A recent delegation to the school board has sparked a conversation in Vanderhoof around the need for more education related to diversity.
On Oct. 18, Terah and Daniel Albertson took a petition to SD91’s Board of Education asking them to “restore neutrality to education in School District 91.”
The petition, which is available on change.org, has 351 signatures as of Monday, Oct. 25.
During the presentation, the brothers brought up issues they have with the school district, including but not limited to holding a day against homophobia, transphobia and bi-phobia. They were also unhappy with the way Indigenous history is being taught at SD91 schools and believe it makes the Caucasian side of the class feel like they are the “oppressors”.
According to the Albertsons, teachers shouldn’t call out students for not agreeing with views of same-sex marriage or LGBTQ identity. There are other points in the petition that can be read online on the change.org website.
The Express reached out to a couple of stakeholders in this conversation, including the Student Voice group, Chief Priscilla Mueller, Chair for SD91’s Board of Education Nadine Frenkel, SD91 superintendent Manu Madhok and Saik’uz Coun. Jasmine Thomas.
Reimer Wild, Samuel Smith and Isaac Craig are student leaders who are a part of the Student Voice group in SD91. As part of this group with 16 student leaders from different high schools, they discuss issues being faced by students in the school district, have conversations around policies, and sit on school board meetings, amongst other things.
Wild, Smith and Craig were at the school board meeting on Oct. 18.
“Throughout the entire thing [delegation], I felt targeted as a person of a minority group, and I did not feel safe. It felt very offensive, especially to be in school,” Craig said.
All three students agreed that even though schools are teaching more about diversity now than before, more still needs to be taught.
When asked whether bullying and harassment still exists in schools, all three students agreed. “I have gone through a lot of harassment, but they [other students] do it through discreet, passive-aggressive ways which are still hurtful, but harder for teachers to do something about it,” Craig said.
On the topic of how Indigenous history is taught, Smith shared a story of how his family had gone for a biking trip recently to Kamloops. “We were up on the mountain and we could see the residential school, and my brother was like – why don’t they just tear them down. And my dad said that just by destroying it, it doesn’t get rid of the memories from there.”
Craig agreed and added that people have to recognize their privilege.
“One of the things about the Honouring Diversity course – they [the delegation] said in their speech that it was making their Caucasian kids feel bad about being white – and that’s not the intention of the course at all. It is the intention to have Caucasian people understand how they can be oppressive and to use their privilege right and not oppress minorities,” Craig added.
Nadine Frenkel, chair of the Board of Education for SD91 said the school board had conducted an equity scan where they found equity lacking in their Indigenous and marginalized students, including the LGBTQ community.
After engagement and assistance from stakeholders and partnerships, the school board drafted a plan from which came the Grade 8 diversity course.
“Our goal is to change the environment so when they walk into school they are not hearing a racial slur, they are not afraid to go to the washroom and be targeted because of their gender identity. We are working towards eliminating those biases and racism. I would say it’s a very difficult conversation to have especially when we are finding these children buried on residential school sites. It’s about learning that history, so we don’t make the mistake again,” she said.
Coun. Jasmine Thomas of Saik’uz First Nation said she feels more students, including their guardians and the rest of mainstream society, would benefit from learning more about the basic principles of diversity and equity.
“We are not too young to learn kindness, compassion and empathy in the places where we spend the majority of our lifetime. Especially within public school systems where our future doctors, lawyers, law enforcement and social workers are educated.”
“There are always risks of those delivering any content that they might not truly “buy-into” on a personal level. But times are changing, and such changes have all been identified in various national inquiries calling for major overhauls within society and educational institutions to address racism and inequities,” she added.
Manu Madhok, superintendent for SD91 said the public school system isn’t just about reading, writing and arithmetic. BC School Curriculum has a set of guidelines called core competencies, and Madhok noted one of the core competencies is critical thinking and learning about personal identity.
“Our kids are citizens of the world and want to make a difference,” he said.
“Teachers are assigned tasks to provide kids information so they can think more about the world. Schooling isn’t just about opening up a textbook and learning about a country far away from us, it’s about learning more about the communities we live in.”
Madhok added that school district is surrounded by 14 different Indigenous communities that have a history. “It’s the truth part of Truth and Reconciliation,” he said.
He said one thing the delegation shared is that kids feel guilty when they learn about these truths. But, that’s not the intent, he said. Instead, it’s to invite them into a conversation.
Chief Priscilla Mueller said that there was no Indigenous or Carrier history taught in all her years in high school from grade 8 to grade 12. “I felt very uncomfortable for many years in the high school. I didn’t have many friends except for my peers from the community I grew up in… I was kind of embarrassed to be First Nations.”
“And I believe today we need to teach Indigenous curriculum and Carrier curriculum at the high school in Vanderhoof in every subject. And if we did that 30 years ago, a non-native child would not feel out of place when learning about our culture and history. They wouldn’t feel that way because they would know the history beginning in elementary school. And if our history was taught, we wouldn’t be having this conversation today.”
With files from Rebecca Dyok