• Northern Ontario teacher Michelle Parrish

    Michelle Parrish, whose background is teaching middle school, has switched her focus to support other teachers across her board by providing resources and guidance to bring Indigenous history and knowledge into the classroom. (Photo: Michelle Parrish)

Michelle Parrish spent a good portion of this past winter travelling around northern Ontario with Can Geo Education's Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada Giant Floor Map, going from school to school in her district to help teachers bring Indigenous history and knowledge into their classrooms. Parrish has been teaching for more than 20 years and for the past four years she’s been working as a Student Achievement Teacher, providing support for teachers and administrators across the Keewatin-Patricia District School Board. Her work includes the Indigenous education portfolio, which is their board’s response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) calls to action.

On her role as a Student Achievement Teacher

I feel very lucky to be in this role. I represent a large group of educators who I’ve been learning from. In the TRC calls to action it actually says that no Canadians are excluded from responding to this work and learning. Being located in northwestern Ontario, within Treaty 3, our school board has always been actively involved with partner organizations like the Friendship Centre, and we serve communities that are feeder schools to our schools. I think that when it comes to having a mindfulness about the role of education, we’ve been very active. The TRC calls to action prompted us to be more strategic about it. Part of my role in that is organizing the sharing of information so that we aren’t working in isolation. We’re a very collaborative board. If you look at our area on a map, we’re geographically huge. I work with schools as far away as Pickle Lake, so the administrators are very strategic in sharing what they do and highlighting what their best practices are to save our schools time by sharing resources.

On Treaty Recognition Week

In the first week of November every year, we invite our local government representatives, the chief of Treaty 3, local dignitaries and partners, and that begins the week of activities. The Living Library program is sponsored by the Ministry of Indigenous Affairs, who has recognized for each treaty area Elders who have the knowledge of the background of the treaty. In our school board, we have access to two Elders, and during that week, we invite them in to teach our students. Elder Don Jones, when he closed the ceremonies at Kenora, did a very beautiful job presenting how the treaty was like a promise between two groups. He asked the students, “Have you ever made a pinky promise? How do you keep that promise? Do you think about the person you’re keeping that promise with?” And the students were nodding, and to think that they were listening to something that happened in the late 1800s in our area! This was very real to them, it was important and they had a role in it. We see students developing a growing understanding of our history and developing a better understanding of the traditional activities of Indigenous Peoples on this land. 

Teachers are very responsive to their students’ ages and how they can connect to their local area. At one school, they had a woman who brought in artifacts of Indigenous Peoples from the time when the treaty was signed. Another thing students did was travel to the cenotaph, recognizing the First Nations people who fought in the Second World War. And several of our schools have held drumming ceremonies. At Pickle Lake, which has our most remote school and was the first legacy school that was named through the Chanie Wenjack Foundation, they held a community breakfast and welcomed people into further community relations.

On the Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada Giant Floor Map tour

The map offered a unique opportunity to learn. It travelled to nine different schools and 45 classes. One of the very neat things about it was that in several instances teachers spoke about how the map gave them an opportunity to provide an experiential learning opportunity for their students. A really good example was one teacher beginning the lesson by having students explore the map, and as they were exploring they found their home communities, which were outside of their school area. And their pride in that would lead the teacher to respond by talking about the organization of those communities, the boundaries of Treaty 3, or the language families. It was very authentic and relevant. One of their students is from a community in Nunavut and on the spur of the moment she started teaching her peers words in Inuktitut and was showing where she was from. It was very moving for us as educators.

On teaching and learning about reconciliation

We’re all at different spots on our journey of learning about Canada’s history, so it’s about meeting people where they are at in their journey, supporting them, and being an ally in reconciliation work. It’s really about being aware that it’s both a personal and professional journey. I’m humbled by the journey myself, but if I were to give advice, it would be to engage with your local Indigenous community, to be open to listening and actively seeking to learn about Canada’s history, and to confront or challenge your own previous understanding. I’m 45 and when I think about what I learned in school, we are providing our students with a much different opportunity to learn about Canada’s history. We have to honour this time and be sure that we are engaged in that.