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Indigenous lit course struggles with high school popularity

Teacher Shirley Burdon asks her class to stand on a handful of blankets spread across the floor in a classroom at Gladstone secondary in East Vancouver. Then, she chooses one student, “the European,” to wreak havoc.

Teacher Shirley Burdon asks her class to stand on a handful of blankets spread across the floor in a classroom at Gladstone secondary in East Vancouver. Then, she chooses one student, “the European,” to wreak havoc. The European distributes treaties to the blanket-bound teens. Later, the European recites the Indian Act and scrunches up the blankets’ edges. A few students get kicked off. Those who remain huddle closer together. By the time the European arrives at the residential school system, the number of students, like the blankets, have shrunk considerably.

At the end of class, 16-year-old Lisa Badua admits her discomfort at playing the role of the European. “I felt kind of bad, I was bullying everyone,” she says.

For the past five years Burdon has been using what she calls “the blanket exercise” to introduce students to themes like colonialism.

She teaches English 12 First Peoples. It is no ordinary high school English class, even though it could be.

English 12 First Peoples is equivalent to English 12. It has been on the books since 2008 and is taught across the province at 42 public secondary schools, according to the Ministry of Education. But up until this year, of the 18 public high schools in Vancouver, English 12 First

Peoples has only been offered at a handful of schools, including Gladstone.“The question is why isn’t it getting more play at schools?” asks Michael Choi, English department head at Prince of Wales secondary on the West Side. This is the first year he is teaching it, bringing the number of public schools in Vancouver to offer the course to three (the other is Lord Byng).

Michael Choi,
Michael Choi, English department head at Prince of Wales, organizes the desks in a circle to mimic a talking circle. “The dream would be… that every school is teaching this course,” he says. Photo Sophie Woodrooffe


English 12 First Peoples was developed in 2007, by the First Nations Education Steering Committee in partnership with the B.C. Ministry of Education and designed to provide university-stream students with access to Indigenous literature. But so far in Vancouver, teachers struggle to dispel the notion that the course is on par with English 12.

“There’s a misconception that it’s a communications course. That it’s an easier course,” says Choi.

It’s a misconception familiar to Choi. The reason Prince of Wales offered the course this year, he says, is because a communications course fell through. Of the 25 students in his class, nine are what he calls “mainstream” students. The rest are students with learning barriers.

When Burdon first tried to introduce the course at Gladstone five years ago, she says the administration was equally misinformed about the course’s rigour.

Deanne Reder, coordinator of the Master of Arts for Teachers of English Program at SFU, introduced Burdon to the course and also notes the misconception. “This confusion betrays a sense of bias against Indigenous literature that still goes on, which is that it’s not very good, it’s not very well crafted, that Indigenous literature is substandard,” says Reder.

Despite the confusion, Burdon gained the support of Gladstone administration and in the first year 18 students enrolled. In the second year she had enough students for two classes, and since then the courses continually fill up.

Deanna Reder
Deanna Reder, associate professor in the Departments of First Nations Studies and English at Simon Fraser University, says Indigenous literature helps students connect with Canadian history. Photo Sophie Woodrooffe

Popularity contested

Despite its popularity at Gladstone, Burdon and Choi say a major reason more schools don’t offer English 12 First Peoples is that not enough teachers are familiar with Indigenous literature, and because of the course’s edgy material. Some of the books, like Drew Hayden

Taylor’s novel Motorcycles & Sweetgrass, are light-hearted celebrations of culture. But as Burdon explains, “The issues that come up in the First People’s course are pretty serious. So there are also people who are wanting to be sensitive and respectful when talking about this sort of stuff.”

Don Fiddler, district principal of Aboriginal Education, says it’s largely up to the teachers and individual schools to offer the course. “Certainly we could ask the schools to consider and put on the workshops, but the BCTF [BC Teachers’ Federation] has been doing that for the past number of years. I’m not certain you can do much more,” he says.

He also cites a lack of equity in the school system with respect to Indigenous teachers, as well as declining enrolment, which means there are fewer opportunities to hire qualified educators.

Reder says the Vancouver School Board should be doing more to promote the course. “It’s hard for me to give credit to the VSB if after all these years, only one teacher who was uniquely prepared is able to have taught this class… It’s not the teachers lack, it’s got to lie at the VSB and the ministry.”

The Ministry of Education is rolling out a new curriculum that integrates Indigenous culture and history, including the legacy of the residential school system. According to teachers, these changes don’t affect English 12 First Peoples.

Choi isn’t sure if the course will be offered next year. And with Gladstone remaining on the school closure list, the future of English 12 First Peoples in Vancouver remains uncertain.

Badua — the European — has high expectations. “I hope that I’ll learn enough to tell other people and let them know,” she says. “Some people don’t know anything about First Nations and I hope they can finally get acknowledged in Canada the way that they should be.”