Coming to Grips with Systemic Racism

November 5, 2021

Last week I had the opportunity to meet for two days at the Jointly Convened Annual Meeting (JCAM) with Ministry staff, superintendents, Indigenous Education Department leaders and Indigenous representatives from around the province. If memory serves, this is the third annual meeting where leaders from around the province gather to re-commit to equitable outcomes for Indigenous students (we really need to come up with a better name than "JCAM" to fully capture the aspirations of this gathering). I believe the impetus for the meeting stems from the 2015 Auditor General's Report on the Education of Aboriginal Students in BC. The document is well worth reading, but in broad strokes, the AG concluded that since its 2005 commitment, the Ministry of Education "had not fully exercised its duties and powers to close the gaps for Aboriginal students" in British Columbia. The report outlined issues related to lack of leadership, limited analysis of the student outcome data, and lack of systemic efficacy for doing what works for Indigenous learners. It was and is quite a wake-up call.

There are two ideas from the AG's report that I would like to tackle here, and with which I think our school system needs to come to grips, and both are related to racism. No one, particularly educators charged with the care and protection of our children, likes to have that accusation levelled at them. I must admit that the first time I heard it that I also bristled at the thought. However, let me first provide a definition used by Chief Justice Murray Sinclair, Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to make the point:

"Systemic racism is when the system itself…has put in place policies and practices that literally force even the non-racists to act in a racist way."

I know that some will take great issue with this. Who wants to admit that they work in a system that is structurally racist, or have engaged in practices that perpetuates racism? However, it's hard to argue with the evidence that I share below.

The first idea from the report is related to the "racism of low expectations." This biting indictment of the K-12 sector implied that school districts did not hold Indigenous students to the same expectations as non-Indigenous students and as such were quick to relegate them to various forms of remedial programming. When you look at the evidence, it is hard to refute. Indigenous students represent about 10% of our population, yet had three times the incidence of special education designations and were more likely to be enrolled in remedial math (e.g., Workplace Math) and language arts (e.g., Communications 12) classes. Over 40% of the students in alternate programs in the province are of Indigenous ancestry (as you know, most students fail their way into alternate programs). More Indigenous students were granted School Leaving Certificates and/or Adult Dogwood Graduation Diplomas on a proportional basis than the regular Dogwood. And, by extension, there was a dramatic difference in graduation rates for Indigenous students compared to non-Indigenous students. While there were certainly many successful Indigenous students, this data told (and continues to tell) an embarrassing story that can only be characterized as discriminatory.

The second idea is what the academics refer to as "epistemic racism." In a nutshell, it is valuing one type of knowledge over another. More specifically, it means believing and acting in ways that suggest that Eurocentric knowledge is more valuable and important than Indigenous ways of knowing. In practical terms, it meant learning from a curriculum that included very little about the contributions, culture, history or language of First Peoples of this country. It has had the effect of shaping what we all believe to be important and valuable to learn in our schools. It is for this reason that the BC curriculum now weaves Indigenous content throughout. It is also why courses like First Nations Studies 12 and English First Peoples (EFP) 12 are now included as a bona fide way to meet Social Studies and English outcomes (Interestingly, these courses are still seen as electives while the others are required).

While we are on the subject, let me ask the question: How would you feel if EFP12 was THE required English course in our BC schools, not just for Indigenous students but for everyone? As a former English teacher, my first response was to oppose the idea (My thinking: How can students possibly become culturally literate without… Shakespeare?). I had to stop and question why I felt this way, and come to acknowledge that I felt this way because I was brought up to believe that this knowledge was more important. Again, some of us will take great issue with this characterization, but you need only think for a moment about how you would feel about showing up to school every day and not seeing your culture or history being seen as valuable and important. Would school be a joyful, welcoming and safe place for you? What impact would it have on you if every message you were sent told you that your story did not matter?

I do not wish to ignore the very good work we have all done in recent years in this province to date to ameliorate this situation. It is truly commendable. Student achievement by all the standard measures at our disposal – FSA, Literacy and Numeracy Assessments and graduation rate – show that we are closing of the gap between non-Indigenous and Indigenous learners a little more each year. This is certainly encouraging news, and we still have much work to do to achieve equitable outcomes (by equity, I mean the state where student success is not predictable by cultural, racial or other demographic factors).

In order for us to live up to the promise of our education system as a key vehicle for hope, healing and reconciliation, we must come to grips with its inherently inequitable structure. Yes, we have done some very good work. Yes, we care about the success of each student. Yes, we try our best to give students what they need. Yes, we try to bring a good heart to supporting all our learners. AND we need to make our classrooms more culturally responsive and safe. AND we need to deeply interrogate structures we have put in place that perpetuate inequity. AND we need to courageously disrupt the practices which do not work for Indigenous students. AND we need to put as much value on Indigenous ways of knowing as Western knowledge. AND we need to celebrate Indigenous cultures, histories and contributions. AND we need to question our own personal biases, assumptions and privileges. AND we need to make schools more welcoming for Indigenous learners. It's hard work for sure.

In all my years as an educator, I have never lost faith in the power of our education system to transform and uplift our society as a force for good. I truly believe that the greatest test of our time will be how well our system responds to our country's commitment to reconciliation and healing. It is a daunting task for sure, but one in which I continue to deeply believe.