Canadian Curriculum Scholar Report: Cynthia M. Chambers by Alishia A. Valeri for EDU 6102 Seminar in Curriculum Research

Canadian Curriculum Scholar Report: Cynthia M. Chambers by  Alishia A. Valeri for EDU 6102 Seminar in Curriculum Research

Situated at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, Cynthia M. Chambers has a long history of working and living in the Northern parts of Canada. In addition, she has worked alongside her community in implementing community projects and curriculum development focused on literacy in both English and Aboriginal languages (Writers Guild of Alberta, 2009).   Some of her earlier work illustrates this experience as she delves into topics such as oral history as it is tied to Aboriginal peoples (See Chambers Erasmus, 1989), the context of education in Northern schooling (see Chambers, 1994) and exploring the language and the discursive patterns of the Dene people (See Chambers, 1992).

Reading this earlier work sparked a curiosity to explore additional scholarship crafted by Chambers. While I moved through her work, I developed an appreciation for the manner in which she speaks—one qualified by a sense of frankness, yet coupled with an elegant narrative style.  Chambers illustrates deep passion, commitment and insight in the fields of autobiographical writing, Indigenous education, and curriculum studies. As a curriculum theorist, her work is imbued with a social justice framework that enlightens her readers with critical perspectives of literacy, identity, and education.  Writing from the heart and life experiences is at center of her scholarship, whereby she strives to put forth issues and ideas that matter to her, to her community, to curricular studies and Indigenous peoples. Moreover, the arguments presented within this selected literature, I feel can and will disrupt normalized versions of literacy, Canadian history taught within schools, and the subsequent narratives disseminated in wider society. That said, what follows is a review of work by this Canadian curriculum scholar that it is meant to provide only a snapshot, not a comprehensive guide, of some of my readings of her scholarship.

In her article, Research That Matters: Finding A Path with Heart, Chambers (2004) discusses the use of autobiographical inquiry within research as a way to connect to self, others, and truth.  Autobiographical research “when done well” puts the “writer’s life” as  “the site of inquiry” rather than the topic of inquiry (p. 2). This, according to Chambers, puts the writer in touch with an “examination of the autobiographer’s own doings and actions, her character and spirit, as well how those are historically shaped and socially situated” (p. 2).  Essentially, she calls for research that deconstructs the ‘self’ of the writer, to make the narrative a process of growth and deeper understanding.  Conducting autobiographical research, as Chambers states, can be a dangerous task in academia and one’s community; as it can lead to the unveiling of issues that complicate, unravel, and dismantle the everyday functioning of people’s lives. Chambers contextualizes this notion with an example of her work as a thesis supervisor. Her graduate student embarked on an autobiographical inquiry coupled with a feminist stance of a school shooting. As the project unfolded the autonomy of the student’s work became comprised because of the content the student was pursuing. The student attempted to write about her life experiences within the school (i.e. as the teacher of the student who committed the shooting, and subsequent occurrences), but because of the student’s closeness to the situation, she would have revealed more intimate details, such as the name of the school, and various people employed in school administration. Therefore, the student altered her initial content of her Master’s Thesis, in order to achieve her goal of attaining the graduate degree. Chambers cites this example, as it is one reflective of research that matters to the writer and to others, as it is research that is led with the heart.  As educators, our curriculum should allow for a reflective stance, so that students and teachers can understand their actions and gain a more holistic perspective of the self rather than “fragmented shells of the human possibility” (Pinar as cited in Pinar, Reynolds, Slattery, & Taubman, 1995, p. 519).

In the context of conducting research in northern communities, Chambers and Balanoff’s (2009) work highlight the difficulties of obtaining research funds for a participatory action research (PAR) project in the community of Ulukhaktok, NWT. They outline and discuss (within the context of a literacy project) the inequitable funding given to Northern communities by state agencies. Northern communities do not receive an allocation of resources that match the material needs and conditions of these communities. For instance, the lack of equitable funding inhibits aspects of PAR, in that PAR requires constant communication and interaction between members of a research team, but most northern communities lack the technological infrastructure to sustain the desired communication. In addition, researchers often receive insufficient funds for travel time to northern communities, and for the cost of translation services between indigenous languages and in one of the two official languages. This, according to Chambers and Balanoff reiterates “ an intellectual imperialism” (p. 83), one that heightens the subordination of indigenous people as full participants in research within their communities, and marginalizes cultural practices and products tied to education. From an educator’s perspective, this article raises pertinent notions about difference within literacy and literacy learning. For instance, the authors put forth the idea of what counts as literacy, by discussing different forms of literacy, such as“alphabetized communication” and “pattern-languaged understanding” (p. 76). Further, the authors question why alphabetized communication as in English and/or French language is seen as more valuable than sewing, dancing, and/or drawing? Knowledge and skills are contained within both forms of communication, yet alphabetized communication has dominated since colonization, and affects “literacy programs and research in Canada” (p.76). Subsequently, differences in literacy and literacy learning remind us of where power resides in society, educational research, and in school systems.  Therefore, to remedy the imbalance in power within institutional settings we need to recognize that indigenous communities are not in need of “remediation or erasure” (p. 86), rather what is needed is a reframing of what counts as knowledge and the exchange of indigenous ways of living in the world.

Chambers (2010) highlights the importance of life stories as embodiments of wisdom held within Inuit Elders of the Ulukhaktok community, NWT. The life stories of the Inuit Elders exemplify another kind of “smarts”; “smarts” based on kinesthetic, spatial, social and personal intelligences.  Chambers describes  “smarts” as wisdom; wisdom that is passed through stories of ancestors, and via reincarnation by inheriting the namesake of a family member. This wisdom allows the Inuit people to live off of the land and, to understand the relationship between the land and the community. As Chambers recounts Inuit stories through the remaining section of her article, she ties together the significance of recognizing that wisdom and smarts need not be pre-packed.  Rather, listening to the life stories of the Inuit people is what is needed to reunite all people with the land amidst our current ecological perils. Chambers leaves the reader wondering when life stories of Indigenous cultures will be at the forefront of living sustainably, as well as advancing the premise of using life stories as a form of knowledge building.

Chambers and Blood’s (2009) story of the removal and repatriation of Blackfoot land assists the reader in understanding the complex history of Indigenous people with Europeans and the insurmountable connection between people and place. The article, set in the context of Alberta, narrates the past evacuation of the Blackfoot people from their land and onto reserves. The narration frames the dialogue amongst the Alberta government and the inclusion of Blackfoot perspectives on preserving and protecting the remaining heritage sites. The significance of the land—as a beholder of knowledge and force—is explicated in great detail to illustrate the notion that “the land is the best teacher” (Chambers, 2006, p. 27). This kind of pedagogy, grounded in place, awakens a reality that life is precariously tied to the Earth, to the soil that nourishes us, and the more- than- human.

Moreover, the elements contained within a place are more than “piles of rocks, cliffs, or glacial erratics; they are imbued with meaning and history” (p. 261). In order to rekindle the lost bonds, ecological knowledge and wisdom, the Blackfoot people are repatriating their land as a form of responsibility towards it. The practice of repatriation, according to Chambers and Blood, nurtures the relationship between connected entities, and brings justice to the surface (both literally and figuratively) in that land can now be healed of past wounds.  Educating all people about the history of place through visiting sites and listening to stories told by Elders is a “tool in saving places from the forces that threaten them” (p. 267).  These are words that educators need to heed and implement as curricular content; as utilizing life stories and lived experiences to understand phenomenon is a way to move forward, to learn how to live with and “love thy neighbour” (p. 273).

Living with others is a concept that Chambers (2006) discusses as she travelled across Canada in search of “where she belonged”. Written largely as a life story, the article moves across borders weaving back and forth between personal narrative and historical Canadian text. Describing her life on the move, yearning to find a place to call home, she is able to cross physical borders without a passport—as she is a Canadian citizen. This realization for Chambers is contrasted against the once lived realities of First Nations’ people living on reserves in need of a passport-like ticket to permeate the physical demarcation of their own land.  She continues to contextualize the notion of borders with examples such as the formation of Nunavut, and our close proximity to the United States.  Chambers argues that the formation of borders and our history with them shapes our past and current identity as Canadians.  From this premise of borders and passports, she connects the need for the Canadian curriculum to be like a passport in which all Canadians “who live on the borders, in those overlapping territories of the past and the present, the rich and the poor, the south and north, east and west, rural and urban” (p. 12) are united in an understanding of each other. Although there are no concrete answers given by Chambers, her article advances thought-provoking points in regards to the role of teachers, and curriculum scholars as the best way to go about engaging in and carrying out a much needed “lesson” on the fabric of Canadian society. For instance, she proffers the idea of a “different notion of home”, one that encompasses home as places where we carry out our daily activities (i.e. work, school, spiritual and emotional centres), a place that embraces and encourages the meaning of “other not only neighbours but ancestors—spiritual and familial—theirs and ours— as well as our descendants” a provocative concept (p. 8). Further, this “different notion of home” for Chambers acknowledges the interconnection between humans and all animate beings (i.e. land, animals, stars), and the notion that living together may not always be peaceful, but one that the young need to understand.

Having reviewed a selection of Cynthia M. Chambers’ work, the messages embedded within her scholarship have been transformational, at least for me as a graduate student and reader. Moving through the personas of a wife, mother, grandmother, educator, curriculum theorist and Canadian citizen, Chambers leaves her readers with perspectives that are both insightful and down to earth. She calls our attention to the importance of autobiography as a tool of research, one that can allow us to explore the depths of who we are in connection to the places in which we live. In addition, her literature pushes for Canadian curriculum to be a passport that promotes an integrated and inclusive understanding of difference, of history (of all peoples in Canada) and subject matter.  Chambers accomplishes these feats with a strong social justice stance that reflects her interest in bringing marginalized voices and ideas to the forefront of research and education.  Perhaps advancing her reflective stance can broaden one’s understanding of his/her place within Canadian society as way to contribute to living well and living in a place called home.


Chambers, C. (2010). “I was grown up before I was born”: Wisdom in Kangiryarmuit life stories. Transnational Curriculum Inquiry 7(2), 5-38. Retrieved from

Chambers, C. (2006). “Where do I belong?” Canadian curriculum as

passport home. Journal of American Association for Advancement of Curriculum Studies, 2, 1-21. Retrieved from

Chambers, C. (2004). Research that matters: Finding a path with heart. Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies, 2(1), 1-19.

Chambers, C.M. (1994). Worlds apart: Educational inquiry north of the 60. Northern Review, 12-13, 47-69.

Chambers, C.M. (1992, March). (Other) ways of speaking: Lessons from the Dene language of northern Canada. Paper presented at the Annual Conference of Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages 26th, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Chambers Erasmus, C. (1989). Ways with stories: Listening to the stories Aboriginal people tell. Language Arts, 66 (3), 267-275.

Chambers, C., & Balanoff, H., (2009). Translating participation from north to south: A case against intellectual imperialism in social science research. In D. Kapoor, & S. Jordan, Education, participatory action research and social change (pp. 73-88). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Chambers, C.M, &  Blood, N.J. (2009). Love thy neighbour: Repatriating precarious Blackfoot sites. International Journal of Canadian Studies/ Revue internationale d’études canadiennes 39-40, 253-279.

Pinar, W.F., Reynolds, W.M., Slattery, P., & Taubman, P.M. (1995). Understanding curriculum: An introduction to the study of historical and contemporary curriculum discourses. New York: Peter Lang.

Writers Guild of Alberta, 2009. Cynthia Chambers. Retrieved from