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A curriculum of inclusion

(L-R) Dr. Dorothy Vaandering, a professor in the Faculty of Education, and Sheila Freake, co-ordinator of Memorial's Aboriginal Resource Office, sit outside the Education building on the St. John's campus.


By Mandy Cook

When Faculty of Education professor Dr. Dorothy Vaandering begins each new class of Education 3962, Social Studies in Primary Elementary Schools, she always starts off with the same question.

"I ask my students if they know what happened on June 11, 2008," she says.
Usually, no one pipes up. When Dr. Vaandering supplies the answer – the date Prime Minister Stephen Harper publicly apologized to Canada's Aboriginal Peoples for the country's assimilation policy during the Indian residential school system – one or two heads might nod in recognition.

It is for this reason the professor contacted Sheila Freake, co-ordinator with the Aboriginal Resource Office (ARO) on Memorial's St. John's campus. Mrs. Freake, along with her colleague Valeri Pilgrim, offers sessions in diversity training to anyone on campus – whether they are students, faculty or staff.

As an educator and a Westerner, Dr. Vaandering believes it is her responsibility to live out Mr. Harper's apology and so chooses to integrate traditional and contemporary aboriginal cultures and contributions into the subject of social studies. And conscious of the need to bring her students to an awareness of this country's history, Dr. Vaandering, in working with Mrs. Freake, hopes to teach future teachers what it is to be marginalized and how teachers themselves can sometimes unconsciously perpetuate prejudice in their teaching.

Janice Godin, a Mi'kmaq and an education student in the classroom that day, says she is grateful for the experience.

"The reality is that we will have to teach children of aboriginal cultures and the more information we get as education students the better," she says. "Sheila's presentation was a fantastic addition to Dorothy's teaching."

As it turned out, Mrs. Freake was the ideal person to come into the class to speak with the education students. A member of an Inuit community in Labrador and a past elementary school teacher, Mrs. Freake provide the unique insight of both an Inuit educator and an Inuit student within the Canadian K-12 system.

"I shared my own experiences with them," says Mrs. Freake. "When I was growing up in Nain, I learned about the Newfoundland fishery. I didn't learn anything about my own culture. So when I began teaching, I incorporated elements of Inuit culture into my curriculum and saw a big difference in my students' interest."

It is this kind of interest – and engagement – Dr. Vaandering hopes to cultivate in her classroom. And in addition to broadening the students' understanding of the subtleties and complexities of the people of the various aboriginal communities in Canada and Newfoundland and Labrador – from Metis and Innu to Inuit and Mi'kmaq -- the students prove to be keen about learning how they too can incorporate elements of aboriginal culture into their teaching units once they begin their careers.

Whether that's bringing elders into the classroom to tell stories about Inuit legends during language arts or exploring the habitats of caribou and seals during the science unit, the two women say integration is key. It is a pivotal lesson to learn. Many newly minted teachers head to Northern communities in search of employment once they've graduated. And those destined for urban schools are often unsure of how to respect the cultures of the indigenous students in their class.

"When we don't separate it out by saying, 'Now we're going to talk about native culture,' but rather include indigenous ideas, perspectives and contributions throughout all topics like we do Western concepts, then we will begin to recognize and honour each other as worthy human beings," says Dr. Vaandering. "You can weave it in, highlight indigenous culture rather than just examine the issues within."

During past sessions of the course, Dr. Vaandering has witnessed a level of frustration from her students once they realize their previous education excluded or exoticized indigenous cultures. Another benefit to the professor's approach is that students of indigenous heritage appreciate having a space to hear about and to share their perspectives. Some even share with Dr. Vaandering how it was only recently that they discovered aboriginal heritage in their own ancestry.

"Whole perspectives of their past perceptions of Aboriginal Peoples change and they become much more animated and involved in their coursework."

If you are interested in inviting the Aboriginal Resource Office co-ordinators to present to your department or faculty, please contact Sheila Freake at or 864-3495.