By Matthew Behrens
It’s a rare occasion when students, teachers, and principal are on the same page, but that happened this year at Perth & District Collegiate Institute (PDCI), where an Indigenous studies pilot project proved so successful that it will remain part of the curriculum.
Much credit goes to Grade 12 student Brandon Cordy, 19, who approached first year principal Ron Ferguson at the start of the 2016-17 school year and “laid out what had to be done” to raise awareness of and improve the situation for Indigenous students at PDCI.
Cordy, who recalls some elementary school emphasis on Indigenous issues, didn’t hear those voices upon entering high school and was thrilled to find a very receptive and willing ally in Ferguson.
It was a welcome change for someone who, even in his own family, found “embarrassment” about acknowledging the family’s Indigenous heritage. Cordy says that was understandable, attributing that sense of shame to “a lot of messages from the media saying that Indigenous people aren’t as important to the country as the settlers, and plus there was a lot of oppression that happened.”
Cordy says he could have counted the number of self-identified Indigenous students on one hand last fall, but after he organized an Indigenous issues assembly, those numbers ballooned to 21. “It felt really good to see that,” he says. “It’s so important that we can learn our heritage in a welcoming environment, but it’s also important for non-Indigenous students to learn about different cultures and who was here before the settlers came.”
Part of that learning comes through PDCI signing on to an initiative that now exists in half of the board’s high schools: a focus on Indigenous literature during Grade 11 English, where students now read Indigenous writers including Eden Robinson, Ruby Slipperjack, and Thomas King.
PDCI Teacher Amanda Ford says part of teaching the course requires introducing students to historical events often referenced in the works, from residential schools to the 60s Scoop, and bringing in Sharbot Lake Indigenous elder Danka Brewer. Ford herself says her great-great grandmother was a Lakota Sioux refugee who journeyed to Canada with Sitting Bull “to escape the slaughters in the U.S.,” and while she was interested in that heritage, her family rarely spoke of it.
“The kids are loving the course,” Ford says. “They’re absolutely riveted hearing about residential schools and missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. It’s novel to them and really relevant to today and something they can make a difference on.”
Cordy says a number of students were angry they’d never heard of these issues. “I can see where the anger comes, because these are very horrible things in our history, and it would be quite a shock to only now find out that Canada was doing these things,” he says.
Meanwhile, sisters Mary and Tasha Buckle, who are also learning about their own Indigenous ancestry, plan to stay active at the school next fall, especially with an after-school course to learn Algonquin and a new Indigenous Students Centre being put together with Ms. Ford.
“It’s awesome to see adults so passionate and help us along because we’re just students and we can do a lot, yes, but if we don’t have an adult backing us up, most of our things go unnoticed,” says Mary, who recalls leaving school during grade 10 because of her frustration at not seeing her heritage represented in the curriculum. “But having a principal and teachers help us along is so great. I wish I’d had then what we are getting now, but the younger Indigenous kids have a better chance now.”
Asked if they experience racism once some people find out about their heritage, their answer is, unfortunately, immediate: “Without a doubt. Definitely.” But both believe that education – especially as represented in the newer curriculum choices – will help overcome such prejudice.
Ferguson, meanwhile, sees this work as part of a broader national conversation. “Many people think they understand these issues, but the truth is we’re not well informed, and schools probably haven’t done as good as job as we should have.”
PDCI’s principal remains inspired by and open to hearing concerns from any of his students. “As adults, we need to be listening to their voices about how they want our school to be.”
This article first appeared in the July issue of Hometown News. Read more of the July issue in our digital version.