Lost Voices by Lisa Shea for EDU 5265 Internationalization of Curriculum Studies

Lost Voices by Lisa Shea for EDU 5265 Internationalization of Curriculum Studies

The students played dumb, went silent, and, in some cases, chose to drop out of school. All these were mechanisms of both resistance and psychological survival. (Wane, 2009, p.164)

Lindsay M. is a friend of mine. When we first met, she was working at the Cree Friendship Centre in northern Quebec where I lived for four years. Lindsay invited me to the walking out ceremony of Bedabin, her one year old son. Lindsay and her mother never had their own walking out ceremony as these were discontinued (and often forbidden by the Church) throughout most of the 20th century. I spent a weekend in the bush just outside her community Mistissini. The weekend of Bedabin’s walking out, I slept outside her grandmother’s home in the bush in a pretty cozy tent. Josephine, her grandmother, liked me. I could tell because she kept feeding me bannock and strong tea. And Josephine, she smiled lots, but said next to nothing. I asked Lindsay afterwards if her grandmother was an introvert. She just laughed because Josephine is quite a storyteller, it turns out, though not in my presence.

In the 1950’s when Lindsay’s mother was six, Josephine did not want to send her daughter away to school in Fort George where other Cree children went to elementary school. So Josephine and her husband Simeon left the community and returned to the bush where they raised their daughter. They wandered the outskirts of Waswanipi, Waskaganish, Chisasibi and Whapmagoostui to continue living off the land as their ancestors had done. It was not that they did not want their daughter to be educated in Eurocentric ways, per say, rather they feared she would forget who she was and they believed that they would make better teachers than strangers would. Too many Cree children had gone south and lost their identity. The children came home with strange names, damaged and silent. Many parents did not ask for details of what had gone on as they were too afraid to hear them. And so it went for a number of years, they kept their daughter from attending the colonial residential school. Eventually the colonial law caught up to them and their daughter went south, fell upon hard times, had a baby she sent north to Josephine, and fell out of her family’s and Lindsay’s life.

I tell this story to highlight the important relationships among the curriculum, school and family. I tell it to demonstrate that Canadian educators have taken a very long time to figure this out. Lindsay grew up in the bush with Josephine and Simeon and made her way in to school when the weather was good. When it wasn’t, her grandparents taught her about their culture and language. Now Lindsay will send Bedabin to school knowing his teachers will teach him Cree culture and the Cree language. Luckily, by the time Lindsay started school, Quebec had signed the James Bay and Northern Quebec agreement and was starting to right some wrongs. Education was brought back to the communities and children back with their families. Lindsay was educated closer to home in English and French. Bedabin, her son, will be the first person in her family to be educated in his Cree native tongue with the physical topographies of his community. Josephine, now widowed, never did adapt to city life and continues to live in the bush where she goes goose hunting and traps most of her own food. She does not speak much English but her lived curriculum is shared in her native tongue with those who listen to her.

In Indigenous Education and Cultural Resistance: A Decolonizing Project, Wane (2009) explores the notion of a universalization of curriculum and its respective colonizing impacts. For Wane, this meant learning a Eurocentric curriculum while growing up in Kenya. He recalls being punished for speaking his language, for refusing to go to Catholic mass and for questioning why his tests were corrected in England. He questions why he was exposed to curriculum that was irrelevant to him as a student in Kenya. Moreover, Wane lists a number of problems associated with a Eurocentric and American curriculum that promotes a universalized educational system. Amongst these are the lack of consideration for local knowledge, irrelevant material, and the disconnection between what is taught and how students experience life and education at home. Here Wane emphasizes “context is very important when thinking of the learner and what is to be learnt” (p. 161). In turn, Wane points out that “colonial education has never been inclusive” (p.161). Historically, colonial governments utilized education as a tool to assimilate, for example, the Cree of northern Quebec. “The effects of assimilation policies,” Wane stresses, “have been the silencing of Indigenous peoples, their culture, and perspectives” (p. 175). In turn, “most Indigenous people,” he continues, “have almost no access to their histories and culture within the educational system” (p.175). Many indigenous communities have witnessed the extinction of their language. Many have had their own personal narratives erased. The cost of this has been monumental. Communities have been shattered because the colonial agenda did not have the Indigenous peoples best interest in mind. Wane wonders “whose voice matters in decisions about the intended, the enacted, and the achieved curricula?” (p. 166) and explains that the common curriculum taught to students in Kenya was not successful because it did not meet his specific needs. The common curriculum was irrelevant. Because he did not identify with the curriculum, he was disengaged, apart, and silent.

In his paper, Wane (2009) challenges us to examine the current educational system and curriculum and examine how well it actually represents the local experience of indigenous peoples in relation to the various effects of globalization. Like many Indigenous peoples, he asks “What did my education include and exclude? Did the content reflect me or the people I identify with in terms of my history, my culture and its contributions to the world?” (p. 162). He urges curriculum planners and educators to uncover the lost voices, the silenced narratives and to determine why others are given so much prominence. He wants educators to decolonize the existing narratives put forth in curriculum policy documents. Wane feels that his background, values and history were not considered when they should have been. We must learn how history was disrupted by colonial thought and how Western ideologies impacted the Indigenous students and their communities. What were the negative implications for Wane and other indigenous communities? “These failures are characterized, for instance, by a high number of racialized students disengaging with the school process and dropping out” (p. 161). Disengagement is a prevailing theme of for Indigenous students being taught a standardized Eurocentric curriculum.

In 1975, Quebec took a big step and signed the first agreement with the Cree who formed their very first school board. Because of the rhetoric that had been forced upon them for so long, it took years for Cree to be the language of instruction in schools. Many parents feared that their children might not be as successful in life without the knowledge of English and French. For many years, Cree was taught as a subject. It was not until the 1990’s that a small group in Chisasibi lobbied the Cree school board to institute the Cree language program despite the evidence that “when there is emphasis on use of local material, the success rate of a curriculum is higher” (Wane, 2009, p. 167). Wane goes on to explain that “language and culture are intrinsically linked, and students who are conversant in their own language have the potential to learn other course content without fear of assimilation” (p. 164). Instead of this, students were exposed to rote learning as memorization was the key to moving on to the next level. Consequently, Wane encourages the use of local material to improve success rates in school and increase student engagement.

It is no surprise that Quebec Canadians finally figured this out. Francophones have fought for decades for the preservation of their language and culture. Though many might disagree with Quebec’s language law, when it comes to language and culture, this militancy has made the province stronger and more unified – at the expense, perhaps, of the rest of the country. Like the song Gens du pays, in Quebec, Wane (2009) explains that learning the native language first will result in “pride, positive dialogue, and improved tribal relations, in addition to enhanced learning in bother the heritage language and dominant societal language” (p. 164). Quebec leans heavily on its unique culture and stands apart from other Canadian provinces while promoting these cultural differences in their curriculum all the while insisting that the language of instruction and the language of work and business is French.

Like Josephine, “Indigenous people want to be in charge of their education. When that happens, they can look into the past to see what has been left out and what would be relevant to their current forms of education” (Wane, 2009, p.173). Josephine anticipated what would happen if her daughter went to Fort George and she was right. Many families were torn apart when their children went south and were abused, assimilated and stripped of their cultural identity. Josephine lost her daughter just as a whole generation lost their children to the south. We have not heard the last of this terrible part of Canadian history. Wane asks us to consider a very difficult question: “What might have been different such that Indigenous peoples could have assumed their responsibility for education their young people?” (p. 173) Would Lindsay be so attuned to her culture if she had also been forced to go south to school? Or was the knowledge of what her mother had lost enough for her to hold on that much tighter to her culture and her language? Will Bedabin take it for granted because it was his great-grandmother who fought the biggest fight in refusing to allow her daughter to be torn from her? Here Wane writes “Indigenous people would like self-determination in Indigenous education….where Indigenous values, philosophies, ideologies, and languages are respected and promoted, not occasionally, but on a daily basis” (p. 163). Though these seem like simple requests, it will take years to undo the effects on all those silenced voices, all the Indigenous children who were told to ‘speak white’. And when curriculum is finally controlled by educators who understand the importance of the local community as well as the global community, perhaps it will make for stronger communities where everyone has a voice.


Wane, N.N. (2009). Indigenous education and cultural resistance: a decolonizing project. Curriculum Inquiry, 39 (1), pp. 159-178.

To learn more about The Walking out ceremony, visit: http://www.creeculture.ca/content/index.php?q=node/66

To read more about the Cree language immersion program, click on the following link: http://www.mushkeg.ca/fot%201%20episodes/Ep2/fot_season_one_ep2.html