Student group helps guide Indigenous education in Chilliwack

Indigenous students in the Chilliwack area are taking the lead in guiding Indigenous education in their school district, sharing their experiences both in and outside of the classroom with educators.

As of the 2023/2024 school year, students in B.C. are required to have at least four credits in Indigenous-focused coursework, such as First Nations language, provincial courses and a locally created curriculum.

However, some students say they aren't just expected to take the class to get the credits. Sometimes, they end up having to share personal stories or even teach their peers, even if they'd prefer not to.

Jasmine Roberts, who is going into Grade 12 in the fall, said that in Indigenous-focused courses, she's often called upon to teach the material.

"I would be one out of possibly three other Indigenous students within the course, so that was really stressful, and I expressed that to my teachers a lot of the time," said Roberts, who is from the Ch'íyáqtel [chee-ack-ten] community of the Sto:lo First Nation.

Jasmine Roberts is a member of the Indigenous Student Voice and Agency group in the Chilliwack School District, where she shares her experiences in the classroom and helps guide educators on Indigenous-focused coursework.
Jasmine Roberts is a member of the Indigenous Student Voice and Agency group in the Chilliwack School District, where she shares her experiences in the classroom and helps guide educators on Indigenous-focused coursework. (CBC)

Experiences like Roberts's are why the school district launched the Indigenous Student Voice and Agency Group, a leadership program that includes representatives from all high schools in the district, from Grade 9 to Grade 12. There, students share with faculty and staff what was working and what wasn't in terms of Indigenous studies in Chilliwack classrooms.

Teacher Niki McCall said it all started when a student transferred into her English Studies 12 class, a language studies class, after a challenging experience in English First Peoples 12, which is similar to English Studies but incorporates Indigenous frameworks and pedagogies.

"He felt that anytime Indigenous content or perspectives, ways of knowing and being, were being discussed in the classroom, it was him that was being studied and that he was sort of under a microscope," McCall told CBC's The Early Edition host Stephen Quinn.

Meanwhile, Brenda Point, the Indigenous education district principal at School District 33, said teachers were worried about teaching Indigenous-focused courses because they didn't know the material well enough.

"They didn't feel equipped to be able to teach these courses," said Point, who is from the tootinaowaziibeeng  [tootin-ah-waza-bing] First Nation and married into the skowkale [skow-kale] community of Sto:lo Nation.

"There are many teachers out there ... [who] want to do right by students. There is a segment of our population who understands this history; other people have just not been aware of the history, and we're still on a journey to bring other people along."

So, teachers turned to the experts: Indigenous students.

The Indigenous Student Voice and Agency meets at least once a month, and community members, including chiefs from local First Nations, are invited to share their perspectives alongside the students.

McCall said that through the group, she's learned not to put students on the spot and expect them to teach course material based on their lived experience. Instead, she understands the importance of asking students if they want to share with classmates before class starts.

McCall said the group has been so successful the district plans to keep it going in the fall.

"Being able to have those conversations with some of the barriers removed, which students have been incredibly instrumental in designing what those opportunities should look like, has led to some really transformative change."

Roberts will return to the group in the fall as a senior representative for her school.

"I enjoy teaching others about my culture and I enjoy them asking questions about what we're doing within the program and about the education system."