support of the Native learner.

In short, the Transitional Year Program sows the seeds of success for the Native Learner, and the success of delivery. The consultation and collaboration with the community also provides an emotional investment by the community, thereby providing the impetus to transform the greater community's self image through the continued success and the associated action of the learner.

Encouraging Coordination of Native Resources

The AETC in partnership with Georgian would coordinate the delivery of culturally relevant programs that are already in existence in the Native community, through organizations like the Union of Ontario Indians' Anishinabek Career Centre and the Canadian Council of Aboriginal Business.

Program Outcomes

The Transitional Year Program would achieve three distinct learning outcomes. First, and perhaps foremost, personal transformation through transformative courses that are culturally specific, including Native Language, History, and Traditional Teachings. Secondly, a holistic counselling program that would include career and academic planning as well as life skills development. Finally, the development of college survival skills, including academic updating in Mathematics, Communications, Computer Applications as well as the development of research skills.

The Learning Environment and Evaluation

The establishment and maintenance of a productive learning environment must be encouraged at every opportunity. It is only within a secure environment that personal transformation will occur. This is accomplished through the use of various tactics including the elimination of Geogian's standard evaluation explanation. This abandonment is an attempt to move away from a teacher-centred, control-oriented environment to a more adult-centred environment where the student is encouraged (forced) to take the responsibility of creating the Code of Behaviour and the Evaluation scheme. Evaluation details would be developed to address the needs of the particular First Nation students.

In this environment the Professor acts more in the role of guide or facilitator, encouraging personal exploration and emphasizing important findings, a model of attitudes and behaviours and finally an enhancer of personal security.

Course Content and Resources

The required resources compliment the macro to micro approach. The use of the two texts, Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, and Black Elk Speaks provides a comprehensive overview of the historic facts of Euro-domination and the disenfranchisement of many First Nations. The first provides the macro understanding through the historical narrative of the destruction of Native North Americans that includes the Native view of major events. The micro view is facilitated through the study of the second, which is a personal account of one man's journey from his own culture to imprisonment on the reserve system in the United States. Finally, the CBC drama, Where the Spirit Lives explores in graphic detail the social reality of Canada's Residential Schools and the associated impact on Native culture and family life.

First Nation Resources

The most relevant resources are those that are found on the student's First Nation especially with the Elders of the community and the associated oral history.

The students will be exposed to and encouraged to seek out their community's historic situation relative to what is being studied at that particular time.


The primary objective of the program is to move from reflection on the reality of the community and the individual to action.

Action has the effect of maintaining a direct link with the community. It encourages ownership in the program, and also has the potential of developing solutions to long-standing social problems. It deepens the emotional link between the student's academic aspirations and the community which in turn enhances the self-image of both.


There are few times when so many factors seem to align themselves in such a significant way at such a significant point in a country's history. A window of opportunity exists now to address the wrongs of the past and to take a leadership role in the healing of a nation. That window may not open again.

Tough (1987) provides some direction for educators when he suggests that “adult educators must regain their sense of social mission”, and that they have a major role to play in “fostering and facilitating change.”

Let us take it to heart and act on it.


Brookfield, S.D., [1990]. The Skillful Teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Courtney, R., [1992]. Recognizing, Selected Writings on Drama and Education, Pembrock Publishing, Markham, ON.

Dumont, J. [1993]. Justice and Aboriginal People. National Round Table on Aboriginal Justice Issues.

Freire, P. [1970]. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Mezirow, J. & Associates. [1990]. Fostering Critical Reflection in Adulthood. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

The Promise of World Peace. [1985]. Haifa, Isreal: The Universal House of Justice.

Tough, A. [1987]. Potential futures: Implications for adult educators. Lifelong learning: An omnibus of practice and research, 11 (1), 10-12.

John Hodson teaches at Georgian College in Barrie, Ontario