The Riverside community is divided on the Ministry of Education’s announcement requiring all graduates in British Columbia to complete four credits of Indigenous studies starting in the school year of 2023-2024. Many students are surprised by the news, while teachers feel optimistic about the transition. The mandate is the first of its kind in Canada and aims to show the province’s commitment to the recommendations in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission regarding the treatment of the Indigenous population in our nation.

The new requirement means that students currently in the tenth grade or under must complete one four-credit or a bundle of two-credit eligible courses to obtain their Dogwood Diplomas. Although the current 80-credit graduation requirements remain unchanged, the new requirement has brought the key question of readiness to the limelight among those impacted.

I’m a real believer [that] if you know better, you do better.
Kirk Gummow

Most students support the advocacy of Indigenous voices and cultures. However, many questioned how the change would disrupt their planned course load, especially those in Grade 10 whose Grade 11 schedules are already set.

“By grade 10, we already know what the rest of our high school experience will look like,” said Santokh Farmer, a concerned Grade 10 student. “However, with the new mandatory graduation requirement, we may have to completely re-plan our courses.”

Another Grade 10 student, Carrick Buena, shared a similar frustration regarding the unexpected notice. “I may have to opt out of a future elective I had looked forward to or had needed to develop various skills for my future career. I may even need to take summer courses to satisfy not only the new and current requirements for high school but also for post-secondary admissions,” said Buena.

SD43’s Indigenous resource teacher Kirk Gummow

Despite students’ uncertainties, teachers and administrators are preparing for the transition. One of them is District 43’s Indigenous resource teacher, Kirk Gummow, who is now collaborating with Riverside teachers to embed Indigenous perspectives and pedagogies into their practice.

“What [the requirement] is meant to do is just really create a deeper understanding of the experiences, the histories, the cultures, and the diversity that exist within Indigenous communities. I’m a real believer [that] if you know better, you do better,” said Gummow.

English teacher Erin Tate

English teacher Erin Tate believes that Riverside is well-positioned for a successful implementation since the department has been offering Indigenous-focused courses such as English First Peoples 10, 11, and 12 since 2019. Although these courses are electives, they have gained in popularity over time. Tate credited Honourable Murray Sinclair’s famous quote for fueling her dedication to integrating First Peoples Principles of Learning in her classroom.

“Education was the means of oppression of Indigenous peoples that stripped many different nations of their culture, of their society, of their self-worth. Therefore, it is primarily our responsibility as educators to change that, to work towards reconciliation, to teach about these things that have happened,” explained Tate.

English department head and teacher Sheri Thomasen said that her department endeavours to incorporate content with context, intention, and respect into the syllabus. “We want to go beyond just including Indigenous authors and to try and bring in the Principles of Learning with much more of an authentic Indigenous space in our classrooms,” said Thomasen.

Thomasen is also confident that the new graduation requirement will diversify Riverside’s Spoken Word tradition, making the semi-annual festival more vibrant.

In addition to teachers, librarian Susan Henderson is also sourcing accurate, original, and age-appropriate resources that allow students and teachers to look at the subjects through an Indigenous lens.

Henderson emphasized the power of storytelling, which has a rich history in Indigenous culture, in influencing an audience. “Personal stories can change hearts and minds where facts and figures won’t,” said Henderson.

For this reason, Henderson strives to find content that not only fulfils the curriculum but also promotes reading about the founding people of our lands for pleasure. Students and teachers can expect more books and readings with the First Nations sticker, the identifying mark that indicates works portrayed with Indigenous voices.

The model of the new graduation requirement has been collaboratively designed with the First Nations Education Steering Committee (FNESC). An online feedback form is open to students, teachers, parents, and the public until April 22, 2022.

Indigenous art puzzle in feature image courtesy of Shutterstock (Item 558194836), inspired by Tlingit First Nation.