In the 1990s, when few of us realized the importance of Indigenous pedagogy, Lenâpé -Potawatomi Professor Susan Dion, was immersed in the topic. Today, the York University associate professor of Indigenous education has brought her research and knowledge to bear in creating Wüléelham, a set of Faculty of Education courses, cohorts and programs that are rooted in Indigenous knowledge and pedagogies.
York became an ideal partner for delivering such programs, since, said Dion, Toronto has one of the largest concentrations of Indigenous people in Canada.
Wüléelham, which translates from Lenâpé as “make good tracks,” offers Indigenous students four different opportunities to connect with Indigenous knowledge, history and culture, each serving a different purpose. There is a course for high-school students; Waaban, an Indigenous teacher education program; a master’s degree cohort in Urban Indigenous education; and an Indigenous PhD cohort. Each course or program incorporates Indigenous principles of community, culture, collaboration and ceremony, and many are taught away from the York campus at the Toronto District School Board’s (TDSB) Urban Indigenous Education Centre.
“Together the programs help to fulfill one of the calls to action set forth in the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation report. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action #10 addresses the role of education in contributing to new and better relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada,” said Dion. “Reconciliation requires sustained public education and dialogue, including youth engagement, about the history and legacy of residential schools, Treaties and Aboriginal rights, as well as the historical and contemporary contributions of Aboriginal Peoples to Canadian society.”
The secondary school course, which offers participants both a high-school credit and a university credit upon completion, was the first component of Wüléelham to come to life. It grew out of Dion’s work on a report she researched for the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) in 2010, Decolonizing Our Schools. She co-teaches the course, called Indigenous People, Identity and Education, with a secondary school teacher each winter. It is open to Indigenous students and allies from across the TDSB.
“This is a way to create a pathway to higher education for Indigenous students,” Dion said. “The course brings them together and supports them in getting through high school successfully while introducing them to the idea of university and giving them an understanding of what the experience is like.”
Each of the degree programs admits cohorts of students.
“Many Indigenous students will tell you that being the only Indigenous student in a class is not so great because you end up doing a lot of teaching about your history and your experiences,” Dion said. “My goal is for the students not to be the only Indigenous person in the room, so they can share learning experiences. Learning is not done in isolation or just in relation to course content. These students come to it with similar questions and background knowledge.”
Waaban is an Anishinaabeg word for “It is tomorrow.” Waaban provides students with both a BEd and Ontario teaching certificate in an intensive, 16-month program. Students graduate with an understanding of Indigenous worldviews and Indigenous knowledge and pedagogies, including a good grasp of colonialism and its impact on Indigenous Peoples, particularly their experiences within education systems. As teachers, they will provide much-needed perspectives to students.
“There is a huge knowledge gap on the part of teachers,” said Dion. “They know very little about Indigenous knowledge, history or culture.”
Many of the students do their practicums at the Wandering Spirit School, co-located at the Urban Indigenous Education Centre.
“It’s wonderful seeing a group of Indigenous candidates in the teacher education program who have an Indigenous focus,” said Tanya Senk, principal of the Wandering Spirit School, who is Cree/Métis/Saulteaux. “It’s much needed because they are really underrepresented. Our Indigenous students from across the Greater Toronto Area have an opportunity to make connections and see themselves reflected in the staffing.”
Ixchel Bennett, a former primary school teacher who is now Waaban’s practicum facilitator and a teacher in the program, said, “I find the program successful because the administrators and teachers welcome Indigenous knowledges and constructive feedback and they engage in courageous conversations about colonialism and racism, decolonizing and integrating Indigenous content.”
Bennett says their specialized knowledge has allowed them to become acknowledged as leaders, something that isn’t common among teacher candidates.
“They feel appreciated and heard, with a lot of knowledge they can share,” she said.
Dion notes that the program “reflects a community approach to education, as well as an Indigenous worldview. They are using their gifts to serve the community and the community takes care of them.”
She created the master’s cohort to provide students access to a graduate school program with an Indigenous focus and the PhD program grew out of graduates from the master’s program who wanted to continue learning or move into academia.
Bennett, who is Nahua/Zapoteca, was one of the graduates of the first master’s degree cohort in Urban Indigenous Education and is now part of the initial PhD cohort. Dion supervises all of the PhD students and both graduate programs have “Indigenous worldviews threaded through them.”
Gregory Querel, a Métis education policy analyst for the Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres, is pursuing a PhD part-time and is grateful for the opportunity Dion has made possible.
“We need more like her,” he said. “She is plugged in at the TDSB and at provincial levels and is able to bring her academic work to the forefront of policy. These educational programs are definitely needed. At any one time, four or five people in our organization are doing their master’s degrees. To be able to draw on their education and experience is invaluable in developing our long-term goals.”
Bennett is also very appreciative of the opportunities Wüléelham offers.
“Thanks to Professor Dion’s leadership and vision, all of this is happening,” Bennett said.
By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer to Innovatus