Last Thursday, when Nekiiyaa Noakes heard what came out of the mouth of one of the people who works at her school, she decided she couldn't keep quiet about it.
Noakes is a young Anishnaabe woman and a Grade 11 student at Manitoulin Secondary School (MSS). Manitoulin Island sits in Lake Huron and it is home to somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000 people, almost 40% of whom are First Nations. There are six Anishnaabe reserve communities on the island, and only the largest of those has its own high school -- youth from from all of the other communities on the island, reserve and not, go to MSS.
Noakes was sitting in the school's main office. She figures no-one noticed she was there. A teacher came in and asked for a new homework agenda for a student -- an Anishnaabe student. Staff in the office told the teacher that the student couldn't have one, because he had already lost several, and the teacher then left.
According to Noakes, one of the school employees then turned to another one and said, "These damn Native kids, they're always getting stuff for free. They don't care about anything. Just like all the other Natives."
Noakes was shocked. "I was going to say something, but then they noticed I was sitting there. They just asked me what I wanted and stuff," and the moment passed.
Later, she told the school's principal what she had heard, and in response, she said the principal "just said that she was going to talk to [the employee]. That's all she said." Noakes did not feel reassured by the interaction with the principal, and said, "I felt like she wasn't really going to do much about it."
Noakes reports that while it was unusual to hear something so blatant from school staff, hearing anti-Native racism is not unusual in the school environment. "There is a lot of racism that goes on," she asserted, mostly from other students.
When Noakes spoke out on Facebook later that day about what she had witnessed, one of the many people to respond in support was D'Joni Roy, whose daughter spent a year as a student at MSS several years ago. Roy said her daughter's experiences at the school were also pervaded by racism. She was careful to emphasize that being with non-Indigenous students was nothing new for her daughter, who had "always been in an integrated school," yet through the course of that year, her daughter kept getting "sadder and sadder."
"For a year," Roy reported, "our dinner conversations were all about helping her deal with what she was subjected to at that school, or what she saw other people being subjected to: [Being] spat on. Being told not to use the washroom because white people were in there, or hearing white students say, 'Oh my god, don't use that washroom, there's a "squaw" in there.' Like, you know what I mean, who even talks like that any more?" She also noted there were instances of non-Indigenous students openly mocking Indigenous cultural practices that happened at the school, like round dances.
As well, Roy said she could recall one instance when her daughter talked about a teacher who pointed to her and a few other students from Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve. According to what Roy's daughter told her, "He said to them their parents chose to send them to MSS because of all the STDs and teen pregnancy and dropout rates in Wikwemikong. And he went on further to say that all the STDs and AIDS were coming from Wikwemikong."
Roy said she tried to address the racism her daughter was experiencing by taking it up with school officials but their consistent response was "dismissing my concerns." She said, "I just never got anywhere with it." Partly for that reason, and partly because of having to deal with unrelated family issues, after awhile she stopped pursuing it. The next year, she enrolled her daughter in the high school at Wikwemikong, which she was able to do because her daughter is a member of that community, and "it was a big, big change in my teenager."
Before, "when she was at MSS she was losing credits, she was miserable. She didn't even want to go," but now, "she's a happy kid. She's almost got perfect attendance.... She's got all her credits. And she's got good grades."
Policy & Practices
The Rainbow District School Board, under whose jurisdiction MSS falls, has no shortage of policies that relate to racism and to the experiences of Indigenous students (e.g. 1, 2, 3). These policies do things like commit the Board to creating an "environment that promotes human rights and equity of opportunity, free from discrimination and harassment" and recognize that it is "the Board's responsibility to provide a protected learning environment that is supportive of the dignity, self-esteem, and fair treatment of everyone taking part in district activities." The policies also recognize "a commitment to equity and inclusion" that is specifically targeted towards "First Nation, Métis, and Inuit students," and elaborates a framework for what that should look like.
When asked how schools are expected to implement these polices, how that implementation is evaluated, and how the Board enacts professional develompent for staff based on them, the Board's Senior Advisor of Corporate Communications and Strategic Planning Nicole Charette pointed towards numerous measures. These varied from educational material directed at students (such as information cards sent to each school dealing with the importance of respectful language) and staff (such as "professional learning sessions focused on the policy framework for First Nations, Métis and Inuit Education as well as Equity and Inclusion"); to opportunities for parental input like advisory committees and surveys; to governance tools like "work plan[s]", "measurable goals," and "staff to oversee, support, and monitor implementation."
At the level of MSS itself, the principal of the school did not respond to a request for comment on their implentation of anti-racism and cultural awareness measures. An inspection of the school's website reveals a number of potentially relevant policies, including a Code of Conduct, Student Guidelines, and a Bullying Prevention and Intervention Plan, the latter two of which explicitly name racism as an issue of concern, though only in passing and without exploring specific measures to address it.
And yet there appears to be a significant disconnect between the sentiments expressed and commitments adopted at the rareified heights of policy documents and governance processes, and the actual experiences on the ground of at least some Indigenous students. The exact nature of this disconnect is unclear.
Roy talked about a number of things at MSS during her daughter's time there that sounded likely to have been enacted in response to such policies -- a lounge for First Nations students, a First Nations guidance councillor, language classes, and so on -- but in each instance talked about problems with what was done and how, which meant that however good these measures might sound on paper, in practice they were doing much less than was needed (and in some cases were doing nothing at all) to support students like her daughter. In particular, she called for a school-level policy dealing specifically with racism, for mandatory cultural awareness training, and for changes in hiring policies.
When asked if she has ever experienced teachers or school administrators directly addressing the issue of racism with students at MSS, Noakes said, "Not really."
According to a recent report by the Chiefs of Ontario (the coordinating body for First Nation communities in the province), "While residential schools may have closed, the education in most provincial schools replicates the same content" (50). The report discusses pervasive problems with very core aspects of how schooling for Indigenous peoples in Ontario is implented, with "federal and provincial governments who continue to use education as forced assimilation" (51).
A 2013 report by the advocacy group People for Education identified that not only do provincial schools in Ontario not create the right environment for Indigenous students to succeed, noting a persistent "achievement gap" compared to non-Indigenous students, but that the education system keeps non-Indigenous people ignorant of their history and present-day reality: "There is a widespread knowledge gap in most teachers' and students' understanding of the history of Aboriginal peoples, the impact of colonialism, and the relationship between Aboriginal peoples and other Canadians" (3, emphasis in original).
Within that context, experiences of direct racism from peers and from people who work in the system is only one part of a much larger problem. Nonetheless, Murray Maracle, Education Director of the Anishinabek Nation (which brings together 39 First Nations in Ontario, including those on Manitoulin Island) said, "Racism is a pretty deep affliction. It can really have an effect on a person."
Maracle linked racist behaviours by ordinary Canadians to the examples of disrepct for Indigenous peoples set by governments and the media, which "perpetuate and promote the problem." An important impact that such direct racism in the school system can have is that Anishnaabe students "might get dismayed with the school system," making it harder for them to learn while they are there and more likely that they will decide they have no choice but to leave school.
Noakes wasn't really sure what could be done about the direct racism she sees at MSS. She has no immediate plans to pursue this incident further in an institutional way -- the next step, if she were to decide to take it, would be to raise the complaint with the Superintendent for her school. Nonetheless, she wants to see change. At the very least, she hopes they can "make it so there isn't teachers talking like that."
She was very clear that "it has a very big impact on ... students" to face direct racism at school, whether from staff or from other students, and something must be done. "When we hear that stuff, it's just an offset for the day. ... Racism isn't needed in an educational environment filled with Aboriginal students. It's just degrading and insulting."
Scott Neigh is a writer, activist, and media producer based in Sudbury, Ontario. He is the host of Talking Radical Radio, the author of two books of Canadian history told through the stories of activists, and a blogger.