When It Comes To Indigenous Competency Training, Ontario Has A Lot Of Unlearning To Do
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When It Comes To Indigenous Competency Training, Ontario Has A Lot Of Unlearning To Do

As sensitivity and anti-racism training rolls out across the province, Indigenous communities are hopeful for more understanding.

Kathleen Wynne announces province wide competency training on Indigenous culture  Photo by David Zimmer

Kathleen Wynne announces province-wide competency training for public servants on Indigenous culture. Photo by David Zimmer

There are some major knowledge gaps among public servants when it comes to Indigenous culture—a problem that, finally, the province is intent on fixing.

Last week, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne announced that all public service workers will be required to undergo Indigenous culture training, and for the Ministry of Education to make changes to the public school curriculum to include more Indigenous material.

The reaction amongst the Indigenous community has been positive, but the question at the centre of this process remains: will the training be enough?

The province-wide training program is Ontario’s response to the recommendations made in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s (TRC) Call to Action, released earlier this year. The full TRC report issued 94 calls to action, citing education, or lack thereof, as one of the major problems with addressing Indigenous experiences in Canada.

The Chiefs of Ontario said in a release that the training will focus on topics such as violence against Indigenous women and girls, the impact of residential schools and the history of colonization, and the role of treaties. Violence prevention, workplace discrimination, and harassment prevention will also be part of the training process.

“The training is important and will hopefully create environments that are safe for Indigenous peoples. It’s not enough, of course, but it’s a start,” says Wanda Nanibush, Anishnawbe-kwe writer, curator, and Idle No More organizer. “Two things are essential to its success: who the trainers are and how they operate, as well as the openness of the public servants. Often people can deal with their lack of knowledge through defensiveness, which will rob the process.”

Also vital to the process, says Nanibush, is recognizing the large scope that it must cover. “The training needs to go deep into the history of how Canada came to be at the expense of Indigenous health and wealth, but also the subtleties of racism and colonialism in daily interactions and policy creation,” she says. “Folks have to do a lot of unlearning—it’s a long term project.”

Social worker T. Snow—whose family is First Nation Mi’kmaq—is hopeful the education and training process will help create an environment built on sensitive practice. “A lot of damage has been done but it does not mean that it is too late. Training and education is a very crucial step,” says Snow. “Understanding has to start from somewhere.”

Other community members like R. Stacey LaForme, chief of Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, think the training is an opportunity to correct how education around Indigenous culture has been handled in the past.

“Any step toward knowledge and inclusiveness of Indigenous understanding is encouraging after dealing with a previous government that minimized and targeted our people,” says LaForme. “Public servants as a whole appear to be interested in learning. It’s almost like, finally they have permission to do the right thing. But it did not take a day to break,” says LaForme, “it won’t take a day to fix.”

These initiatives, according to a government release, will have public servants working in collaboration with Indigenous people to ensure beneficial programs and policies will be put in place. Snow says the training will only be effective as long as Indigenous people are strong presences in the creation of the programs. “Indigenous community members should be encouraged to provide as much input as possible. [They] are the only ones who would know what is required from public service employees in order to establish good communication and relationships skills as well as to promote partnerships.”

The importance of Indigenous-led training was a recurring reaction amongst all of the community members. “Anything in our communities should be indigenous-led solutions with support from all stakeholders,” Nanibush says. “Helping is not the right paradigm—empowerment and sovereignty is.”

While LaForme stressed the importance of incorporating spiritual connection in the program, Snow and Nanibush see diversity in community as a crucial distinction to make as well. “Our communities are diverse and need to be treated as such,” says Nanibush. “There is no one size fits all. Workers need to learn about the nations they work with both culturally and linguistically. They also need to learn the particular colonial experiences of each region.”

Nanibush adds that the most vital tools public servants can apply when learning about Indigenous culture are to listen and offer respect. “Respect the diversity and uniqueness of each individual and respect their stories and where they come from.”