Learning About Walking in Beauty: Placing Aboriginal Perspectives in Canadian Classrooms

Report prepared by the Coalition for the Advancement of Aboriginal Studies (CAAS)
for theCanadian Race Relations Foundation

pdf version:


Report Highlights

Learning About Walking in Beauty: Placing Aboriginal Perspectives in Canadian Classrooms comes from the Coalition for the Advancement of Aboriginal Studies (CAAS) with funding support from the Canadian Race Relations Foundation (CRRF). Walking in Beauty is a term that speaks of conducting oneself in harmony with all of the living world, and is respectfully borrowed from the Navajo People.

In 2000-2001, the CAAS conducted a national Student Awareness Survey, measuring awareness, attitudes and knowledge of facts about Aboriginal Peoples' histories, cultures, worldviews and current concerns. Five hundred and nineteen young adults (460 Canadian, 35 Aboriginal and 24 Newcomer students in first year university and college courses across Canada) responded to this 12-page survey. The survey questionnaire was developed and administered by Aboriginal and Canadian educators, scholars, traditional Elders and advocates within the 300-member CAAS network.
The Learning About Walking in Beauty report includes the findings from this survey, together with pedagogical, social and historical analyses. The report offers a pedagogical framework and proposals for learning about "walking in beauty" together.


Aboriginal Studies for All Students

For generations, Aboriginal stakeholders have been calling for improvements to school curricula. Learning About Walking in Beauty is ground breaking because it demonstrates that Canadians also want curricula to present Aboriginal histories and cultures honestly and respectfully. Broad inclusion of Aboriginal perspectives in school curricula will increase students' awareness about this land, our interwoven histories and current issues in the relationship facing all Peoples who live in Turtle Island, now known as Canada.

Sixty-five percent of students of Aboriginal heritage are educated in provincial or territorial schools, not on Reserve. Most of the Aboriginal students attending school in their own territories are instructed using provincial or territorial curricula. The infusion of Aboriginal perspectives throughout mandated elementary and secondary curricula will build the self-esteem and academic success of Aboriginal youth, and help address the multi-generational cultural repression arising from official policies.

For their part, Canadian students must be prepared to address the economic, social and cultural marginalization of Aboriginal Peoples, which the United Nations Human Rights Committee stated is "the most pressing human rights issue facing Canadians" (April 1999). Aboriginal perspectives integrated across the curriculum from the earliest grades to high school will begin to address the causes of racism.


CAAS Learning Circle - A Framework

The information in this report is presented using the Learning Circle, a pedagogical framework developed by CAAS based on the traditional Medicine Wheel. A valued intellectual tool among Indigenous Peoples, the Circle is a fluid and flexible model for acquiring knowledge and understanding. The Circle intrinsically has no hard and fixed points, and everything within the Circle is connected.


NORTH - Aboriginal Worldview

Pedagogically, this section covers content such as language, cultural elements, traditional spirituality and customs, relationships with other parts of the natural world, and responsibilities of individuals, families, clans, nations, and confederacies. In this section of the report, through its historical and social analyses, Learning About Walking in Beauty addresses Aboriginal perspectives on history, traditional education and the importance of changing what is taught in Canadian schools about Aboriginal Peoples.


EAST - Survival and Resistance: Colonization

CAAS stresses the importance of treaties, identifying the compromises and the thinking behind them from the Aboriginal perspective. School curricula must examine what happened after treaties were signed - or not signed, as the case may be. In various parts of the country this means an honest examination of land theft, broken promises, lies, exploitation of resources on treaty and unceded territories, as well as the policies of forced assimilation such as The Indian Act and those underlying the Residential Schools system. This approach promotes analysis of the diverse impacts of colonization, and rejects the "victim" representation of Aboriginal Peoples.


SOUTH - Many Stories / Many Peoples

There is no single Aboriginal perspective, history or culture just as there is no one history or culture among European Peoples. Conventional Canadian social studies and history curricula have taken up some aspects of Indigenous identity and culture, but have mixed and matched cultures to create the hybrid "Classroom Indian". He wears a Plains Chief headdress, stands next to a Totem Pole and Tipi, and wears snowshoes. Behind him may be an Igloo. The stereotypical images of Indigenous women, when presented, are equally one-dimensional, and the coding does not resemble their roles and responsibilities within Aboriginal cultures.

In a pedagogical context, The South respects to the distinct social and political systems, spirituality, family structures, personal and collective responsibilities, and customs of the Original cultures of Turtle Island. The Southern Door also provides insight into how diverse Peoples reacted and dealt with the overlay of colonization.

In this section, Learning About Walking in Beauty includes a detailed presentation on the CAAS Learning Circle and related expectations as well as a quantitative analysis of the Student Awareness Survey findings, which suggest that:


  • Fully two-thirds (67%) of students may never have discussed contemporary issues of concern to Aboriginal Peoples in Canada while in their elementary or secondary classrooms.
  • I'm just beginning to understand the complexity of the issues - we learned nothing in elementary and high school. [British Columbia & Yukon respondent /Canadian]
  • Students were asked to evaluate both their opportunities to learn about Aboriginal Peoples' histories and cultures in elementary and secondary school, and whether their learning had prepared them to address current issues between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Peoples in Canada. With incomplete and neutral answers excluded from the data, 80% of young persons are dissatisfied or strongly dissatisfied with existing Aboriginal Studies curriculum.

I was barely taught ANYTHING regarding Aboriginal Peoples in school... I am absolutely clueless with regard to these issues. I am uneducated on these matters and as such feel ill equipped to even have an opinion much less come to an understanding. [Ontario respondent/Canadian]

  • Early in the survey, respondents were asked to identify their main source of knowledge of Aboriginal issues. At the very end, they were asked "How have Aboriginal cultures, histories and perspectives contributed to the shaping and defining of Canada?" Cross-referencing of these responses indicated those students relying on their "own reading" are the best informed, while those relying on "lessons taught in school" are the most poorly informed.
  • I think they have contributed [to Canadian culture] by surviving the assimilation attempts, genocide of culture, etc. demonstrating their innate strengths and spiritual connections regarding family,  environment and growth. [British Columbia & Yukon respondent/Canadian]
  • Analysis of the Student Awareness Survey also reveals a surprising degree of awareness on the "impacts of residential schools" question ; greater than for any other question in the survey. It appears that this understanding comes from the media not from school.
Most of these Aboriginal People feel that their childhood has been stolen from them and their beliefs of their own culture. [Prairies Region respondent/Canadian]

The South section concludes on a hopeful note, demonstrated in the above quotes: young Canadians are very concerned about how the education system has failed them and they want changes. Nonetheless, CAAS data confirms reports from Aboriginal educators and leaders, elaborated upon in the final report on the Royal Commission of Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP): That students graduating from Canadian schools have almost no valid or accurate knowledge about Aboriginal Peoples.


WEST - Renewal and Rebuilding: Decolonization

 At this point on the Learning Circle prepares the student to take up her or his adult civic responsibilities. Young Canadians must understand that Aboriginal Peoples are engaged in efforts to remove the damaging structures resulting from colonization. This information will help explain media reports regarding political disputes. Increased awareness will generate critical analysis towards collective responsibility on the part of Canadians to engage with First Peoples on constructive problem-solving.

This section of the report examines how "history" is defined in Canada and how the official policy of multiculturalism does not adequately address Aboriginal perspectives.

If anything the government has seen them [Aboriginal People] as an obstacle to be overcome. I have little knowledge of how Aboriginal culture has been incorporated into contemporary Canadian society. [Quebec respondent/non-Aboriginal]

The CAAS review of past and current mandatory Canadian curricula found that Aboriginal Peoples continue to be marginalized. At the secondary level in particular, Aboriginal or Native Studies courses are optional. While many of these curricula are of high quality, the vast majority of students remain inadequately informed about Aboriginal perspectives. A path is laid for moving away from the "Bad Old Curriculum" and its Pedagogy of Oppression, towards implementing a new pedagogy in which respect and honesty are the founding principles.

The West concludes with "next steps" towards Learning About Walking in Beauty. In its entirety, this report is a deliberate, action-focused tool for CAAS, for the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, and for others who share the goal of improving Canadian curricula and classroom practice through inclusion of valid, accurate and appropriate representation of Aboriginal Peoples' worldviews, cultures, histories and contemporary concerns.


Call for Action and Recommendations

 Aboriginal Studies is not an altruistic pursuit. A pedagogy infused with Aboriginal perspectives will help all students build both a knowledge base and the critical analysis skills relevant to contemporary regional, national and international affairs. Further, newcomer and settler Canadians can gain a great deal from learning about Aboriginal Peoples and Indigenous perspectives, which take into account the emotional, physical, cultural, spiritual, and mental elements of who we are as both distinct and interconnected Peoples.

    ...[Aboriginal Peoples] provide diversity, different perspective on society.... Religious practices display love of mother nature and other human beings (should enlighten the rest of us). [Atlantic respondent/Canadian].

 Through their voices in this report, young Canadians are providing further momentum for change, telling us all that they must be able to make informed decisions about major issues facing Canadian and Aboriginal Peoples.

Notwithstanding the provincial and territorial jurisdiction that exists over school curriculum, profound change such as this requires many committed partners. In the spirit of the Treaties, CAAS calls for collaboration, support and action from the federal government of Canada, provincial and territorial authorities, school boards, faculties of education, teachers' federations, associations and regulatory bodies, and relevant national organizations and institutions.

 Education partners are called to publicly indicate their support to bring about solutions identified in Learning About Walking in Beauty. CAAS calls for:


  • Aboriginal-directed professional development opportunities for in-service teachers;
  • Aboriginal-led changes to curricula for pre-service teachers;
  • Public policies that encourage more Aboriginal men and women to become educators.

More analysis, policy development and redirection of resources are required in other areas. The federal government, together with charitable foundations and other civic society institutions as well as education partners, must turn their attention to tasks such as:

  • Collaboration, at the policy level, of all education authorities to enable and promote mandatory Aboriginal Studies, so that all students have access to this curriculum.
  • The implementation of concrete resource distribution policies to enable teacher access to quality Aboriginal-produced resources. As one example, the most comprehensive pedagogical resource available to teachers and students, the final RCAP report and its educators' guide, must be made available and promoted to anyone involved in education
  • The development of programs that support teachers wishing to invite Aboriginal resource persons into their classrooms.
  • The design of further research, focusing on "catalytic" ways of helping teachers undertake the transformative process.
  • The development of research on the overall benefits to classroom programming and all students arising from the inclusion of valid, appropriate Aboriginal perspective curriculum.
The entire report is available from the CRRF website at www.crr.ca. CAAS is willing to share the survey data with any researcher or organization that will use it in A Good Way.

Finally, to the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, CAAS network members and exemplary educators, our Elders, writers, editors and readers: thank you for helping us bring this message to the ears of those who can make change. Let us hope they can hear.

To Our Elders and Our Children:  Chi Miigwetch! Ekosi! Nai:wen! Thank You!


All Our Relations

The analysis, views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the researchers and may not necessarily reflect the views of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation.

National Library of Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Learning about Walking in beauty : placing aboriginal perspectives in Canadian classrooms : a report from the Coalition for the advancement of Aboriginal Studies (CAAS) presented to the Canadian Race Relations Foundation (CRRF).

Includes bibliographical references.

ISBN 0-9689486-7-7

1. Native peoples--Study and teaching (Elementary).
2. Native peoples--Study and teaching (Secondary).
3. Education, Elementary--Canada--Curricula.
4. Education, Secondary--Canada--Curricula.
I. Coalition for the Advancement of Aboriginal Studies
II. Canadian Race Relations Foundation

E76.6.L43 2002                         971'.00497'0071071     

  • Last modified