Documenting the travesties of the Indian Residential School system, the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Final Report (2015a) and the concluding Calls to Action (2015b) in 2015 signifies an opportunity for an important turning point in in Canadian education. The TRC also paints a encouraging picture of the importance of current school systems in supporting a more equitable and peaceful Canada, where the cultures and rights of Indigenous peoples are respected and upheld. Indeed, as Chief Commissioner Murray Sinclair has often declared, “education has gotten us into this mess, and education will get us out.”
But how will schools go about responding and fulfilling this commitment? Arguably, curriculum policy, ongoing professional learning, and the hiring and retention of more Indigenous educators are critical areas that need addressing. Work from Fullan (2014) and others (Deal & Peterson, 2016), however, also point to the significant impact school principals have on shaping school culture and fostering educational change. Given the current under-representation of Indigenous principals in Canada’s K-12 education sector (which is problematic in its own right), it is non-Indigenous principals who have largely been tasked with engaging with the Calls to Action and supporting their implementation in their schools and classrooms. As Tuck and Yang (2012) note, however, “There is a long and bumbled history of non-Indigenous peoples making moves to alleviate the impacts of colonization” (p. 3). Indeed, Indigenous peoples have a lengthy track record of experiences with settler ‘good intentions’, which have often served to further perpetuate their marginalization. How then might non-Indigenous school leaders go about engaging with Calls to Action in ethical and authentic ways? Recognizing this complexity, Battiste (2013) proposes what she calls Indigenist agendas, a movement which enables the supportive effort of non-Indigenous activism, while acknowledging the space of Indigenous Peoples. Accordingly, all school principals–irrespective of their cultural heritage and in the spirit of reconciliation–can embrace Indigenous allyship through deepening their relationships (with Indigenous people, with the land, etc) and attending to the accountability of these relationships.
That being said, it is imperative that non-Indigenous school leaders develop an understanding of and orientation towards authentic allyship, rather than adopting so called “White saviour” stances. While non-Indigenous school leaders might play important roles in supporting the implementation of Calls to Action, forging ahead with their own agendas simply reinforces the imposition of colonialism (Bishop, 2015). They must first challenge traditional hierarchies and constructions of authority to honour the agency and voices of the Indigenous communities they serve. It is also important to note that allyship is not something one ‘becomes’; it is action oriented, something one does (Bishop, 2015). Moreover, the title of ally cannot be bestowed upon oneself. As Smith, Puckett, & Simon (2016) note:
Allyship is something that is designated by a person or community that one is aspiring
to ally themselves with, because it is only possible for Indigenous Peoples to truly evaluate and ascertain the degree to which they think a non-Indigenous person is being their ally. Therefore, Indigenous Peoples are the only ones that can deem a non-Indigenous person an ally (p. 6).
It is this understanding of the importance of school leaders in working towards authentic settler allyship that underpinned a recent study on the efforts of school principals in Saskatchewan.
Conducted in 2018 with five non-Indigenous school leaders (3 principals and 2 vice-principals), the study illustrates that attention and care must be paid to the intricacies of settler/Indigenous relations. Colonial barriers must be dismantled and new patterns of interaction created through reciprocity, partnership, and cross-cultural cooperation. This requires re-positioning oneself not as the leader of the school’s reconciliation efforts, but as partners with Indigenous peoples in that process. According to Ryan (2016), school leaders must be strategic and intentional in how they go about engaging in advocacy work. Findings in this study, however, illustrate that reconciliation work needs to be grounded within the Indigenous principal of relationality (Kovach, 2005). Here, strategic advocacy is understood as being predicated on authentic relationships with Indigenous peoples. In particular, the principals in our study were attempting to thoughtfully position themselves, not as experts in Indigenous education, but as catalysts for supporting and acknowledging the Indigenous expertise in the communities they served. Those that had been engaged in social justice work for some time had developed strong relationships with the Indigenous community; engaging Elders and creating welcoming school spaces that honour and emphasize traditional forms of knowledge. Those who were earlier in their careers recognized the importance of such relationships and were attempting to engage but to varying degrees of success. This was particularly the case for two participants who noted that their networks and community connections were not well developed and, unlike some of their urban counterparts, there was little in the way of system-level support to assist in making those contacts.
Understanding the colonial underpinnings of their own organizations and the power structures within was also particularly important. More experienced leaders tended to have more nuanced understandings of the inner workings of their division and were better able to use those dynamics to advance reconciliation efforts by knowing who their own allies were and, at the same time, anticipating the kinds of road blocks that might present themselves. Knowledge of provincial level priorities around Indigenous student success, graduate rates, and student engagement also aided astute school leaders in carving out safe spaces for reconciliation work amidst what was perceived by other participants as competing priorities. Developing an understanding and appreciation of the diverse cultural and political intricacies of their Indigenous community partners was equally important. This was accomplished in a variety of ways including working with Elders, parents, and community members on cultural events and ongoing initiatives that extended beyond curricular infusion, like drumming and dance groups. Those in school divisions that had Indigenous consultants also spoke highly of the value of those supports in helping navigate organizational complexities and building relationships with the Indigenous community.
Overall, the findings suggest that strategic advocacy work around reconciliation must center around respect for Indigenous agency and reciprocity with Indigenous partners. There was a personal investment on the part of all five school leaders to be humble and vulnerable in accepting their knowledge gaps while trusting and honouring the knowledge of others. Experienced social justice-oriented leaders were both tenacious and strategic in their actions, utilizing strategies that were particular to their given levels of experience and the institutional context within which they worked. Newer school leaders spoke of beginning to embody this kind of orientation to allyship but were less secure in their actions.
Undoubtedly, this is complex and complicated work. Yet, if TRC Calls to Action are to secure a stronghold in Canadian schools and effect transformative societal improvements, it is imperative that school leaders be ready and willing to take up Indigenist agendas–regardless of their own ancestry or heritage. While such actions address only one small fragment of the redistribution of power and privilege required, reframing traditional hierarchies and colonial constructions of authority and leadership in schools is a good place to begin with respect to ingraining and sustaining Calls to Action as integral parts of Canadian education. While these preliminary understandings constitute the beginning of better understandings around the role of non-Indigenous school leaders in the reconciliation process and the supports needed to aid them, there is much more to be learned. Supported by funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), plans for extending this research to Manitoba and Alberta are currently underway with the hope of gaining additional insights into the manner in which school leaders in different provincial contexts are attempting to engage in reconciliation work in schools.
Acknowledgements: Many thanks to our Cultural Advisor, Elder Betty McKenna for vetting this article. We are honoured and humbled to work with such a generous and wise leader.References
Bishop, A. (2015). Becoming an ally: Breaking the cycle of oppression (3rd Edition). London: Fernwood Publishing.
Deal, T. & Peterson, K. (2016). Shaping school culture. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.
Fullan, M. (2014). The principal: Three keys to maximizing impact. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Kovach, M. (2005). Emerging from the margins: Indigenous methodologies. In L. Brown & S. Strega (Eds.), Research as resistance: Critical, Indigenous and anti-oppressive approaches (pp. 19–36). Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015a). Honouring the truth, reconciling the future: Summary of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee of Canada. Retrieved from http://www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/File/2015/Honouring_the_Truth_Reconciling_for_the_Future_July_23_2015.pdf
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015b). Calls to action. Retrieved from http://www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/File/2015/Findings/Calls_to_Action_English2.pdf
Tuck, E., & Wang, K.W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1(1), 1-40.
Ryan, J. (2016). Strategic activism, educational leadership and social justice. International Journal of Leadership in Education. 19(1), 87-100.
Smith, J., Puckett, C., & Simon, W. (2015). Indigenous allyship: An overview. Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier. Available at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/317181981_Indigenous_allyship_An_overview