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Collaboration a must to create ‘warrior schools’

Imagine what could happen if we all fought for an education system laser-focused on creating just and democratic societies

Canadian PoliticsIndigenous PoliticsEducation

Gordon Bell High School, Winnipeg. Photo by Nancy Greer/Facebook.

In his 2021 memoir, Indigenous activist Clayton Thomas-Muller defines a warrior as someone who is “not defined by fighting. They are defined by fighting for.” Imagine what could happen if we all fought for an education system laser-focused on creating just, sustainable, and democratic societies.

The past seven years in Manitoba have been challenging for educators and education systems. The Progressive Conservative government, under both the leadership of Brian Pallister and Heather Stefanson, took significant steps to undermine the purposes of public education while shocking the system through underfunding, a general disdain for educators, and regressive tax rebates.

The public education system in Manitoba is still recovering from the ideological attack spurred by then Minister of Education Kelvin Goertzen, who suggested that education should not be a state activity. Furthermore, the PC government was bent on destroying the very nature of democratic school boards through Bill 64, which sought to eliminate democratically elected school systems and replace them with a draconian and authoritarian model.

All during a global pandemic.

In a similar vein, the most recent edition of the PC government witnessed an abdication of duty when both Premier Stefanson and Minister Wayne Ewasko refused to take a leadership role and stand with the 2SLGBTQ+ community. Schools and school boards were left to defend themselves from hate that was fueled by the government’s “parent’s rights” campaign.

It’s been a trying time, to say the least.

With the election of a new NDP government, however, there is some optimism, as the new minister (Nello Altomare) and deputy (Brian O’Leary) already extended a hand in the name of partnership with boards and superintendent teams. These are hopeful times, but it is important that public education is supported properly to ensure that all children and families in Manitoba have the means to a decent life.

A relationship based on mutual trust and collaboration is the first step towards stabilizing public education in Manitoba. To know that there are educators (the minister and deputy) at the helm is significant reassurance for school boards. Having former teachers and principals at the other end of the phone is critical as they will understand the pressures and possibilities that face schools and school systems.

Additionally, the new government needs to provide school boards with predictable and sustainable funding. As it stands right now, each year at the end of January, school boards must wait with bated breath to discover what they will receive from the provincial government. And over the past decades, this has always been a guess for superintendents and secretary-treasurers. To be informed of funding allotments in advance allows systems to plan effectively—to plan with an arc of continuous improvement in mind.

Coupled with predictability is the notion that funding should be equitable and sustainable; that funding should meet the cost of living, at minimum, and recognize that those divisions with higher mill rates and fewer commercial properties should not be penalized. Affluent school divisions should not be able to sock money away while poorer ones have to nickel-and-dime their way through each year. The new government needs to work collaboratively to ensure that school divisions are funded proportionately and equitably.

Third, there needs to be a collaborative and mighty effort to ensure that Indigenous people are entering teacher education programs—particularly First Nations people. In northern and inner-city communities, we need to support access programs that are fully devoted to sustaining the education of folks from the community who can learn and then teach in the community. This means creating barrier-free access programs that are driven and controlled by Indigenous peoples.

It also means that Indigenous-led teacher education programs may not resemble colonial models. Rather, they most likely need to be founded on land, language, community and culture, as detailed in the TRC’s Calls to Action. Government, post-secondary, K-12, and Indigenous leaders need to come together to respond to the specific needs of neighbourhoods and regions so that learners see and hear themselves when they walk into school.

But Indigenous ways of knowing, doing, and being are also critical for all learners in our system as we witness the collapse of the biosphere. We need a partner in government that is wholeheartedly focused on mitigating the impacts of global warming and equally buffering our children from the impending surpassing of the nine planetary boundaries, as theorized by the Stockholm Resilience Centre. We need a government that will pull out all the stops to ensure that our children’s air, water, and land is protected forever.

The final plea for the new government would be to adhere to its promise of a universal nutrition program within K-12. Public education’s greatest capacity is leveling the playing field for those who have been traditionally marginalized. A universal nutrition program whereby all learners receive the sustenance they need to think and learn will have dramatic and positive impacts across our society.

If some of the central purposes of public education are to level the playing field while creating democratic and sustainable societies, a positive and refreshed relationship between government and systems is an absolute necessity. The equitable funding of a decolonizing system will translate into a more egalitarian education system and a sense of collectivism that has been missing as of late throughout our society. A society that is united in forward thinking will be one that understands how all systems on planet Earth are connected.

At the end of the day, we want a public education that produces warriors. Not in the militaristic sense, but in the way that Indigenous scholar Niigaan Sinclair explains: “An ogichidaa is a person revered for the love they distribute willingly and without question through kindness, tenacity, and dedication.”

Imagine the possibility of a provincial government and education system united to create warriors and warrior schools.

Matt Henderson is the chief superintendent of the Winnipeg School Division.

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