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Past and present students, faculty, and community members gathered at Gzowski College, home of the Indigenous Studies department, to have a panel discussion about Indigenous education earlier this week.

The event garnered much interest as it included Former Prime Minister, Rt. Honourable Paul Martin, Founding President of Trent University Tom Symons, and Trent Graduate, Professor, and Co-founder of the Indigenous Studies department Harvey McCue.

An Honouring the Elders Ceremony was held before the talk at which Symons and McCue were inducted as honorary elders at Trent.

In opening statements many compliments were paid to Trent’s Indigenous Studies department. Symons noted that Trent was the first to establish such a department in Canada and the second in North America.

He attributes the successful development of similar programs and other Canadian Universities to Trent’s leadership.

After introductory comments and the exchange of warm regards, the three panelists opened the floor to questions from the audience.

Many had questions about the problems and potential solutions surrounding Indigenous education in early and middle grades, particularly regarding students who drop out of school after grade 10.

It was made clear that the decision of students to discontinue their education would be better termed “walk out”, as they aren’t dropping so much as they are walking away from an education system that is not meeting their needs.

McCue emphasized that often teachers sent to teach at reserve schools are not prepared to understand the context their students are coming from or the system that they are trying to teach within.

He noted that while teachers’ colleges are mandated to ensure their graduates can teach Indigenous students, it doesn’t seem they’ve developed a successful strategy for this.

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He was adamant that it is not productive to blame Aboriginal students for their struggles or to continue accessing it is as a reserve issue. He argued onus should be on the teachers to understand the circumstances they’re teaching in and to teach and engage students appropriately.

McCue also talked briefly about the particular need for teachers to teach with empathy. He noted the challenge with this need is that empathy is not a qualification which can been learned in teachers’ college.

Martin noted that the government set aside and provided money to help support reserves maintaining their own education systems, but played no part in its development. McCue added that while resources were a factor, the First Nations education system had issues that go beyond resource limitations.

An audience member told a story of meeting an 8 year old boy who was very bright but insisted he was dumb. His reasoning was that if he excelled as he could have, his education system on the reserve would not be able to support him and he would have to leave his family home to study elsewhere.

His choice was either to get the education he deserved and to excel while living away from his family and community, or to be “dumb” and be allowed to stay in his home. At the tender age of eight years old, it’s easy to imagine which would be the favourable choice.

Panelists agreed this is a problem for both the students and their communities. When students choose education, their community experiences a “brain drain.” Once fully educated, not all who left for education will choose to return. The consensus seemed to be that there is hope this aspect will improve when the entire system is given a chance to improve.

McCue also suggested that it is time for the Indigenous education system to focus on practical value.

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Another audience member expressed concerns over the lack of resources for the teaching and support of traditional languages.

She emphasized that the teaching of language includes so much more then words. It is not just how it is being said but what is being said. She notes that where there is the support to teach traditional language to youth, their knowledge and participation in traditional culture as a whole flourishes, and where language is not taught, culture as a whole dwindles.

This lead to a discussion by panelists of the Kelowna Accord, which Martin explained holds its importance in that it was “done differently.” He said that in this Accord the government, instead of assessing the situation for itself, asked the people “What are the problems you’re facing?”, and instead of offering up its professional opinion the government asked the people “What do you need, what are the solutions?”

He humorously commented that this is a difficult and scary thing for the government to do, and it is part of why the accord took 18 months to form. He notes that it is important and can be of help going forward on issues such as language and culture education.

After being elected in 2006, Harper’s Conservative government has since abandoned the recommendations laid out in the Accord.

A teacher responded to earlier assertions about teacher preparedness, noting that while teachers might know to expect a challenge they aren’t encouraged to anticipate what Indigenous students do have to contribute to the classroom.

Martin commented further that “not everyone has somebody like McCue to explain Indigenous issues to them”.

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He says that it is a huge responsibility but an important one, for Indigenous educators to explain to other Canadians what the issues are, why they exist, and the general situation as a whole.

However, some argue that teaching is not enough. Canadians must also be willing to listen.

Special thanks to all those who kept the conversation alive on Twitter. The above images were some of our favourite tweets.