Why schools are “really dangerous places” for Indigenous children and their families

February 20, 2020 | Society
For the past four years, Dr. Emily Milne has worked closely with Indigenous children, their families, teachers and school boards in central Alberta to get a clear understanding of reconciliation efforts within school systems. Unfortunately, much work needs to be done.

“It was clear to me that parents and kids were uncomfortable with the close connection between the child welfare system and the education system,” says the assistant professor of sociology at MacEwan University.

In a recent paper published in the Canadian Review of Sociology (“Schools as ‘Really Dangerous Places’ for Indigenous Children and Youth: Contradictions in Pathways to Reconciliation”), co-authored with Dr. Terry Wotherspoon at the University of Saskatchewan, Emily shares the perspective and experience of Indigenous parents and caregivers that the child welfare system — and how closely it operates with school boards — is the new “residential school” for Indigenous children.

In the paper, parents and caregivers shared very real fears that if they send their children to school, they may not come home. 

Cultural activities that children take part in with their families (e.g., pipe ceremonies, sweat ceremonies and carrying babies in moss bags) may not align with teacher perceptions of “good parenting.” Teachers have misinterpreted these activities and have reported their concerns to a social worker — oftentimes without speaking to the parent or caregiver of that child.

As a result, parents become distrustful and children distance themselves from sharing with their teachers.

Indigenous children are already overrepresented in Alberta’s child welfare system (one in 10 children are of Indigenous ancestry but account for 73 per cent of children in care, according to the Office of the Child and Youth Advocate Alberta). In the paper, parents and caregivers shared very real fears that if they send their children to school, they may not come home.



Navigating a new curriculum

Sociology prof’s research addresses the successes — and challenges — of incorporating Indigenous content into provincial curricula.

Emily and Terry’s paper states that while reconciliation efforts focus on the importance of schools as safe, secure and supportive environments for all children, that mandate is not always being fulfilled. Their recommendations include ensuring that teachers and schools have appropriate knowledge of Indigenous cultures, perspectives and experiences, and that schools have clear guidelines and processes for teachers to follow if they suspect a child is being mistreated.

“Once we have completed more work, we want to convey to policymakers and educators a sense of what is working and what elements need to be further developed or refined with regards to school practices and curricula associated with reconciliation initiatives,” says Terry.

Emily and Terry have collaborated on two other recent papers (one published in the British Journal of Sociology of Education in September 2019 and a forthcoming paper on what policy frameworks reveal about reconciliation in Canadian school systems) as part of their ongoing research, which has received funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).

It’s important to me to ensure that the voices of the people who I’m working with are heard.
—Dr. Emily Milne

As a “community-engaged sociologist and scholar,” Emily not only produces reports and gives presentations to teachers, administrators, school boards and districts, but makes it a priority to share her findings with the parents and caregivers she has worked with so closely.

Working with community partners, says Emily, ensures that the research benefits the people who participate in it.

“There is real potential to move knowledge and recommendations into action — for example, within teacher and schooling practices and education policy and programs,” says Emily. “It’s important to me to ensure that the voices of the people who I’m working with are heard.” 


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