Lena Recollet didn’t understand why her son refused to do any of his jobs – until she found out what it was.
“He was really upset; he called them pocket animals,” she said.
“I checked and it was worse than what he said. There was an LCBO bag,” Recollet told CBC Toronto.
The assignment was for a 9th grade virtual course entitled Expressions of First Nations, Métis and Inuit Cultures on the Toronto District School Board (TDSB).
“This was a non-indigenous teacher who tried to tell the students to make medicine bags with paper bags and they have to draw their favorite animal on them,” said Recollet, Anishnaaabe and language teacher at TDSB.
The teacher had used the paper bag as an example for the students.
Lena Recollet hopes that sharing her experiences will lead TDSB and other bodies to make more efforts to get indigenous trainers to teach indigenous courses. (Submitted by Lena Recollet)
Recollet is from Wiikwemkoong First Nation on Manitoulin Island but now lives in Toronto. A medicine bag is a deeply spiritual and sacred object that has been used for protection by indigenous peoples for thousands of years. They are usually made of leather, not paper.
According to the TDSB, the teacher is no longer teaching the course, but indigenous educators say the incident speaks for a larger structural problem related to lack of professional development and hiring practices.
Recollet said she had notified the board’s Urban Indigenous Education Center and filed a complaint with the board’s human rights office against teacher Donna Blanco.
“It’s not a fair job. There are so many things wrong with it. Misrepresentation, cultural appropriation, and using an LCBO bag is racism,” she said.
A screenshot from the TDSB’s virtual school shows the teacher using an LCBO bag as an example of how to create the medicine bag. (Submitted by Lena Recollet)
“Even if we weren’t local, you shouldn’t have used an LCBO bag at first. He’s in 9th grade.”
In her complaint, Recollet said, she listed the desired outcome as having removed Blanco from the course and asked the board to make sure her son wasn’t back in a class of hers.
But Recollet said the bigger problem is that a non-indigenous teacher is teaching the indigenous arts course. She also wants the process of filing a racism or discrimination complaint on the board to be improved.
Task “makes a mockery of things we value,” says Professor
Jennifer Brant teaches courses on indigenous literatures, anti-racism and settler colonialism, and structural and colonial violence in education at the University of Toronto. She says these are the types of tasks “that are related to the negative stereotypes against indigenous peoples and that are totally inappropriate and harmful”.
“For Indigenous students, this is a direct assault on cultural identity and mocks the things we cherish,” Brant said, adding that an indigenous arts course should be taught by an indigenous educator.
Dr. Jennifer Brant is Assistant Professor in the Department of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning at OISE at the University of Toronto. (Credit / Christopher Katsarov)
Brant said her own children were also assigned insensitive projects throughout their school years, and is disappointed that these incidents are still happening.
“I want to say it’s shocking, but it’s not shocking. It’s deeply troubling how common these types of insensitive or inadequate tasks are.”
Brant said that as the push continues to bring more indigenous content to the education system, she believes there needs to be more compulsory training.
“I feel that the teachers did not have enough opportunities for professional development or did not think deeply enough about how this could be done appropriately.”
In a statement emailed to CBC News, the TDSB said it “found this incident totally unacceptable and immediately took steps to address this cultural appropriation,” adding that “this particular lesson is not part of the curriculum and shouldn’t have been taught. “”
When asked why a non-indigenous teacher is teaching the course, the board said, “Although we prefer Indigenous teachers to teach indigenous courses, this is not always possible.”
According to the TDSB, non-indigenous teachers can teach this course provided they receive additional training through the board’s Urban Indigenous Education Center. In some cases, teachers have also signed up for additional courses.
The board notes that indigenous artists and community members are available to support staff and that the TDSB is actively looking for ways to increase the number of indigenous staff, “not just in class, but in all areas of the school board. Part of that Work will be finished. ” breaking down systemic barriers that indigenous educators face. “
Blanco, the teacher, did not respond to CBC’s request for comment. The TDSB confirmed that she is still working on the board but is no longer teaching the course.
Recollet says she told her son that his feelings about the task were valid. She drove him to a craft store and he made the bag out of leather instead of paper to complete the job.
“That shouldn’t be happening at all. These programs exist because people fought to make these programs exist,” she said.
And while in 2021 she doesn’t believe the fight should still take place, she hopes that speaking it out will cause change.
“That is deep work.”