On a sunny morning in amiskwaciwâskahikan (Edmonton) last October, more than 100 university students, the two of us and other university instructors gathered near the banks of kisiskâciwan-sîpî (North Saskatchewan River) in the Riverdale neighbourhood.
Joining our group were Cree Elder Phillip Campiou, a cultural knowledge keeper, and members of the Riverdale Community League Truth and Reconciliation Committee.
The gathering was an event called “Knowing Where You Are.” We conceived and planned this experiential learning activity as instructors of foundational courses in the bachelor of education program at Concordia University of Edmonton.
We wanted to take our students out of the classroom to ground their learning about Indigenous Peoples and histories in an understanding of the importance of place, and to put students in a position where they could learn about where they live, study and work.
Importance of place
We chose this activity at this place because of the layered history of the bridge site, which has significance as a meeting place among First Nations, Métis and settler people.
We also wanted to foster students’ habits of wondering about knowing where they are as a starting point for their learning. We sought to cultivate and nurture habits of mind and body to inform how students enter and approach their future classrooms.
Importantly, we hoped this unique activity would instil a sense of confidence with — and commitment to — education for reconciliation.
Education for reconciliation in Alberta schools
We and other educators have been responding to four of the 94 Calls to Action released by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada in 2015.
The intent of education for reconciliation is to include opportunities for students in kindergarten to Grade 12 to learn about the histories, experiences, knowledges and contributions of Indigenous Peoples to Canada.
Call to Action No. 62 calls for government funding to enable post-secondary institutions “to educate teachers on how to integrate Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods into classrooms.” Alberta signalled its commitment to this partly through developing and implementing a new Teaching Quality Standard, which outlines six competencies for teachers.
The competencies are interconnected sets of knowledge, skills and attitudes. They provide guidance to practising or aspiring teachers, as well as those who supervise and evaluate them. One of six competencies is entirely dedicated to the development and application of “foundational knowledge about First Nations, Métis and Inuit for the benefit of all students.”
Decolonial approaches to education
For us, knowing where you are is both an expression of our willingness to fulfil a mandate defined by the Teaching Quality Standard and of our commitment to a decolonial approach to teacher education.
We take the competencies and associated indicators as only a starting point, and as minimum descriptors of quality teaching in a field that is typically cautious in its approach to change.
We strive to de-centre the physical university as the necessary site of learning, and to take an Indigenous teaching and learning approach that is a meaningful step toward decolonized teacher education.
Where do you stand?
As a decolonial approach to education for reconciliation, “knowing where you are” has been inspired by different methods of investigation, each crucially determined by local history, knowledge, conditions and purposes.
One of these methods for examining local history begins with the metaphor of digging where you stand, named and inspired by the work of Swedish author Sven Lindqvist.
Another that has guided us is Cree scholar Dwayne Donald’s adaptation of a phenomenon known as “pentimento.” Pentimento refers to the re-emergence of earlier layer or layers of paint on a canvas, which Donald explores in his 2004 article, “Edmonton Pentimento: Re-Reading History in the Case of the Papaschase Cree.”
Inspired by the work of historian Patricia Seed, Donald proposes “‘pentimento re-reading’ as a way to recover stories and memories that have been ‘painted over.’”
This involves “the acknowledgement that each layer mixes with the other and renders irreversible influences on our perceptions of it.” The tendency to separate the stories of Indigenous and settler Canadians is one symptom of the legacies of colonialism and paternalism that have characterized Canadian society.
Continuous presence of the past
We wanted to engage with a Cree principle of seeking knowledge and understanding in our teaching.
Nêhiyaw (Cree) and Saulteaux scholar Margaret Kovach writes that “we know what we know from where we stand” in her discussion of Indigenous research methodology.
This idea speaks to a notion of knowledge that emerges from the places and times we find ourselves. To us, it implies that teacher education informed by Indigenous approaches to teaching and learning ought to be pursued in a way that is aware of the continued presence and relevance of the past.
People who have made commitments
At the fall 2022 event, students cycled through three activities.
They visited the tipi (lodge) erected every summer on a prominent hilltop in a community park by Elder Phillip Campiou, and learned from him.
Students also walked to the nearby Tawatinâ Bridge to view a public art installation by Métis artist David Garneau. The installation includes 400 individual pieces of art intended as “an homage to the history, nature, and First Nations and Métis presence in the region.” We asked students to choose an art piece as a starting point for further learning.
Finally, students visited with members of the Riverdale Truth and Reconciliation Committee, who spoke of the personal and collective commitments they have made in support of truth and reconciliation.
A model for learning
This event is a model we hope students carry with them in their future careers, no matter where they live and work.
We were encouraged by how engaged the students were on the day of the activity, as well as by evidence of learning revealed in work submitted later in the term. Feedback we received tells us students enjoyed and appreciated the activity.
We are optimistic that such activities matter, though we know translating specific insights, experiences and understanding into deep learning requires ongoing commitments.
The layered nature of places — their “pentimento” quality — applies everywhere. When we understand this, possibilities unfold.
Through this approach, these future teachers — indeed, all teachers — can come to understand the importance of recognizing the continuous presence and ongoing relevance of the past in stories they tell about people and places.