Defining and Implementing an Aboriginal Curriculum by Scott Reid for EDU 6460 Curriculum, Culture, and Language

Defining and Implementing an Aboriginal Curriculum by Scott Reid for EDU 6460 Curriculum, Culture, and Language

I should begin this reading response by noting that I am a young white male from Ontario.  I have never taken a course on First Nation or Aboriginal history in Canada. Moreover, I do not believe the Ontario Curriculum or my teachers provided opportunities to properly discuss Aboriginal issues in Canada.  I was, however, born and raised in Northern Ontario, an area where 12.8% of the population consider themselves Aboriginal.  In 2006, Aboriginal people accounted for 7.7% of the total population of Timmins (Statistics Canada, 2007).  For comparison purposes, Aboriginals in Ottawa accounted for 1.5% of the population, and only 0.5% of Toronto’s population. Timmins also acts as a regional hub for many Aboriginal communities, as a place to meet, participate in cultural traditions, sports tournaments, and shop for necessities.  Having lived in the area for the majority of my life, I have had close personal relationships with Aboriginals as a teacher, a colleague, and a friend.  Consequently, I have witnessed many of the difficulties surrounding Aboriginal education first hand.  More importantly, these relationships have helped me realize that there is a pressing need for change.

Angelina Weenie (2008) discusses the issues surrounding the development of an Aboriginal curriculum in a postcolonial context in her article “Curricular Theorizing From the Periphery”.  Weenie draws on her experiences and discusses how different approaches to curricula can have a sizeable effect on Aboriginal student learning and well being.  “I have Treaty Indian status, designated with a treaty number and reserve,” Weenie (2008) notes when discussing her own periphery, which she believes “… connects [her] to a geophysical and geopolitical landscape” (p. 546).  Thus, Weenie’s argument for curriculum reform stems from her position as an individual with a great deal of experience with Aboriginal education, as both a teacher and student, and as someone with a vast understanding of the challenges facing Aboriginal youth today.  Moreover, in highlighting where she is from, Weenie legitimizes her position as an Aboriginal curriculum theorist.

Canadian curriculum theorizing has not been successful in helping teachers deal with the varied cultures found in Canadian classrooms.  For example, Chambers (1999) notes “Canadians need a curriculum theorizing that helps educators and students come to grips with how Canada, such as it is, has survived to date” (p. 144).  Weenie’s (2008) curriculum theorizing, then, comes as an important and much-needed addition to the field, as it discusses “how we who occupy this multi-variegated landscape called Canada can continue both to survive and-to move beyond grim survival – to find our way together in this place” (p. 144) noted by Chambers (1999) as an important missing component of the current curriculum theorizing in Canada.

Discussing her experience as a teacher, Weenie (2008) tells us “she found that the students were happier and more motivated when they were engaged in experiential learning activities” (pp. 546, 547).  I completed one of my teaching placements in the Northern Ontario community of Timmins where a number of my students were Aboriginal.  I did not notice a significant difference between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students when it came to student attitudes toward experiential learning activities.  It appeared to me that most students preferred these lived experiences, including field trips to the Underground Gold Mine Tour, as opposed to learning about rocks and minerals sitting in the classroom, regardless of race or status.  However, while all students may prefer to learn through these lived experiences, it is probable that Aboriginal students stand the most to gain from daily experiential activities in terms of their culture and language.  Donald, Glanfield & Sterenberg (2011) state quite explicitly that “we bring forth a world of significance where knowing arises in action because of the highly relational nature of learning and social interaction” (Conclusion section, para. 1).  Consequently, it may be that all students across the country, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, can benefit from a “reciprocal relationship” (Donald et al., 2011, Stance 3 section, para. 4), and a curriculum that involves more action and experiential learning, much like the one Weenie (2008) describes.

While the implementation of Aboriginal curriculum would surely benefit the educational success rates of Aboriginal students, the role of the teacher as culturally responsive to the needs of her/his students could also tremendously benefit the students.  Gay (2002) suggests “[c]ulturally responsive teachers know how to determine the multicultural strengths and weaknesses of curriculum designs and instructional materials and make the changes necessary to improve their overall quality (p. 108).  Thus, producing culturally responsive teachers could have a similar benefit as a change in curriculum.  However, Donald et al. (2001) note that culturally responsive teaching “has had little impact on what teachers do because, we believe, it is too easily reduced to essentializations, meaningless generalizations, or trivial anecdotes—none of which result in systemic, institutional, or lasting changes to schools serving Indigenous children” (Stance 2 section, para. 3). Consequently, simply producing culturally responsive teachers may not benefit the culturally diverse classrooms as many had hoped.

However, I do believe there are particular components of an Aboriginal curriculum that could be beneficial for Aboriginal students in Ontario public schools. These components, including “[l]iterature, art, spirituality, ceremonies and ethos of Aboriginal people” (p.522), among other “things” as Weenie (2008) describes them, “cannot be mere add-ons or supplementary pieces but the core components of Aboriginal curriculum” (p. 552).  As such, an Aboriginal curriculum may be quite different than a curriculum found in many other communities in Canada.  The culture specific curricula should take into consideration the specific factors of a particular community in order to be culturally responsive.  Russell (2006) suggests “definitions of what is deemed to be culturally responsive may vary according to who is making the decisions” (p. 18).  She further notes that “it is unrealistic to expect that the types of academic goals and achievements that are meaningful, for instance, in a middle-class suburban school in Toronto, Edmonton, or Montréal will be meaningful in an Inuit school in Nunavut” (p. 18).  For this reason, we should expect, and demand, varying curriculum objectives in different communities.  Despite this, the Ontario Ministry of Education discusses the goals and strategies for success in the policy document “Ontario First Nation, Métis, and Inuit Education Policy Framework” where it is explicitly stated that “[t]he strategies build on the ministry’s key initiatives in support of the same goals across the Ontario education system, particularly the initiatives led by the Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat and the Student Success initiative” (2007, p. 9).  Thus, while a separate document exists for Aboriginal Education in Ontario, the goals and expectations are very similar to the general curriculum documents.  It may be argued, then, that education for Aboriginal Ontarian students is not culturally responsive.  On the other hand, one may argue that equality for all students is more important, and that the goal should be to provide all students with a curriculum that includes more Aboriginal influences, not just for Aboriginal students.

Weenie (2008) goes on to argue that “[g]iven the complexities of these various discourses that have been presented, the concept of Aboriginal curriculum is one that has yet to be clearly articulated and defined” (p. 548).  While Weenie (2008) advocates inclusion the use of memory work, the medicine wheel, and a important role for elders in education, she does not go into the logistical problems surrounding a formal unified Aboriginal curriculum.  Education in Canada is under provincial jurisdiction, while Aboriginal affairs falls under Federal Government responsibility.  My sense is that more can be done in terms of co-operation between the two legislative bodies in order to provide communities with better access to a well-developed Aboriginal curriculum.  Currently, the Ontario Ministry of Education offers Native studies courses featuring an Aboriginal Curriculum.  Unfortunately, the classes can work to segregate Aboriginal students from the general school population.  Weenie suggests “[t]here is a potential for knowledge expansion when we draw from both traditional and contemporary forms of knowledge” (p. 555), clearly noting that she is not against contemporary knowledge being taught in Canadian schools.  Rather, Weenie is advocating a blended curriculum that includes a variety of knowledge forms for all students across Canada.  Although it is beyond the scope of her article, solutions regarding the implementation of said curricula would be beneficial.  The logical next step in terms of future research is to provide suggestions on how such a curriculum could be put into place, bearing in mind financial, social, and learning implications.

In my experience as both a student and student teacher in Northern Ontario, I witnessed some of the challenges faced by Aboriginal youth.  Shannen’s Dream, for example, was an initiative spearheaded by an Aboriginal youth advocate from Attawapiskat, Ontario which began as a response to deteriorating school conditions on her Reserve.  Shannen Koostachin was required to attend school in the communities of Timmins and New Liskard, hundreds of kilometers away from her home in Attawapiskat.  Unfortunately, Shannen passed away in a tragic car accident during her long commute to school.  Quite literally, Shannen died to access to education.  Shannen’s story is not unique in that many Aboriginal students must travel hours in order to have access to education.  It was not uncommon for Aboriginal students from Mattagami First Nations to miss out on after school activities simply because the school bus was leaving and there was no other way home.  Inclement weather would often force students to leave halfway through the day, in order to get home safely. Aboriginal students were given a choice: either safety or education could be achieved, but not both.  Thus, a noticeable glitch in the Governmental funding allocations for Aboriginal education is apparent.

The current curriculum across Canada does not do justice to the Aboriginal and/or Canadians communities as a whole.  Weenie’s (2008) article reminds us of the elements that constitute an Aboriginal curriculum, the benefits such a curriculum has on Canadian students, and how Aboriginal issues for the most part remain at the margins of the public school curriculum.  The problem of implementing a more inclusive curriculum remains one of the largest barriers for the adoption of an Aboriginal curriculum.  It is my hope that the future will bring positive change to the field of Aboriginal education.

Discussion Questions

1)    How might the legislative bodies of Canada go about implementing an Aboriginal Curriculum?

2)    Should the Ontario Ministry of Education put more of an emphasis on Aboriginal issues in the curriculum?  How?  Would there be any significant consequences?

3)   While a separate document exists for Aboriginal Education in Ontario, the goals and expectations are very similar to the general curriculum documents.  Do you agree or disagree with having the same goals and expectations in this document?  Why?


Chambers, C. (1999).  A Topography for Canadian Curriculum Theory.  Canadian Journal of Education, 24 (2), pp. 137-150.

Donald, D.  Glanfield, F.  and Sterenberg, G.  (2011).  Culturally Relational Education in and With an Indigenous Community.  In Education, 17 (3), n.p.

Gay, G. (2002).  Preparing for culturally responsive teaching.  Journal of Teacher Education, 53 (2), 106-116.

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2007). Ontario First Nation, Métis, and Inuit education policy frame­work. Toronto, ON: Aboriginal Education Office.

Russell, J. (2006).  What’s to be done with the fox? Inuit teachers Inventing musical games for Inuit classrooms.  Curriculum Inquiry, (36) 1, 15-33.

Statistics Canada. 2007. Timmins, Ontario (Code3556027) (table). 2006 Community Profiles. 2006 Census. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 92-591-XWE. Ottawa. Released March 13, 2007.
(accessed February 3, 2013).

Weenie, A. (2008).  Curricular theorizing from the periphery.  Curriculum Inquiry, (38) 5, 545-557.