Storm Lynn will never forget the memory of walking into a classroom as a substitute teacher, and witnessing a white teacher screaming at her Indigenous students.
A member of the Deninu K’ue First Nation, Lynn said the incident at Diamond Jenness Secondary School in Hay River, N.W.T., brought back memories of how teachers mistreated her and her Indigenous friends at the same school, almost a decade ago.
“It was super frustrating to see that that was still happening,” Lynn told CBC News. “I don’t think yelling at kids and making them feel like they’re awful human beings is a way to foster trust.”
Recognizing the discomfort on the students’ faces, Lynn decided to take her concerns to the school’s principal at the time. However, she said they dismissed her concerns by justifying the white teacher’s behaviour, leaving her feeling unable to further question the event — until today.
Now, Lynn is sharing her experience to help people learn about systemic racism in the N.W.T.’s school system, which she says primarily targets Indigenous students and other kids of colour.
‘We felt powerless’
When Lynn was most recently teaching at the school in 2018, she says she was one of four people of colour on a staff of about 20.
At meetings, teachers often brought up students’ complaints of problematic or racist behaviour, but Lynn said they were quickly brushed off.
The segregation of students is a choice made by the administrators — and that’s problematic.– Storm Lynn, former substitute teacher
“A lot of our time working together centred around us just venting about the problematic, racist stuff that was happening,” Lynn said. “We [as teachers of colour] felt powerless.”
CBC has contacted the school’s principal and the South Slave Divisional Education Council and has not heard back. The local district education authority would not comment.
R.J. Simpson, the N.W.T.’s education minister, said southern teachers receive training when they first arrive in the territory — mostly focusing on the legacy of residential schools.
Still, he admitted more training should be done so teachers can better understand their Indigenous students.
“There’s a lot more to Indigenous people than residential schools,” Simpson said. “I think we need to let the people coming up here from the South, who aren’t familiar with the culture, know that.”
Simpson noted the territory also needs to find creative ways to hire and train more Indigenous teachers.
Students divided by language class choice
At Diamond Jenness Secondary School, students choose whether to take South Slavey or French as their second language.
The school’s administration then splits the students into two homeroom classes based on their language class choice.
Indigenous students often pick South Slavey and non-Indigenous students tend to choose French, Lynn noted.
“That essentially divides the class by race,” she said. “The segregation of students is a choice made by the administrators — and that’s problematic.”
Simpson said he does not believe there is “overt racism” in the territory’s schools. Instead, he said the division at Hay River’s high school comes down to scheduling issues.
“I don’t think anyone has bad intentions,” the minister told CBC. “But I think we need to look at what our system is and what our system is based on.”
Simpson said it’s up to district education authorities to include cultural elements, like on-the-land outings. The government keeps track of which schools and districts bring those elements into their classrooms, he added.
The teachers and curriculum for the South Slavey language class are more “flexible” than it is for French, Lynn said. That’s because there are fewer teaching materials, like dictionaries, available to students so they can practise.
Oftentimes, that means there are fewer students who are fluent in South Slavey by graduation.
A best practices guide for Indigenous language education is now in the works by the territorial government.
Territory to make 2 new northern studies courses
All students take a mandatory northern studies class in Grade 10.
For children in the French stream, this is their only chance to learn elements of local Indigenous culture, Lynn said.
The Grade 10 class is divided into five sections, focusing on Indigenous identity, the legacy of colonialism and land claims. The final part of the class asks students to work with local Indigenous knowledge keepers on a subject of their choice.
When Lynn was in high school, she noted the course was taught by a white teacher.
“Since so much of our culture, history and language has been stolen from us, I think it’s inappropriate to have a non-Indigenous person … teaching that,” Lynn said.
The territorial government is reviewing its curriculum, Minister Simpson said, to include more “made-in-the-North” content. Right now, the territory closely follows Alberta’s model.
Two new northern studies courses will also be introduced for students in Grade 11 and 12. Indigenous leaders and governments, Simpson continued, will be the ones telling the ministry what needs to be taught.
“That will give all of our students, and people who will grow up to be all of our residents, a better view of what the North is about,” Simpson explained. “Once you know the people, you have more tolerance.”
According to the government, the Grade 11 course will start in the 2022-23 school year. The Grade 12 class will be rolled out next year.