Canada, Classroom Perspectives, Indigenous & First Nations Peoples, Social Justice

Éy Swáyel! Welcoming Indigenous Pedagogy as a Canadian Educator 

Éy Swáyel! Welcoming Indigenous Pedagogy as a Canadian Educator 

Originally published in TEACH Magazine, 75 Years of the Canadian Citizenship Act Special Issue, 2022

By Nikita Griffioen

What does it mean to be Canadian? For me, that question has several different answers.

In a personal sense, my identity as a citizen of Canada is tied to my love and appreciation of nature. I’m lucky to live in British Columbia, where the mountains, desert, forest, and ocean are both my home and my playground. The indescribable beauty of living here cannot be explained so much as it must be experienced. From scaling the Stawamus Chief on a weekend, to taking a dip in the Salish Sea, or avoiding rattlesnakes in Nk’Mip desert on a hot August day, the province’s beauty is unparalleled (even our licence plates proclaim it—“Beautiful British Columbia” can be seen on every car).

With the privilege of living and teaching in a place such as this, however, comes an important responsibility, one that speaks to another part of my identity as a Canadian: educating students about Indigenous history and working towards reconciliation with the Peoples who have resided on this land since time immemorial. As an educator in Canada, whose homeland has been inhabited by Indigenous peoples long before me, I have the opportunity and responsibility to teach this history to my students.

Together these two parts of my identity, personal and professional, define what being Canadian means to me.

Red and Orange

Last year, on May 5th, the Indigenous Leadership team at the secondary school where I work organized a demonstration to commemorate Red Dress Day. They put great effort into taping 4,000 cut-outs of red dresses to every door, wall, and window of the school’s airy rotunda. I had donned red that morning myself, to raise awareness for the more than 4,000 Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

Though such a staggering number of women and girls have gone missing, their families have not received closure or answers regarding their whereabouts or perpetrators. I, along with many of my colleagues, wore red not to pay homage to the red on Canada’s flag, but rather to demonstrate solidarity in our desire to bring justice to these cases.

Not even a month later, the unmarked graves of 215 Indigenous children were found at a former residential school in Kamloops, with more graves being found at other schools afterwards (and still—such findings are ongoing). These residential schools were Canada-wide, a government and church-driven initiative that stole Indigenous children from their families and forced them into boarding schools, where they were stripped of their language and culture, and subjected to physical and emotional abuse.

The last residential school did not close until 1996, and the trauma these schools caused is still prevalent in Indigenous communities, as younger generations struggle with the horrors that their parents and grandparents experienced. Canadians wear orange to honour them—the deceased, and those living today.

Though these facts are shocking, they are not unique. Time and time again, stories of injustice, prejudice, and racism towards Canada’s Indigenous peoples are brought to the surface. Many of those injustices are still happening to this day. In light of this, we must ask ourselves: how do we work towards true, healing, and authentic reconciliation? I believe it begins with education.

Reconciliation through Education

The school where I work has a wonderful and innovative Aboriginal Education Program. This program houses teenagers with Indigenous backgrounds, giving them access to additional support, counselling services, cultural exploration, and adults to advocate for their well-being (both academic and personal). Students and educators who are part of the program also work to educate the rest of the staff and school regarding Indigenous knowledge.

Sometimes Indigenous students can be seen dancing in the rotunda in traditional dress, drawing everyone into their culture with beautiful and thoughtful movements. These dances are often organized by the students themselves; with the support of the Aboriginal Education Program, they feel empowered to share their culture in various ways. Staff and students can watch these dances and be introduced to some elements of Indigenous tradition.

However, programs like this do not exist in every school. There are both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students who attend school knowing nothing of the history of injustice towards First Peoples in Canada. Without knowledge of this oppression (both in the past and what is occurring today), steps towards reconciliation cannot be taken.

This is why it’s important for me, as both a Canadian citizen and as an educator, to teach with reconciliation in mind. This can be a daunting task, especially as a white teacher; respect is needed for Indigenous protocols and history. But instead of letting the immensity of this undertaking lead us educators into apathy, we must learn how to teach with an Indigenized curriculum.

This does not mean simply inserting Indigenous facts into our lessons. Rather, curriculum can be taught with Indigenous pedagogy in mind, gently welcoming students into Indigenous knowledge and practices without risk of tokenism. It’s important to differentiate between knowledge and appropriation—forcibly incorporating Indigenous ideas or methods into lessons, without understanding the significance behind them, is appropriation.

How can we begin to reach this understanding? Educating ourselves about Indigenous history and the Indigenous land we are on is a great place to start.

Indigenous Knowledge in the Classroom

Students must first be taught about the history of Indigenous peoples and the injustices done against them, including residential schools. This knowledge fits neatly into a social studies curriculum but can also be worked into others: English classes can read short stories, novels, or essays from Indigenous perspectives; science and math classes can take a look at case studies regarding areas or statistics where these things transpired.

After getting students familiar with the facts and truths of Indigenous history and events, Indigenous pedagogy can be implemented into the classroom, regardless of subject matter. Several ways to do this include having students move their desks aside and put their chairs in a circle, omitting any “head” position and meeting one another on an equal level, or having a class discussion reach a consensus, with all students listening carefully to each other, reiterating the importance of respectful debate and encouraging empathy. In doing so, an educator is embracing Indigenous ways of teaching.

I utilize these methods in my own classroom and talk with the students about why I choose to do so. As these practices are inclusive, gentle, and fit well with any curriculum, they are well-received by students. By encouraging active listening, compromise, and not allowing myself to take a “head” position, this also helps to create a sense of community in my classroom, and feelings of comfort between the students.

Learning simple phrases in the Indigenous language of your area can be another effective way to include Indigenous content. For example, on the unceded shared territories of the Stó:lō people, Sema:th and Matheqwí First Nations, the phrase “Éy Swáyel” with hands raised is an appropriate and friendly form of greeting.

Inviting Indigenous Elders to speak with students, if possible, is also a wonderful idea. In doing so, it is important to follow proper protocol. Each Indigenous land area differs in terms of protocol, so it is vital to familiarize yourself with what to do. For example, it can be appropriate to present the Elder with a gift of sweetgrass or tobacco (depending on where you’re located) when asking them to come into the classroom to share their knowledge. After they speak to the class, another offering is presented to them.

Another gift to give an Elder would be the inquisitive minds of the students. Having the class prepare questions beforehand and creating an open dialogue during the Elder’s visit demonstrates respect and interest for the knowledge being presented.

Ask Questions, Ask for Help

The most important thing for educators to do is identify their own biases and gaps of knowledge. This can start by asking ourselves questions such as: How has my mindset been colonized? Where do I see underrepresentation in my lessons or curriculum? What are the areas I do not feel confident in addressing? There is a difference between going to the Indigenous department at your school to ask for an assignment to hand out, and actively working to identify your own biased mindsets and to remedy them with self-education and reflection.

Do not be afraid to ask for help; Indigenous departments will have useful resources for educators wishing to broaden their own knowledge. The more Indigenous knowledge we have, the less room there is for bias, and the more readily we will be able to create welcoming and inclusive lessons.

As we embrace and educate ourselves regarding Indigenous knowledge and pedagogy, we need to acknowledge that this takes time and genuine effort. As formidable or unfamiliar as the task could be, there is authentic worth in working hard at this to ensure we are fostering healthy mindsets towards Indigenous ways of being in our students.

I acknowledge that I am still on my own learning journey when it comes to incorporating Indigenous practices and knowledge into my teaching. As a non-Indigenous person and educator, I believe it is important to make sure that all students feel safe and welcome in my class. I also believe it is crucial that they be introduced to Indigenous knowledge. In order to accomplish this, I need to continue identifying my own biases and areas where I lack knowledge.

I know there is no way that I can fully understand the tolls residential schools have taken on Indigenous peoples, but I can acknowledge and educate myself about that portion of Canada’s history, and do my part as a responsible Canadian citizen by working towards reconciliation in my own teaching practices.


Nikita Griffioen currently teaches in Abbotsford, BC. When she’s not in class, you can find her traveling, snowboarding, surfing, reading, or making art.