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Big Thinking: Dwayne Donald on Aboriginal-Canadian relations and educational priorities

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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

On What Terms Can We Speak? Aboriginal-Canadian Relations as an Education Priority

Last June, Chief Shawn Atleo made a passionate plea to all governments, education institutions and private organizations to support the Assembly of First Nations vision of creating a strong educational foundation for Aboriginal students. Across Canada, emerging educational initiatives are aimed at engaging and retaining Aboriginal youth in the school and university systems. Yet much of the research informing these initiatives focuses on identifying culturally-relevant educational approaches that can foster higher rates of Aboriginal student success. While very important, this focus implies that these initiatives are only a concern for Aboriginal students, their families, and their teachers.

In this talk, Dwayne Donald from the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta problematizes the ways in which the concept of culture is typically framed when educational initiatives focused on Aboriginal issues are considered. Following the insightful work of Verna St. Denis (Saskatchewan), Donald argues that such conceptions of culture are rooted in classical anthropology and perpetuate the belief that Aboriginal culture is the root cause of low levels of academic success for Aboriginal students.

This preoccupation with culture as problematic difference reinforces inherited colonial divides and the related conviction that Aboriginal peoples and Canadian live in separate realities. In light of these deeply learned colonial divides, Donald proposes that the educational priority should be placed on helping all students and educators better understand the historic and current character of Aboriginal-Canadian relations. Such a shift in educational priorities would enhance chances to repair and renew Aboriginal-Canadian relations on more ethical terms, fostering this relationship’s decolonization and sparking imagination around its significance for Canada today and for generations to come.

Read Dwayne's blog post on "Making love to death: Plains Cree and Blackfoot Wisdom" from earlier this year. And be sure to attend the Indigenous Knowledge and Indigenizing the Academy panel at Congress 2011, where Dwayne and other leading thinkers will explore Indigenous knowledge production, dissemination and opportunities to Indigenize the academy.

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Big Thinking

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Dwayne, I always appreciate your calm wisdom and gentle strength in which you express the discourse in Indigenous/non-Indigenous relationships. You have identified some of the really problematic ways that "culture" is taken up, in what realms and frameworks and of course, who does the analysis. Culture will always be misrepresented when it is taken up as a thing or noun, but also when we try rubix cube it as multi-culturalism as well, so thanks for that point.

Also, want to nod my head to all those people who were able to attend from government to listen, and think about your talk. This conversation is due and needs to be talked about and more importantly thought about. Congratulations to Jean Crowder Nanaimo/Cowichan MP who won her riding and celebrated victory with the Cowichan and Coast Salish people in her riding.

I also appreciate your generosity and humility. I know how painful and even sorrowful it can be to have these conversations that expose who we are from a personal, ancestral, historical location, on the stage for everyone to hear and sometimes challenge. You give the gift of yourself and your story, your ancestry and experience so that many have the opportunity to learn in your effective storytelling and tribalism through your own Cree and Blackfoot head, eyes and heart. Kee nan skimotin Dwayne, Kitatamihin, Shanne.