Dawn Burleigh believes her first full-time teaching position gave her more of an education than she gave her students. Working in a remote Cree community in Northern Ontario that was accessible only by airplane, Dawn learned lessons from the people of Attawapiskat about Indigenous life and perspectives that profoundly changed the course of her educational journey.

“I think I learned a lot more than I ever taught,” Dawn says of her three years as a non-Indigenous visitor to the community located at the mouth of the Attawapiskat River on James Bay.

I feel it was those experiences with students and people in the community that flipped on its head what I thought teaching should be. I had to unlearn a lot of colonized ways of education. It was only the beginning of a very long journey.”

The journey led her to delve more deeply into how Indigenous perspectives fit into the education system while earning her Ph.D at Western University. It eventually guided Dawn to her present position as associate professor of Indigenous Education in the University of Lethbridge’s Faculty of Education. Now in her eighth year at the U of L, she was involved in the recently completed Indigenous Integration Pilot Project which focused on Competency 5 in the Teaching Quality Standard which details competencies of professional practice for all Alberta teachers from kindergarten to Grade 12. Competency 5 supports teachers in developing and applying foundational knowledge about First Nations, Metis and Inuit for the benefit of all students.

The timing of the pilot project aligned with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action which followed the release of the Commission’s final report in 2015. Dawn, who was raised in London, Ont., feels it is of vital importance that Indigenous perspectives be included in the educational curriculum across the country to ensure students gain a better understanding of Indigenous issues and peoples. In Alberta, Competency 5 supports teachers in achieving that goal.

“Alberta and B.C. really lead the country in many ways,” says Dawn. “I think the approach Alberta is taking is a really strong statement and a step toward prioritizing Indigenous perspectives in the classroom.”

The U of L’s Faculty of Education works to assist teachers in that regard by preparing future teachers to be able to integrate Indigenous education into the classroom. While Competency 5 calls on teachers to implement instruction about Canada’s First Peoples, the Alberta curriculum’s formal inclusion of Indigenous perspectives is limited, so it falls upon teachers to apply their own initiative and creativity within their lesson planning and pedagogy in order to meet Competency 5’s directives.

We have come to understand that, for us in the faculty to support students, we need to develop our understanding and foundational knowledge as well. We’re learning alongside our students.”

That learning is aided by support and guidance from the local Blackfoot community, including Red Crow College and the Kainai Board of Education. “That’s been the backbone of the direction of the project. We’ve established some good relationships and appreciate the support and advisement offered to us.”

There’s still much more to be done, says Dawn, but she is cautiously optimistic that changes are slowly being made, and she feels the Indigenous Integration Pilot Project has contributed in a positive way. “In an official sense, the project has wrapped up, but what we’ve learned, I think, has had a lasting impact on how we work with students.”

Writer: Dave Sulz | Photographer: Rob Olson

Related story links to Faculty of Education Graduate Studies and Research:
Dr. Amy von Heyking: High-quality Education Systems are Created Through Rigorous and Collaborative Accountability Systems
Education Research on Place-conscious Pedagogy: Creating Curriculum from Local Perspectives with Dr. Sharon Pelech
The Creativity of Curriculum and 36 Years with the Faculty of Education: Dr. Richard Butt
Coping with COVID-19: Harnessing our Natural Stress Response
Coping with COVID-19: Loneliness
How Students Can Get Screen Time Break During COVID-19: Experts
The Intersectionality of Faith, Mental Health and Wellness for Racialized   Populations During the Pandemic
Bridging Neuroscience and Education: Riley Kostek (BSc’09/BEd’11)
Teaching and Assessing for Life Beyond the Classroom: Dr. David Slomp
Five questions with Shining Graduate Rita Lal (BSc/BEd '01, MEd '20)
Teaching Multiple Literacies in Canadian Classrooms: Sarah Gagnon (BSc/BEd’11, MEd candidate)
Wellness is About Writing: Teri Hartman (BA/BEd '02, current MEd student)
Leadership in Education: The Power of Generative Dialogue
A Generative Approach to Leadership for All Educators