Education, and the Need for Personal Reconciliation

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August 11, 2016

By: Kris Magnusson

I recently accepted an invitation from Andrew Petter, President of Simon Fraser University, to co-chair a process for developing recommendations for SFU’s response to the issue of reconciliation for aboriginal peoples. It will be my honour to work with co-chair Chris (Syeta’xtn) Lewis, of the Squamish Nation. We decided to call our group the SFU ARC, or Aboriginal Reconciliation Council, and we have just begun the process of thinking about how we shall engage in this important activity. How in the world did I end up in this role?

I first started seriously thinking about a life-path in education when I was an undergraduate student knocking myself out in a BSc Mathematics program. The purity of mathematics was at once beautiful and at the same time troubling; the deeper one went into the discipline, the more removed one seemed to get from people. In my family, learning was a given. My 3 siblings and I are voracious readers, with insatiable curiosities about the world around us. I guess it was only natural, at some point, for me to turn my attention from the “inner” world of mathematics to the connected world of education: I determined that I could best make a difference by making math accessible, and so I would become a teacher. I held then, and retain to this today, an unshakeable faith in the transformative power of education.

When I completed my degree, I did not apply for jobs in the city, choosing instead to go where the problems were. I accepted a teaching position in small rural community in Saskatchewan, where resources, supplies and opportunities were scarce, and began my personal education in earnest. This was the late 1970’s, and I was completely ignorant of and oblivious to the plight of the Cree people who lived on the reserve not far from town. Most of the children from the reserve were bussed to a school in a neighbouring town, but I did have one angry young lad who I will call Leroy in my eighth grade science class. His mom had moved off the reserve to try to create a better life for her children, but hers was not an easy life within that town. Leroy was older and bigger than the other kids in class, and pretty much kept to himself. My principal warned me about him, and told me that as long as I didn’t bother him, he would not cause much trouble. In other words, if just left Leroy alone, I would get through this and survive my first year as a teacher.

I didn’t leave Leroy alone. I kept at him to do his work. I told him he was smart and could do anything he chose to do. I told him he could be a leader if he chose to. And, I would like to be able to tell you that that experience transformed Leroy. It didn’t; as soon as he finished grade 8 – with a “social pass” in virtually all subjects – he quit school. My naïve exhortations had no discernable impact. After two years of teaching, I returned to university to pursue a Master’s degree in counselling. One day, I was walking down a street in downtown Regina, and a couple of tough-looking young aboriginal males suddenly veered from their path across the street and came towards me. As I was deciding if I needed activate my flight or fight response mechanisms, the larger of the two broke into a big grin, stuck out his hand and said, “Hey Mr. Mag – its Leroy!” Then he turned to his friend and said, “This was the best teacher I ever had”. We chatted for a while, caught up on what he was doing, and then parted. I never saw or heard from him again.

The more I thought about the incident, the more troubled I became. My assessment was that I had been a complete failure – Leroy did not demonstrate that he learned any of the math or science I was trying to teach him, and at his first opportunity, he bolted the school system, and for all I know, ended up living on the streets of Regina. And yet, from his perspective, that was his best school experience.  If that was the best, how atrocious must the rest of his experience been? I hoped that Leroy’s experience was an isolated case, but as I came to understand over time, his experience was more the norm in Canada. Even worse, the experiences of his parents, elders, and relatives in the residential school system were much, much worse. How could education, that which I valued so much, be so damaging to Leroy and the countless other Leroys across Canada?

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada is a call to action that is aimed at kiinwi – all of us. We have personal and collective responsibilities to address issues and challenges of systemic racism. As TRC Chair Justice noted, “the history and its aftermath, therefore, should not be seen as an Aboriginal problem; it's a Canadian one.”