Panelists speak to what must be protected through education

The First Nations Education Administrators Association (FNEAA) hosted a Gathering Circle in partnership with FNWSC to share stories, perspectives and visions about the future of self-determined education systems as part of the Collective’s UNDRIPA Project.

After a reflection from Elder Jeannette Corbiere Lavell, a panel of leaders representing diverse perspectives on education were asked to share their thoughts on the following three questions:

    1. What is that we hold sacred and therefore must be protected for future generations through education?

    2. How will we know that this is happening? (measurements)?

    3. What then will Canada have to do to support this work in our communities?


Read excerpts from what they had to say below:


Jeannette Corbiere Lavell

Founding member of Ontario Native Women’s Association


photo of Jeannette Corbiere LavellPhoto source: Anishinabek News


I’ll share my own experience. I went to Day School on the reserve from Grade 1 to Grade 9 then left for High School. My mother was one of the first teachers to come from our community. She went to residential school and she insisted that we learn English. My dad on the other hand didn’t go to school at all. He was missed by the residential school pickup and spoke Anishinaabemowin. When I first went to school, I ended up being the official interpreter for the classroom because the teachers were nuns and the students spoke mostly Anishinaabemowin. 

From Grade 1 to Grade 5, I could not learn. It was just beyond me. You know how they grade you and have a spelling bee and the smart ones are at the front, I was always way at the back because I wasn’t learning. There was something in my brain that wouldn’t connect to that style of learning. In Grade 5, this one teacher put me in a special group with the ones who were difficult to teach … and within one year I was able to switch it around. I went from getting zeros to getting in the nineties and went back into regular Grade 6 at the time. Then I was competing with the head of that class. 

So in our education systems, we need to have our people there who can understand our different learning styles, and if there is a barrier there, see what is causing it. We have that knowledge . . . we can identify and help our students. We have such a large drop-out rate and I’m sure one of the causes is just not making that connection. I’ve had the experience of working in land-based teaching for the last little while… and at this period of time in our relationship with the government we need to make use of this opportunity. Let’s look at developing our own ways of teaching, our own system of knowledge-gathering, and relating that to our young people, putting it in historical context, documenting, writing books and respecting our young people who were able to get into the education system and become professionals. I have much respect for them and the potential that they have for us recording our own history and looking at our ways of knowledge and respecting our language, our culture, our traditions. ” 


Joette Lefebvre

Director of Lifelong Learning, Chippewas of the Thames First Nation


Photo of Joette Lefebvre


What is that we hold sacred and must be protected for future generations through education? 

The first word that came to mind was Voice. Voice speaks to the channels of maintaining our distinct practices, learning stories that know who land is through language and experience …. Identifying voice comes from our experiences and growth with the help of mentors who have their experience they share to help increase others. 

What this looks like to me is my dad introducing me to familial harvesting homelands by sharing his childhood stories, and then taking me to visit and fish at these places where I learned from him as well as others what that responsibility means with my gifts, and my own assignment to continue this for future generations. 

A second word that came to mind was structure. Part of increasing voice is supported by familial structure. Serving a community, it’s important to reflect the familial structure … the formal structure has historically been a wall or barrier for the voice we know exists in families when it comes to decolonizing education. Families carry experiences, language, stories, wisdom, practical skills that are traditional in our values — they carry a voice that has the capability to destructure and decolonize education. Voice speaks to spirituality and it’s that spirituality that conducts how we go about things. Opening in the words of thanksgiving is an example of that. 

How will we know that this is happening? (measurements)? If we reflect voice and family structure, we speak to things like healing and mentorship. To create and control education systems and language and culture there is healing involved and there has to be mentorship.. An education system in this light is much more than just education. 

A comment on UNDRIP Article 14. I’m a strong advocate to see families transmit histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies … and to designate and retain their own names for communities, places and people. To support this, family needs to be valued as a guideline and reflected in education. 

What then will Canada have to do to support this work in our communities?  (how can the Crown support the work): Canada must address funding shortfalls and the high-cost barriers for families, food security, transportation, travel, high cost living expenses, and what I’m really seeing here is speaking to many other areas in this country … to support families and communities. In short I’d say it’s honouring family structure and reflecting family voices in everything. I’ll close by saying: Increase the voice of families, increase education. 


Catherine Shawana

Curriculum teacher, Mississaugas of Credit First Nations


Photo of Catherine Shawana

I’m really humbled by the presence of the people in this meeting today. I’ve been reading some of (their) works for quite some time now. … I want to acknowledge the teachers in my life and my family …  as my passers-on of that ancestral knowledge and that blood memory through intergenerational impact, the powerful impact we have to acknowledge.

What is that we hold sacred and must be protected for future generations through education? We’ve tapped on a lot of themes: Language, our relationships with all of our relations, to honour and respect our connection to the land, ceremonies, sacred knowledge, that inherent ancestral knowledge, our spirit and identity work. 

A couple haven’t been mentioned: how do we build those connections within our community? For some members, they may have lost that connection or are not sure how to reinstate that, and also the connection within ourselves. I think that is really what we’re looking at in education. Who are our educators? Are they not just our teachers, but our aunties and our children and our animals and the environment. And linking how our stories and history are based on ancestral knowledge – we’re building on that foundation now and how do we make connections to today’s context? 

How will we know that this is happening? (measurements)? When our future generations become our leaders and fluent speakers increase, we have healing, not only within ourselves but healing we see in the earth and the waters around us. We are living by those good life teachings. We are seeing our students meet success and education attainment, and returning back to their communities. We are seeing an increase in self esteem, a truth awakened within us and and transfer of knowledge that would occur. 

One way of looking at that is acknowledging “alternative” ways of assessing and reporting. I’m saying alternatives in quotation marks because we have ways of knowing when it comes to learning from one another and they are not any less than what we see in the current education system. We need to value this. 

What then will Canada have to do to support this work in our communities? In terms of Canada to support this work, I had the same thing (as Joette Lefebvre): Voices. Hearing Indigenous voices, support for our stories. No longer having to ask for or explain. It’s just understanding and valuing our contribution. And understanding our ways of knowing and living can’t be captured in one single moment. As educators it’s our way of living, not just a profession. And it’s something that holds true to our immediate lives and how we conduct ourselves. 


Andrea Hajt-Jacobs

Manager of Development, Sagamok (Z’gamok) First Nation 


Photo of Andrea Hajt-Jacobs - with long hair and glasses

What is that we hold sacred and must be protected for future generations through education?  

I’m honoured to share some words around the importance of remembering adult education when we speak about the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. 

Oftentimes we think about education as something that happens for children. But education isn’t something that ends when we reach a period of life where we think we are now grown. Leaving the formal education system doesn’t mean we’re no longer learning. It means now we take the knowledge that’s been shared with us and we begin to apply it to the real world…. Only through applying and testing it through lived experience can we really transform that knowledge into wisdom, which as Anishinaabe people is one of our seven grandfather teachings and one of our sacred values. 

Here in Z’gamok, we use the term lifelong learning when we talk about education. Learning is something that happens in all areas and phases of our lives. . .  from womb to grave and needs to happen throughout our life because learning is living. 

So (to answer) the first question as it relates to adult education: The role of experience as teacher is imperative to our educational systems. As many opportunities to acknowledge and recognize experience as possible is going to be important to the development of our educational systems, whether that’s credit-granting for life experience of young adults to gain maturity credits or taking learning outside the classroom as much as possible through fieldwork and cooperative education (which should be mandatory). Whether it’s on the job training, summer work for students and young adults, peer mentorship and peer support opportunities. All of these types of exposure to experience are necessary pieces to apply our knowledge which is one of the final pieces to what we consider the formal education system. 

I believe one of the final stages of learning is to teach. We know we’ve truly understood something if we can turn around and teach it. We need to create the opportunities for adults and young adults to take the final exams, to teach their learning to others through mentorship and real world application.  Application connects the knowledge to the real world. I’m a mother of two teenage daughters. “Why do we need to know this?’ Connecting the learning to how and where it will be applied is one of the most important pieces to learning retention. 

How will we know that this is happening? (measurements)? We’ll know it’s happening when we see teaching happening from our students, from our parents, from our grandparents and from our community members. They’ll want to be part of our educational systems. They’ll want to share their knowledge. They’ll want to mentor. There will be tons of people in our learning education systems and that is an integral part of our learning systems. 


Kathleen Doxtator

Oneida Nation of the Thames, Teacher, Thames Valley District School Board 

Picture of Kathleen Doxtator with headphones and a microphone

What is that we hold sacred and must be protected for future generations through education?   Definitely language and culture because it's our livelihood but also remembering our Indigenous ways of knowing and our pedagogy because it’s different from the Western system. So hanging onto those and keeping them is really helpful for our young people. I think about myself and learning … those cultural things have really stuck with me more than anything I’ve learned in a Western institution. I grew up watching my mom and grandma making fry bread, and then I got to do it with them, and then did it on my own. I was practicing. I look at it through science because that’s my background as someone who did science education, but doing those experiments each time shows you what works and what doesn’t. Also seeing how colonization has impacted our familial ties, so holding onto our mentorships and having role models in our community is really important. And remembering that our classrooms are all of creation, so it’s not just the school or certain classrooms. Everywhere we can learn something from. 

How will we know that this is happening? (measurements)? We’ll know it’s happening when young Indigenous people see themselves reflected in their classrooms and schools as Indigenous teachers. At my school there are 130 staff and I’m the only Indigenous teacher. That’s a big challenge when we serve a big population of Indigenous students. Also we need Indigenous guidance counsellors. That was something I was fortunate to have when I was going through my education and it really had a positive impact on my school journey. We need to reinvent teachers’ ed programs to ensure Indigenous students who want to become teachers will be successful. Through my schooling there was no talk of Indigenous pedagogy or Indigenous ways of knowing. It was just Western and that didn’t always align with my core values and beliefs. We’ll know it’s happening through curriculum, when Indigenous content is local and relevant and topical and present and living. And when students can go into schools and see themselves reflected, not just in superficial pictures, but when they have spaces in schools if they need to go and smudge. So really decolonizing classrooms and institutions. 


We’ll know we’re on the right track when students can go to school and be proud of who they are and share where they were from with pride and carry on in a good way.


During my post-secondary experiences, I started to say I was from London because I didn’t want to have to educate people about who I was and be open to their criticism and stereotypes of Indigenous people. When that lessens I know we’ll be on our way.

What then will Canada have to do to support this work in our communities? Definitely fully funded language programs and accreditation. Oneida is in a dire state with our language. We’re losing it very quickly so that’s been a challenge for the last 10 years. Having accredited programming where our students can get funded and not have to struggle while they are taking on such a big task like learning the language, and paid funding leaves for language learning. Special education programs. . Funding for First Nations to create their own certification and training for teachers to give them that independence and self governing aspects. Paid parity for teachers on reserve compared to  provincial school boards. Our teachers never stayed more than a year, because they would leave for something better because we couldn’t offer them an equitable rate that would keep them there, so (as students) that really challenged our relationships with our teachers.




Karissa John

Restorative justice worker, Six Nations of the Grand River 


Photo of Karissa John, woman with long dark hair

What is that we hold sacred and must be protected for future generations through education?  It’s important to protect all that sustains us. Of course our languages, restoration of traditional values, beliefs and ways of knowing, being and doing, the knowledge of our laws, our agreements on behaviour and our codes of conducts and customs. 

The restoring of our responsibilities and our roles in our communities, learning about our origin stories, clan systems and traditional governance. Teaching our kids and families about our ceremonies, our songs. Learning about healthy, pre-contact parenting, peaceful relationships, land-based education, hunting, fishing, food sovereignty, gardening, harvesting … Learning about the water and medicines that grow along its shores and the fish in it, and how to respect it and protect it as a sacred and living being. We need to have lifelong learning that uplifts and enhances, holistic education that nourishes the spirit and celebrities and honours the indomitable spirit of our ancestors. 

How will we know that this is happening? (measurements)? We’ll see healing among our people. We’ll see less addiction, violence and incarceration. We’ll see fewer children in care, and we’ll have more peace within ourselves and our experiences, more peace in our families and communities. We’ll see families of language speakers, community engagement, ceremony, governance, education, leadership, etc.

What then will Canada have to do to support this work in our communities?  These efforts must be meaningful, not just tokenized gestures. They need to listen to the voices, specifically of this group, that’s at the forefront of making sure our voices are heard. It can provide restitution. We are still paying for the impacts of colonialism, Indian residential schools, child welfare, systemic racism and oppression. Canada needs to provide the funding needed to adequately develop and implement curriculum that will enhance our overall well-being and ability to thrive well into the future. 

Infrastructure funding should be provided to every First Nation to build schools that are safe and reflective of local cultural identities, epistemologies, and pedagogies. Financial support should be provided to enhance lifelong learning, especially in the revitalization and attainment of our original languages. Moreover, Canada needs to finally realize its promise of bringing clean drinking water to FN communities for a healthier community and learning environment. Canada needs to be aware of its role in the ongoing systemic racism, inequalities and injustices Indigenous peoples encounter and be accountable. Their schools are responsible for breeding a culture of ignorance. 

As Murray Sinclair said, at the same time our grandparents and aunties and uncles were being taught in residential schools that they were savages, inferior and less than, Canadian students were told the same thing. Universities and colleges are responsible for preparing future (professionals), but what kind of a disservice are they doing by teaching them half-truths. They failed to educate people on the founding treaties of this land, and on the reasons the Canadian government has a fiduciary obligation to Indigenous peoples. More work needs to be done with Indigenous peoples to establish Indigenous curriculum and strategies for increasing Indigenous peoples in education both at the student and staff level. Canada needs to work with us in raising awareness and  consciousness of settler Canadians. They need to unlearn and relearn the histories of this land. In order to move forward in a good way, we need to reframe our relationship and we have the early treaties – the Kuswentha, Silver Covenant - to look to for guidance. The principles of peace, friendship and respect includes non-interference in our affairs – which include passing on our ways of being and knowing for future generations.

 Indigenous Peoples are pushing the parameters in all sectors of society. We are asserting ourselves, our ways of knowing, being and doing and our pedagogy into the academy.  Our knowledge needs to be respected and our path needs to be supported and no longer repressed.