Colonizing for decolonization: implications of textbook selection for Indigenous Community Service Work Education in Career Colleges by Lindsey Kirby-McGregor for EDU 5101

Colonizing for decolonization: implications of textbook selection for Indigenous Community Service Work Education in Career Colleges by  Lindsey Kirby-McGregor for EDU 5101

For most of my educational experience I was exposed to the largely unobstructed, high quality teaching of well-renowned high school and CEGEP programs. I have few negative experiences to reflect on, making it challenging for me to deconstruct my perspective on successful teaching. My classmates were almost exclusively middle-class, white, selected by entrance exams, and homogenous in their educational needs and accomplishments. I was among students chosen because we would contribute to a successful educational process. I saw the system’s function rather than its dysfunction, limiting my drive to challenge content and worldviews we were taught. In my more recent experience, particularly while specializing in Indigenous Social Work at the University of Victoria, my teachers have been mostly Indigenous, offering a perspective I had not yet encountered. I realized that “Indigenous epistemologies and ontologies can inform the work and daily life of students” (Haig-Brown, 2008, p. 10). I learned that although Indigenous teachings remain marginalized, they should be understood as theory in the same respect as that developed by European thinkers (Haig-Brown, 2008).

I have also recognized my obligation to actively disengage from Settler mindsets, while my connection to the First Nation to which I belong is a battle against assimilation. As I teach Indigenous programs at Willis College, I am simultaneously an insider and an outsider to both the course material and the academic context within which I work. When I teach, I seek to spark a desire in students for continuous learning and critical thinking. I hope to center Indigenous knowledge, decolonize my classroom, and develop meaningful experiences (Dewey, 1938), and collaborative learning (Robinson, 2010). My identity and professional position make centering Indigenous knowledge and decolonization challenging. I now find myself “teaching against the grain” (Ng-A-Fook & Milne, 2014) as I turn away from my own educational experience to attempt to make space for Indigenous education in an environment where this is not truly understood to be a possibility. I was a student of colonial frameworks, and now teach Indigenous students, some of whom prefer colonial worldviews, while others prefer Indigenous worldviews. I am not yet successful in bridging the demands of the institution and the job market with the needs and strengths of my students, and still realize too late if I have participated in marginalizing Indigenous views, even within a program designed to center them. I hope that taking the time to reflect on the course materials used, in particular the first textbook introduced in the Indigenous Community Service Work (ICSW) program at Willis College, Social Welfare in Canada(Hick, 2014) will help me establish clearer guidelines for teaching and evaluating Indigenous students in the context of career college community service work education.

The structure of the ICSW program influences my relationship with this textbook. As its only instructor, I have been required to develop the program content based on the outline, schedule, textbooks, assignments, and evaluations of the Addictions and Community Service Work (ACSW) program already in place at Willis College. The ACSW program typically takes a year for a student to complete, while the ICSW program, due to funding restrictions, was allowed only to be delivered for a total of 23 weeks. The students selected for the program were required by the funder to provide proof of ancestry. It was expected that the students be exposed to Indigenous ways of healing, through participation in ceremonies, or teachings from Elders. Beyond this, there was no discussion on how Indigenous knowledge or Indigenous experiences would be incorporated into the program, assumedly because this was not considered relevant by administration. Although Indigenous healing and helping is of great value to all helping professions (Baskin, 2011), Indigenous Social Work has not been taken seriously (Sinclair, Hart, & Bruyere, 2009). It quickly became evident that simply mirroring the course outline of another program was not what most students expected of an Indigenous program. It was also clear to me that grouping Indigenous students to complete a non-Indigenous program, while labeling it Indigenous education, is merely well camouflaged assimilation (Butler, 2015).

I introduced two books – Wícihitowin (Sinclair, Hart, & Bruyere, 2009) and Strong Helpers’ Teachings (Baskin, 2011), alongside the textbooks provided for the program. Students gave me the feedback that these texts were written in a very academic, complex manner, which made it difficult for them to interact with it in the short time we were allotted. In contrast, students preferred the structure and language of Social Welfare in Canada (Hick, 2014), a prominent manuscript in Canadian social work education. This book provides an in-depth coverage of income security in Canada, primarily through the lens of policy making and political ideology, from the viewpoints of those offering the help, not those receiving it. While Hick’s preface hints that he would prefer to tackle structural oppression, the book still presents the system as it currently is, focusing on the choices and reasoning of those in power, without presenting alternatives. Hick’s (2014) preface also highlights some of the overarching perspectives in the textbook. Although he explains that the book is intended as a factual account of the social welfare system, he insists that he prefers readers to come to their own conclusion. Meanwhile, most of these “facts” referenced are from government or other academic sources. A few sections discuss Aboriginal Social Welfare, but reference only studies by non-Indigenous researchers and governmental studies.

The greatest insight into the use of the textbook came in the form of responses to an exam question based on the book’s content. Hick’s overview of the history of social welfare focuses on the Poor Laws concept inherited from the 1300s, which partially explain the frailty of our social welfare system. These laws defined “principles for worthiness of state aid” (Hick, 2014, p.30), in which those who we considered employable were divided into categories of deserving poor and underserving poor. In an exam, students were asked if a homeless woman in a case study would be considered deserving or underserving based on the Poor Laws. Most students correctly indicated that according to the Poor Laws, she would be underserving. Some students, however, wrote that she should be “deserving”, because they themselves considered her deserving. Even after class discussion, it remained hard to conceive for these students that the woman could be seen as underserving by anyone. The European Poor Laws, even as the basis of Canada’s Social Welfare system, didn’t make any sense to them. Those who had difficulty seeing the purpose of understanding the Poor Laws system are those who draw naturally from Indigenous worldviews. For example, one of these students, when asked to describe the ideal helper, immediately thought of the qulliq (traditional seal oil lamp), the qilaut (hand drum), and the ulu (hand held knife) to represent values such as love, happiness, keeping control of your circle, and remaining sharp or prepared. She naturally drew from Inuit tradition to find strengths of a helping professional. It is conflicting that I find myself, thanks to a textbook, teaching colonial thinking to people who live Indigenous values and can apply them to their work, while claiming to teach an Indigenous course.

In this exam question, I found myself rewarding students who answered the question “properly” through a colonial perspective, while hoping for these students to later approach a decolonized or Indigenous worldview, which students who got lower grades on such questions already have. In other words, I am failing students who are already where I want all my students to be, because the choice of textbook does not provide an opportunity to assess them in a way that highlights their strengths. I am obligated to use particular textbooks without the opportunity to critically examine their content and its impacts on my students in the context of Indigenous learning. Textbooks support what is seen as “legitimate” knowledge (Apple & King, 1977, p. 342), and Social Welfare in Canada “reinforces existing (and often problematic) institutional arrangements in society” (p.342) by presenting the viewpoint of the benefactor while most ICSW students receive some form of income support. Although Hick’s intention is for the reader to scrutinize Canadian social welfare policy in its historical context, this remains viewed from the government’s perspective, clearly rooted in colonial values and worldviews. This, ironically, obligates some students to become newly acclimated to the Settler perspective in order to dismantle it, which points to an epistemological gap in education maintained through the legacy of Eurocentric education (Butler, 2015). In order to be successful, Indigenous students must become fluent in colonial ways of thinking, the epitome of assimilation.

This analysis returns me to my introductory reflections on my own null curriculum (Flinders, Noddings, & Thornton, 1996). Presently, I am missing values, attitudes, and emotions that would inform a decolonized way of teaching. Removing values is impossible when it comes to comparing Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspectives on helping work. My inability to predict that Willis College’s question on Poor Laws would contribute to marginalizing Indigenous worldviews leads me to wonder whether I am truly capable of determining what is “educationally significant” (p.37) for my students. Just as Donald (2009) describes moving outside, inside, and back outside the walls erected at Fort Edmonton Park, I recognize that I continuously move within and without the realms of what I teach. As I was raised in non-Indigenous ways and in non-Indigenous environments, interacting with material in which “the history and experiences of Aboriginal peoples are necessarily positioned as outside the concern of Canadians” (Donald, 2009, p. 3) is disappointingly familiar. It is easy for me to forget to center Indigenous voices even as it is my utmost priority.

To Egan’s (1978) indication that curriculum inquiry should be concerned both with what is taught, and with how it is taught, Chambers (2008) adds the need to also reflect on “where” education takes place. This leads me to wonder if it is even possible to offer decolonized education in a place like Ottawa, a school like the Willis College, and with a person such as myself as an educator. I would prefer to see one of my students taking over my place as teacher of this class, feeding it through their own understanding and worldview. I agree with Battiste, Bell & Findlay’s (2002) assertion that more Indigenous material is needed in social work education, so that it is taken seriously and as an end in itself, because for now, we are requiring that Indigenous students see themselves through a colonial lens in order to be successful. Previously, I argued in favor of standardized testing that would ensure quality of education. However, I worried that establishing this standard would create “casualties” (Kanu & Glor, 2006). In this case, the casualties are the students whose thinking is rooted in Indigenous worldviews. Particularly when teaching social justice, claiming to center Indigenous views while actually rejecting them in favor of colonial views is a pernicious form of oppression. If teachers can be “amateur transformative history makers” (Kanu & Glor, 2006) it becomes even more important to become actively engaged in the process of dismantling this system.

Although I have spent the last four years reflecting on decolonization, it is difficult to change deeply rooted worldviews. My students remind me that I have a long way to go to be able to integrate Indigenous Knowledge into the way I teach. It is possible that the only way for me to engage in decolonization is to set up a space that is open and unobstructed and then remove myself, so that someone who consistently views the world from an Indigenous perspective may make of it what they believe is needed. When I have to ask myself what I think Indigenous people need to know about Indigenous healing and helping in the context of Indigenous community service work, I do not believe I am prepared to develop an answer. All I can do is continue to consult with students and examine their views, employing an ongoing process of currere (Kanu & Glor, 2006) to interpret and improve mine and my students’ experiences.


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