Educational equity & anti-bullying in Northern Ontario, Canada

30th May 2022

Author: Robyn O’Loughlin, Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, Canada

I am located on the traditional lands of the Fort William First Nation, Signatory to the Robinson Superior Treaty of 1850 in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada.

In 2000, I heard about the first missing Indigenous youth, Jethro Anderson, who had been attending Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School. I crossed the James Street bridge over the Kaministiquia River to the Fort William First Nation Reserve and saw a group of people on the river bank. At the time, I didn’t realise what they were doing; they were looking for Jethro.

When I realised the high number of deaths of Indigenous youth in the Thunder Bay community, I questioned why Indigenous people were treated differently? Since 2000, 7 students died attending school in Thunder Bay at Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School. I localised the context of my dissertation to the 7 Youth Inquest and what anti-bullying meant for Indigenous youth.1

Promoting educational equity for Indigenous people is complicated; they are stuck in educational purgatory. One of the most important factors in ensuring Indigenous students’ equitable access to education within this context of complex jurisdictional issues, historical discrimination, socio-economic and geographic barriers is the requirement to keep Indigenous students safe while they are attending school.

Indigenous children from remote reserves in northern Ontario are pushed out of their communities to attend secondary school elsewhere; funnelled into an environment where they are more likely to face discrimination, harassment, violence and racism for a variety of reasons.

Children whose parents were part of the residential schools and the 60s scoop2 are required to function without consideration for their unique histories. Educators have expectations of parents without thinking about larger issues that may impact relationships.

There is a need to be aware of how the Ontario anti-bullying framework3 may disproportionately negatively impact Indigenous students. There is also a need to be aware of how educators understand and implement these new policies on their Indigenous students.

There are risks posed by Ontario’s anti-bullying legislation and policies for Indigenous students; the policies may not necessarily benefit Indigenous youth if they are not deemed worthy of protection by their teachers, while at the same time the educators, may make things worse by camouflaging the systemic sources of violence faced by Indigenous students.

Participants of my doctoral work viewed bullying incidents involving both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students through the same individualised lens. Most of the participants thought Indigenous students might benefit from being more resilient. Participants discussed resiliency as both the responsibility of Indigenous youth, as well as the solution to the political issues they navigate. The onus of moving past the trauma Indigenous people experience is thus put on the shoulders of Indigenous youths. Rather than offering suggestions to improve the behaviours of non-Indigenous students and educators, Indigenous youth were to blame. Indigenous students, particularly those attending school away from their home communities have already been put into uncomfortable, and vulnerable, positions just to be able to compete for an equal education. Requiring Indigenous youth to take responsibility for making themselves less attractive targets of negative behaviour is inequitable. However, some participants recognised a social shift, particularly since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action were published in 2015.4

Educators must keep in mind that, in many cases, they are teaching children of residential school survivors. Some parents and Indigenous families who suffer from traumatic experiences of residential schools and the 60s scoop are not equipped to stand up to an educator or to provide other support for students. Thus, educators need to consistently be reflexive of their own attitudes, assumptions and values when teaching Indigenous students.

The need for educator self-reflection is heightened by the fact that it is very unlikely that a unified approach by all educators as to how policies should be implemented in schools will develop – everyone brings their own unique experiences to their classroom. The question is whether or not educators can critically evaluate their experiences, attitudes and assumptions and how these may impact the students they teach, particularly Indigenous students.

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