Skip to main content

Elders (left to right) Sharon O’Brien, Margaret Reynolds, Michael Thrasher and Shirley Williams share their stories and perspectives on indigenous education at the NCCIE Forum in Ottawa

When Margaret Reynolds was a child, education was about much more than spelling or math drills in a stuffy classroom. Some of the most important things she learned came from her time on the land.

Reynolds grew up in Dipper Lake, Sask., speaking only the Dene language, until she attended a residential school in Beauval, Sask. Her post-secondary education took place at the Manitoba Institute of Technology (today, Red River College), after which she became a medical laboratory technologist.

“I was lucky,” said Reynolds, a member of the English River/Patuanak First Nation in Saskatchewan. “I grew up knowing the science. I grew up getting [great marks] in biology because I knew, from my father, how to skin a rabbit. He showed us every hide of that animal, every muscle. So when I went to [college], all I had to do was translate it into English. I learned chemistry from my grandmother, who was a medicine woman. All of the plants we had on this Earth, in our back yard, those were the medicines.”

Reynolds’ story was one of many shared at a recent forum hosted by the newly-formed National Centre for Collaboration in Indigenous Education (NCCIE) in Ottawa. The participants gathered together to explore the questions: What is the future of indigenous education? And how can indigenous communities move forward and continue to develop indigenous knowledge?

The NCCIE was developed by First Nations University of Canada (FNUniv), a federated college of the University of Regina that specializes in indigenous knowledge. According to Dr. Mark Dockstator, president of FNUniv, the NCCIE will serve as a place for educators, indigenous elders and traditional knowledge holders to share ideas and best practices.

In the past year, student researchers have gathered dozens of interviews from elders and knowledge holders across the country. Additionally, the NCCIE held 15 local forums in every province to facilitate more discussion. While story-gathering is still in progress, these insights are being compiled into a digital archive on the NCCIE’s website (

The ultimate goal is to create a Canada-wide framework for indigenous education, informed by conversations with individual indigenous nations, said Dockstator at the Ottawa forum.

“What is indigenous education? We don’t tell the communities. They tell us,” said Dockstator, who is a member of the Oneida Nation of the Thames in southwestern Ontario. “We have to set up a network across Canada, because every region is going to be different.”

Dockstator gave a recent example from a local forum. One indigenous nation was interested in including more “on-the-land” (nature-based) training for its youth, but told the gathering that a major obstacle was the issue of liability. They received an offer of assistance from a second nation that was already well on its way to implementing such a program – while taking into account liability concerns.

Elders and traditional knowledge holders need to be included in this conversation, noted Dockstator, because their decades of experience provide a valuable perspective.

The Ottawa forum featured a panel of elders, including Reynolds, who weighed in on what it takes to support indigenous education. When asked to share their own experiences, the elders all spoke of the knowledge they gained from their parents and guardians.

Michael Thrasher, a Métis Cree born in Sudbury and raised in northern Saskatchewan, said that all indigenous children should “learn off of the land,” where they can integrate the wisdom of their elders. He defined wisdom as not only knowing a topic, but passing on knowledge to others at the same time.

“I think indigenous education must find its roots in this place,” he said of the land. “It’s hard for me to imagine transferring that into an institution.”

Some of the elders also spoke of the pain of being mocked for their ethnicity by non-native classmates.

Sharon O’Brien, director of the Mi’kmaq Family Resource Centre in Prince Edward Island, grew up in non-native foster care. She recalled how one picture in a textbook depicting an “Indian” riding on horseback on the plains made her life hell.

“That was a time when it was a perceived weakness or difference in you,” she said.

But while the elders acknowledged the hurtful misperceptions they endured as youths, they also focused on the educational strengths of indigenous nations. They noted that the Canadian education system often insists that children sit still and listen, while indigenous nations encourage their children to ask questions, participate and connect their knowledge with real-life situations.

Dockstator said that in the coming year, the NCCIE will continue to bring together educators, decision-makers and knowledge holders through community forums. Stories, insights and best practices will continue to be collected on the NCCIE’s digital archive. Though they don’t have all the answers yet, they will continue to ask the questions.

“In a year, I see the NCCIE as bigger, better and stronger, and I hope it includes more partnerships with universities and [other] organizations,” said Dockstator. “We hope to present indigenous education in a better and far richer context than where it currently exists.”

This content was produced by The Globe and Mail’s Globe Content Studio, in consultation with an advertiser. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved in its creation.