My Experience with Education

My Indian name is Sialia, and it dates back 6 generations. But according to the Indian Registry, my only name is my English name. I am one Indian in a long list of Indians.

My grandfather Cedric went to residential school. His name was previously Michael, but, according to the Department of Indian Affairs, there were too many boys named Michael in the schools, so they took his name and changed it to Cedric in order to avoid confusion. With name changes also came the teachings of residential school, and these teachings have rippled into my life. Six generations in total were plagued with sexual, physical, and mental assault. In addition, homicide, sterilization, medical experimentation, malnutrition, and neglect have all been documented. The fatality rate in residential schools consistently sat between 40-60% for the duration of their existence in Canada, however, the numbers are a bit sketchy because most of the records have since been destroyed.

I didn’t attend residential school, but can you imagine what that does to a child? How about 6 generations of kids, nationally?

My experience with education is longer than the years that I’ve lived, because education under the Crown is what has produced a lack of opportunity and fulfillment in my life. If I could narrow down how I’ve felt about education for Indigenous people to one word, it would be enraged. I can only speak for myself, as the concept of pan-Indigeneity erases the experiences of other Indigenous people, but many of us are angry about the complete and utter destruction of cultural identity at the hands of the Canadian government.

My thoughts on education, finances, family, politics, food, art, culture, sports, music, social structure and class, gender and sexuality, health services, and employment have all been affected by internal and external racism. It’s an all-encompassing experience that is intergenerational. As long as I am considered an Indian, I will have to endure what my parents and grandparents and their grandparents have endured. Racism and the continued effects of colonization are intergenerational because our fates lie in the hands of the Canadian government. Policies have not been changed much since the dawn of colonization in terms of land, aboriginal rights and title, etc. Being considered Indian is not a privilege, in fact, it’s caused me more trouble than it has resolved. While my status card does provide a sense of comfort with my identity, it also reminds me of the fact that I will always be patronized, surveilled, attacked, segregated, belittled, ignored, rejected, stereotyped, and antagonized simply because of that same identity. The reason I listed these components of society and racist behaviours is because it’s gruelling to deal with, and I continue to be confronted by this long list of struggles in my daily life.

My experience with education started with my grandfather’s attendance at residential school. The teachings that were instilled in him were passed down to my father, which were consequently passed down to me. Many descendants of residential school survivors share the same burdens as their ancestors (known to some as residential school alumni) even if they did not attend the schools themselves. These include relayed personal traumas and jeopardized family systems, as well as the loss of language, culture and teaching of traditions from one generation to the next in First nations communities. Assimilation into the ‘dominant culture’ was a traumatizing process forced onto an entire race of people.

It’s important to acknowledge that the assimilation and colonization of Indigenous people isn’t in the past, it’s happening today. I know this because I’ve experienced it myself, as well as many others from my generation. My experience with education can be explained with a simple metaphor: it’s like trying to stay atop a pool noodle in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. I’m using this metaphor because while it’s as easy as lounging in a yacht for some, it is often terrifying and life threatening for me to trudge my way through an unforgiving and depersonalizing sea. Everything about my education (like my peers, teachers, curricula, westernized paradigms and infrastructures of teachings) has contributed to this feeling of dread and mortality. To put it lightly, it started early on in my life. I’ll try my best to eloquently demonstrate my experience with education through a series of stories.

One day I came home from preschool, in the care of my older cousins and sibling while my parents went out. They put me in the bath, with sudsy warm water, and left me to my devices. My older cousins left the room to retrieve a towel and a new set of clothes. They came back to me scrubbing at my skin past the point of cleanliness.
Brooklyn exchanged a glance with Kayla, before kneeling down and yanking the cloth away from me.
“Why are you doing this, Reeva?” Brooklyn mumbled.
“My friends said my skin is dirty,” I said, grabbing at the cloth.
“Why did they say that?” Kayla questioned, knowing perfectly well I arrived home from preschool not covered in food, marker, or dirt.
“It’s brown. I’m dirty.”

I don’t know much about what happened after that. I asked them about it recently to gain some clarity on what I said and how I said it. All I know is that it sent my cousins and sister into a flurry of confusion, anger, and tears. You have to understand that having dark brown skin, on a reserve that is slowly becoming lighter (like cream into coffee), is seen as valuable among the community (as politically incorrect as that may seem). Many that I’ve met are perpetually terrified that with our brown skin slowly getting lighter, our culture and sense of identity will fall with it. I’ve had to pointedly avoid the thought of my people and culture could have an expiration date.

Throughout middle school, we had a Social Studies course that covered Canadian, American, and imperial history. There was always an Indigenous component at some point during the year, which was either dreaded or praised. In theory, it was dreaded because the material was seen as unrelatable and foreign to modern society. The loss of languages, cultures and the teaching of traditions from one generation to the next in First nations communities were often glossed over. In another way, it was praised as it was easier than some of the units since there were no solid dates in pre-colonial history. Certain characteristics were easy enough to remember, mostly because the curriculum glazed over them in vague detail, and this materialized into the disjointed learning of nations from random parts of Canada. Never did they consider putting thorough, sophisticated details into this unit like they did into every other topic.

The stigma towards Indigenous education around this one specific time in middle school wasn’t positive. Nonetheless, as the only identifiable First Nations student in the school besides my brother, one phenomenon never failed: The teacher would be reciting a paragraph from the textbook, something about longhouses or how Indians invented lacrosse, and they’d stop and ask the class: “Does anybody have any thoughts or comments on this?” This was obviously a Hail Mary attempt at trying to start a dialogue about Indigenous people. After an extended moment of silence, they’d turn to me and ask (where I was obviously in the very corner of the room) “and what do you think about this?” This was the gist of my experience throughout middle school. Apart from the backhanded compliments, it was the unwarranted offering of academic support that plagued most of my years there.

High school is never really a good time for anybody, so I can’t blame the teachers and students for often being in a pissy mood. I had one teacher with a bold British accent who wanted to explore Indigenous history in depth with our class. She had a passion for journalism, statistics, and academic integrity. When it came to the Indigenous unit in Socials 11, that’s exactly what she looked for in all of our assignments. As you can see, if you’ve ever taken an academic interest in the history of Indigenous people and/or the colonization of North America, it’s hard to find statistics and authenticity. I decided to write my paper on residential schools, where I knew I could find authenticity. I turned to the Canadian encyclopedia for statistics, but turned to my grandparents for real experiences. My grandfather told me about how he experienced all types of abuse, neglect, and exploitation. Naturally, after being given permission to paraphrase, I wrote about his experience in my paper and relied on his story to showcase how pitiless residential schools were. I turned in the paper, expecting to receive full marks, as I not only wrote the paper well in terms of structure and grammar, but I also did extensive research on the subject.

Receiving the paper was a different story. She handed me the paper after class, with a glare. I returned it without hesitation, seeing as I didn’t really like her to begin with. I quickly skipped to the last page to look at my mark, and it was below my usual performance. The big red writing (which seemed more glaring and obtrusive than usual) exclaimed “You cannot use your family as a primary source!!! Use the internet or a book.” Seething with anger, I marched to her desk and disputed the demerit to credibility. I was taken aback and at a loss for words. My struggle with the intergenerational effects of residential school was discredited and deemed as biased in the eyes of my teacher. Not much was done about the paper, in hindsight. It was too painful and personal to dispute with the principal and vice principal.

I’m at the University of British Columbia now. This is my last story that I will share, and the most current. I just finished off my first year, where I met people from all over the world. As Indigenous people of their own countries, the struggle with colonization was a common experience shared by many, thus solidifying my experiences and feelings. They were solidified because before meeting these people I was beginning to feel as if these weren’t there- that everything the settlers had told me about history was true, and that I really did just need to ‘get over it’.

While the story I am about to tell isn’t an experience integrated with the education that UBC gives me, it happened on campus with UBC students. I was sitting in Totem Park’s dining hall, eating and scrolling through Facebook. I overheard a very loud couple, talking about what they’d done in their lives and where they had travelled. The only reason this stands out is because the man, who made no attempt in at least concealing his blatant ignorance, started pronouncing Nation names wrong. Nations mostly near Tofino, or on Vancouver island, where he had apparently been to last summer. “Es-quee-mahlt? I don’t know how to pronounce it. I don’t know why they make it so hard to read. Like uh-cue-let. Or Na-nay-mo.” (Esquimalt, Ucluelet, and Nanaimo are already anglicized. Just for reference, it could have been a lot harder for this guy.)

I tried my best to ignore the conversation. I really did. It would’ve been a lot easier for me to just ignore it and continue on with my day, and substantially less emotionally straining.
He continues on to exclaim the word “Injun” over and over to this girl who was obviously not aware of the term. In case you don’t know what this word is, it’s a bastardization of the word Indian, and has historically been used to oppress Indigenous people in North America. The main purpose of the intrusive mispronunciation was to highlight how dumb us Indians are.
She finally got it after 9 or 10 repetitions, “Oooh, Indian!”
With each iteration, my eyes shut tighter and shoulders raised higher. Flashbacks of every racist encounter that I have ever faced ran through my head with every repetition. It was like someone was channel surfing through my memories.

Never have I been so heartbroken, and ashamed. My untarnished perspective of UBC and its students had been corrupted. I experienced enough of this throughout my education; I’ve dealt with this my entire life. I thought that maybe at a prestigious institution like UBC, it’d be different. I have been told for a long time that I would be granted merit so long as I gave up identifying as Indigenous, and make an unspoken promise to dissociate myself with my Nation.

My experience with education has been rough, to say the least. I plan on making it better. I’ve met some amazing people here, and through gritted teeth, I can say that I see a light at the end of this tunnel.

I just finished my first year at UBC, and this is my fifth month working for the organization Kite Vancouver. I’m a part of the project team, where we hold assemblies demonstrating contemporary Indigenous identity and culture. I hold this project very dearly to my heart because I wish I had an event like this throughout my education. I wish I got to witness a beacon of Indigenous excellence, in order to show me that there’s more in store for our people than what the government decides to provide.

 

ADDENDUM

It is important at this time that I write an addendum to my original piece. After reviewing my article, I realize that I have omitted some important information about my education from K-12; I believe this omission has led to an unbalanced perspective in this article, which I would like to rectify.

First of all, my K-12 years, along with my first year at university, have not been horrible times at all – not even close. My high school community has proven to me over many years that they support me, and I know they are proud to have me as an alumna. Many of my high school teachers I now consider friends, and they continue to support me as I move out of my first year of university. I attended a K-12 school that valued community connections and promoted intercultural understanding, and I truly believe my teachers and the administration did their best to support me, my brother, and my parents over the years. The school that I went to is mainly the reason why I’m at UBC, and both schools I appreciate greatly. I would not want my article to give the wrong impression, so I will try to explain what my criticisms are in the most respectful way possible.

My intention with this piece was to highlight a few isolated incidences I experienced throughout my schooling, which are a reflection not of that school, but of a deeper and more endemic problem within Canadian society. My high school was full of students, staff, and parents that all cared very much about me, and proved it everyday through their kind words and actions; however, people make mistakes. People often think they  have a clear image of what a racist person looks like, but the reality is that racism falls within a spectrum, and often even the most educated people and sophisticated educational systems miss the most critical aspects of culture. For example, while BC’s New curriculum includes Indigenous content throughout, we still have a lot of work to do. New Indigenous components in each course have been introduced, which seems progressive on the surface, but isn’t backed up with enough cultural sensitivity training, or any systematic effort to ensure the subject is taught in a way where it provides opportunity for healing and dialogue. I’ve spoken with educators who are dealing with the fear that they are going to offend Indigenous students – or worse, contribute to some of the experiences that I’ve dealt with. I am here to say there are alternatives to this fate. Educators can speak to cultural representatives, buy books that concern contemporary Indigenous identity (Chelsea Vowels’ Indigenous Writes is a great place to start), educate themselves through online courses, and voice their need for ongoing professional development involving invested First Nations community members, of which there are many.

I regret to say I didn’t deliver this piece in a way where it would open up positive dialogue. I want my message to convey that we need all dialogue to be constructive, and when either side of an opposing perspective is offended, a wall is built, and positive change is unlikely. If there’s anything I wanted in high school and at UBC, it’s change. I apologize if my original piece did not honour the intentions of my past teachers and peers.

– Reeva Billy

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