Education is key to reconciliation: Nunavut teacher

"The most important starting point is to have a shared narrative"

By SARAH ROGERS

Nasivvik High School in Pond Inlet. (PHOTO COURTESY OF B. BOUTILIER/BLOGSPOT.CA)


Nasivvik High School in Pond Inlet. (PHOTO COURTESY OF B. BOUTILIER/BLOGSPOT.CA)

Nunavut’s education system can and should be a powerful tool for healing historical trauma and the relationship between Inuit and non-Inuit in Canada, says a Pond Inlet teacher.

Jay McKechnie, a social studies teacher at Nasivvik high school, wants to see the territory’s curriculum do a better job addressing Nunavut’s colonial history.

Under its Sivumiut Abluqta mandate, the Nunavut government has made education its number one priority.

But the territory is missing an important opportunity for reform, McKechnie says in a paper called “Education as Reconciliation,” published in the Journal of Curriculum and Teaching.

“The GN [Government of Nunavut] sees education as the means of obtaining jobs within the ever-increasing resource development economy with the objective of decreasing government dependency,” McKechnie wrote in his paper.

“This of course is a noble task in respect to the history of colonialism [and its] effects on Inuit autonomy,” he said. “But I would argue that this does little to confront the more sophisticated issues of trauma that persist in Nunavut communities.”

McKechnie, originally from Kingston, Ont., has taught social studies in Nunavut since 2007, most of that time at Nasivvik high school in Pond Inlet.

In 2013, he completed a Masters in Education through the University of Ottawa. His research flowed from his own work experience using education as a tool for reconciliation between Canada’s Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples.

“It’s a pretty passionate thing for me, the idea of reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples,” McKechnie told Nunatsiaq News. “And I’m in a pretty privileged position to engage on this topic on a daily basis.”

McKechnie worked to develop a curriculum module on residential school reconciliation which is now taught in Grade 10 classes in both Nunavut and the Northwest Territories.

But that kind of curriculum is far too rare in Nunavut schools, he said — and practically absent in a more southern setting.

“So I wanted to look at what reconciliation would actually look like; what does it mean?”

In his paper, McKechnie refers to the “colonial gaze,” which he uses to describe the way Western culture perceives Indigenous culture through its own lens, which in turns leads to misunderstanding.

“It’s a Canadian problem,” he said. “But I think that applies to a lot of us, as teachers — look at things through our own regional lenses.”

And that’s lead to tension in Nunavut’s education system, McKechnie said, which relies on hiring non-Inuit teachers — many of whom have had little to no experience in an Indigenous setting.

It’s only through an open dialogue on inter-generational trauma that his own students keep him “in check,” he says.

Canada’s history is full of dichotomies, between east and west; French and English-speaking; Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, he said. “But we have to try and find a third way.”

“I think the most important starting point is to have a shared narrative,” he said. “It’s such a heated conversation to have but it’s so important to have a mutual understanding of our history.”

For education to fulfill this goal, Nunavut’s schools need to empower Inuit youth by facilitating that discussion, he said.

“I have a sense that there’s a growing awareness of the need to incorporate traditional knowledge into curriculum,” McKechnie said. “Nunavut is really great because we have so much opportunity for professional development.”

“We could be the leaders in Canada, to show how it’s done,” he said.

You can read McKechnie’s full paper here.

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