As told to Nicholas Mizera, Opinion/Blogs Editor, HuffPost Canada
I was away on a field trip to the Mohawk Institute Residential School the day I was told that I wouldn't have a permanent spot teaching in the Peel District School Board due to cuts under Ontario's Progressive Conservative government. I remember the principal calling me into his office. He was nice about it. I received a form letter telling me what the next steps would be.
I met with some fellow teachers and department heads, whose responses were very kind. But what really mattered to me were the responses I received from students who'd heard the news — my own, those I've coached, and even ones I never taught. Like the 368 other educators in my school board whose jobs were also sacrificed on the proverbial altar, I wonder what's going to happen to my students when I'm not around next year.
When I think back to Doug Ford's promise that "no" frontline workers will lose their job, it's clear that isn't the case. These cuts don't seem to have taken into account the lives they will impact — not just the teachers', but their students' as well. Cuts across the province will result in lost sections and fewer courses, including many of the Indigenous studies courses I've dedicated my teaching career to. In the end, students will lose out greatly with every teacher and class lost.
Every teacher brings a unique perspective
Before I was an educator, I was a commodities broker. I worked in a big office and made good money. In 2008 when the housing crisis hit, however, our company closed. I considered a few career paths, but decided I'd become a teacher in part because of my background.
Like many Indigenous kids during the 1960s, '70s and '80s, I was adopted into a family that knew nothing of the culture I came from. I was extremely lucky to have been adopted by a great family, but still went through a number of identity crises and struggled a long time trying to reconnect with a cultural group.
It wasn't until my 30s that I found out I was Métis. I put a lot of time and effort into learning about who I was and getting in touch with my culture, and tried to pass what I could onto my daughters. I noticed that the elementary and high schools my kids attended did not have Indigenous teachers. That meant my kids couldn't really see themselves in the people who were teaching them, nor could they see it in the curriculum, in the way it was taught. I wanted to change that, for them and others.
I didn't attend my graduation when I finished my teaching degree. Instead, two days after courses ended I was on a plane flying some 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont. to my first job at a reserve called Wunnumin Lake First Nation.
I left my family to teach students ranging in age, from 14 to 22. The school went from kindergarten to Grade 10, and if students wanted to complete their studies they would need to travel to Thunder Bay or Sioux Lookout. This gave me an understanding of the inequities in education, especially when it came to First Nations students, and so this became another impetus to educate students about Indigenous culture, history and people.
It felt like home, and I loved every second of it. I built amazing relationships with those students over the six months I was there, and I felt like part of the community. They were great kids, and many were successful. If you've never been to a reserve or lived on one, there is a sense of community that one doesn't see in big cities or towns. People are giving, friendly and are willing to take you in. This was constantly shown but no more so than when one student came around my home to drop off moose from his father's recent harvest.
I believe that giving students a teacher who is able to come across authentically makes a difference.
When curriculums in other parts of the country seem to linger on the negative aspects of Indigenous culture, like the '60s Scoop, residential schools and suicides, I refer to this time in my career to tell my students about all the good things that have happened in Indigenous history — the culture, the community and the inclusion I was able to witness in Northern Ontario.
This was the experience I hoped to bring back with me to Southern Ontario. After some stints as an occasional teacher, I got a long-term occasional position in the Peel board. I did that for two or three years. Eventually, I was hired to a more progressive school, Jean Augustine Secondary School. What made this job particularly attractive was an opportunity to teach a required First Nations, Métis and Inuit course — exactly what I wanted to do. I was finally an Indigenous teacher, teaching kids about First Nations, Métis and Inuit culture.
I feel like my lived experience helped me connect with students. I can be quite honest with my students about things like the '60s Scoop, and I tell them what it felt like wrestling with a lack of identity when I was growing up and the emotional toll it took on me. I was proud to see a student organize a campaign to display 4,000 faceless dolls symbolizing Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women at school without prompting. Other students have done "lunch and learns" where they have taught teachers about issues within Indigenous communities. Still, other students have created podcasts, websites and "TED Talks" touching on the community, the trials and the successes of First Nation, Métis and Inuit communities, many of which will be seen by the public at JASS's Impact Night this May.
'We're not just numbers'
I believe that giving students a teacher who is able to come across authentically makes a difference. Every single teacher has some experience that makes them unique, and all good teachers, and I think most teachers, can relate to students on that level to make a lesson come alive. That's what this government fails to take into account.
If there's something I want the Ford government to know, it's that we're not just numbers. Teachers are all taxpayers and we all have lives. I want this government to be honest and upfront so that teachers know where they stand and can make plans. Even with the announced attrition protection fund, we haven't been told where we stand. Contracts that we worked so hard and waited so long for may very well be gone, making it necessary to start at the bottom once more. Several other questions remain. Will we be coming back next year? Can we reapply? Are next year's cuts going to be worse? Where will these cuts end?
With my background in business, I understand the economic side of Ford's cuts. I really do. But this scorched-earth policy, the product of a vague election platform, seems like cutting for the sake of cutting because it looks good on paper, saves money and speaks to Ford's base.
I, like many of my colleagues, am not sure what I'm going to do next. These cuts have me painted into a corner. I've looked at teaching jobs in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, but I don't want to leave my family again.
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As we move further into the spring, we've seen the unsure nature of Ontario's education system. Due to class size restrictions, sections have been cut from many high schools. Courses like art, drama, tech, Grade 12 physics and, most disheartening for me, Indigenous studies could be cut because of their lower enrolment. This is a loss for students because they don't get to expand their learning by developing many of the skills that help to recognize and build their humanity.
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