A Personal History of Indigenous Education: Verna Kirkness’s Creating Space

creating_spaceReviewed in this essay: Creating Space: My Life and Work in Indigenous Education by Verna Kirkness. Published by the University of Manitoba Press (September 2013).

In 1950, children on the Fisher River Indian reserve went to residential school after grade eight. One child on the reserve, however, had to stay behind. Residential schools only admitted status Indians and Verna Kirkness’s mother never registered her daughter with the Department of Indian Affairs. Instead, Kirkness attended a private high school 160 kilometres away (her grade-eight teacher convinced the Women’s Missionary Society of Canada to cover the tuition). Nine years later, Kirkness finally went to a residential school, but as a teacher.

Kirkness, whose autobiography, Creating Space: My Life and Work in Indigenous Education, came out this fall, has been at the forefront of indigenous education for half a century: she taught in residential schools as a young woman, served as a policy advisor for both the National Indian Brotherhood and the government, and founded an indigenous teaching program at the University of British Columbia.

Her career began as a teacher in Manitoba public schools, but in 1959, Kirkness asked for a transfer to the Birtle Indian Residential School — the same school that barred her as a teenager.

During her three-year stint at the school, she sensed the loneliness of her students, the “facelessness” of her ancestors in the curriculum, the extreme segregation between boys and girls, and the coldness of the staff. In retrospect, Kirkness concludes that, had she attended the school a decade earlier, her life would have been different: “I surely would not have been able to tolerate the regimen, or the repressive and confining atmosphere, and either would have dropped out, as many did, or would have been expelled for breaking one or more of the many rules.”

In part, her book reflects how challenging it is to reconfigure an entire education system that has, historically, failed to nurture its students.

Take the example of textbooks: in 1971, while working with the National Indian Brotherhood (now the Assembly of First Nations), Kirkness lobbied the Manitoba government to revise its history textbooks that suggested indigenous people were lazy, did not work, and were “less intelligent” than other Canadians. The government responded by cutting indigenous peoples out of the book entirely. “Obliteration,” Kirkness writes, “was just another form of bias.”

That is not to say there has been no progress. In the 1980s, Kirkness helped found the Ts’‘kel graduate program in education at the University of British Columbia. It continues to, in her words, “graduate more and more educational leaders that are gainfully employed and are providing tremendous leadership in the Aboriginal community.” While the high school graduation rate on reserves today is only 40 per cent, initiatives like the Ts’‘kel program show that indigenous peoples, at least to some extent, have more opportunity now than Kirkness did 60 years ago.

Indeed, some optimism is justified: as Kirkness writes, the “pace of progress and change will accelerate as the impact of our numbers in the workplace increases and, not in my lifetime, but in the near future, the change will be clearly evident.”