Archive for July, 2019

A sixteen-year-old Nova Scotia high school student, Emma Stevens, has taken flight with her Mi’kmaw language version of the Beatles classic, Blackbird. It’s beginning to look like a real-life recreation of A Star is Born. Since the first performance was posted on You Tube on April 25, the beautiful and haunting cover of Paul McCartney’s song has been seen or heard more than one million times. She has performed at a UN Indigenous Peoples conference in Nairobi, Kenya, and McCartney has sung her praises.  An editorial in The Chronicle Herald urged all Nova Scotians to log in and catch her performing the song.

Surveying the initial world-wide media coverage, there was little or no acknowledgement or recognition that Emma’s talent was nurtured and developed in a Mi’kmaw school in Nova Scotia’s Eskasoni First Nation. Only now are we beginning to see that a student performing in her native language with full musical accompaniment did not happen overnight. Her band music teacher, Carter Chiasson, was an inspiration and supported her at every stage and the video was shot by Grade 12 Multimedia course students.

Without diminishing Emma’s amazing achievement, it was also made possible by the teaching, mentoring and support she found at Allison Bernard Memorial High School, the jewel in the autonomous, Indigenous-run, Mi`kmaw Kina`matnewey (MK) network of schools. She is, after all, the product of a Mi’kmaw language music program in a school outside the public school system in Nova Scotia.

Her breakout success is, in many ways, another example of recent achievements that have catapulted Nova Scotia’s First Nations to the forefront in the national movement for Indigenous control over education. It’s been forty years since the first Mi’kmaw- English bilingual education program was established at Potolek, known then as Chapel Island, and twenty-three years since the formation of the MK, a First Nation education authority managed by the Mi`kmaq and funded by the federal Department of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs.

Emma’s high school is one of the better-known MK schools, operating in twelve of the province`s 13 Mi`kmaw communities, and enrolling some 3,000 students province-wide. Mi’kmaw schools like Allison Bernard Memorial High School have significantly raised graduation rates for First Nations students. While the proportion of Canadian on-reserve adults under 25 with a high school diploma barely rose (from 25 to 30 per cent) from 1996 to 2006, Atlantic Canada bucked that trend, rising from 55 per cent to 65 per cent. By 2016-17, some 89.6 per cent of Grade 12 students in MK schools completed their graduation year.

Mi’kmaw band schools reported graduation rates tend to be inflated because they are based upon Grade 12 completion rates rather than the proportion of students entering grade 9 or 10 who secure a high school diploma. Even so, the rise in academic attainment levels is real and a clear sign of the enormous potential of First Nations-run community schools to change students’ educational outcomes and life chances.

The recent success of Mi’kmaw schools has not gone unnoticed. Former Toronto Globe and Mail Education reporter Jennifer Lewington looked closely at the Mi’kmaw model and observed in a 2012 Education Canada article that Mi’kmaw student success was “winning national attention as a possible model for First Nation self-governance in education.”

Schools like Emma’s take a more holistic view of learning and achievement and this is reflected in Mi’kmaw arts and music programs. First Nation Elders and scholars espouse a different and broader conception of learning, drawing upon insights from the First Nations Holistic Lifelong Learning Model, advocated by First Nations scholar Marie Battiste.

Teachers, principals, parents, families, and communities are all mentors and nurturing guides responsible for their children’s achievement in all aspects of lifelong learning. One example is the use of the ‘Talking Circle’ to discuss and resolve issues, respecting that tradition in Mi’kmaw culture and spirituality.

Emma’s school lies at the heart of Eskasoni First Nation and its annual high school graduation ceremonies are community-wide celebrations. School leaders like Principal Newell Johnson and Language and Culture consultant Katani Julian take great pride in their remarkable recent progress in delivering language immersion and other culturally-based programs and activities.

The success rate of schools like Allison Bernard Memorial High School impressed Scott Haldane, chair of a 2012 federal First Nations governance review panel, and he trumpeted the benefits of this First Nations-run model for students in his final report. It was also a key factor in the March 2019 renewal of the MK funding agreement for 10 years, representing an investment of $600 million going forward.

Students at Allison Bernard High School are far are more engaged because of pedagogy and curriculum more attuned to Mi’kmaw traditions. Emma’s breakout hit could well be a further breakthrough for Nova Scotia’s Mi’kmaw schools.

(An earlier version of this post appeared in The Chronicle Herald, 13 July 2019).

What can we learn from the overnight success of a young Mi’kmaw songbird?  What was the role of the Mi’kmaw language and music program? Are Indigenous students educated and immersed in their own language and culture more motivated to learn? Is there potential for other Canadian provinces and American states to find similar success? 

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A new Quebec secularism law, known as Bill 21 (2019), is now international news as far away as Europe and the Middle East. The prime proponent of the law, Quebec’s Education Minister Jean-François Roberge, achieved infamy in early July 2019 when he tweeted a picture of himself at a summit in France with Malala Yousafzai, the Afghan Nobel Peace Prize winner who was nearly killed by the Taliban for her activism championing education for girls. Asked on Twitter whether Yousafzai could teach in Quebec while wearing her head scarf, M. Roberge said ‘no’ — she’d have to take it off – an assessment later backed-up by Premier Francois Legault.  Anyone who aspires to teach in Quebec, including the world-renowned author and teacher Malala, is forbidden from wearing religious symbols or religious attire in the state schools.

Quebec’s Bill 21 is a prime exhibit which illustrates how Quebec is distinct from the rest of Canada. because it deals with the matter of secularism, laicite  (laicity), or the separation of religion from government.  Over the past two decades, it has emerged and dominated political discourse and produced convulsions affecting recently arrived immigrant families and Anglo-Quebeckers accustomed to periodic surges of Quebec nationalist feeling. The fierce debate has also inflamed passions and aroused Islamophobia, intensely felt by Muslim women and girls in the school system.

The Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) plan to affirm the secular character of the Quebec state is not really new, but a continuation of a project first initiated by a previous Parti Quebecois government. It originated as an off-shoot of the “Charter of Values” unveiled in 2013 by Premier Pauline Marois and the PQ.  On March 27, 2019, in the most recent attempt to legislate a vision of secularism in the province, the CAQ government tabled Bill 21 (2019), “An Act Respecting the Laicity of the State.” The legislation, passed on June 16, 2019, bans public servants in a list of jobs from wearing religious symbols at work. Such restrictions not only apply to schoolteachers and principals, but directly affect students in universities, colleges, and schools planning on seeking future employment in the public sector.

Origins of Quebec Secularism Policy

The recent debate over secularism in Quebec has its roots in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and the War on Terror. An earlier controversy involving a Montreal school board decision to ban a 12-year-old Sikh boy, Gurbaj Singh from wearing his kirpan (ceremonial dagger) to school demonstrated the potential for social disruption. Early in 2007, a small hamlet in the heart of French Quebec, Herouxville, introduced a “code of conduct” for immigrants and brought a simmering “cultural accommodation crisis” to a boil. Talk radio shows, op-ed pages, and kitchen conversations were ignited by very public debates about whether a YMCA on in Montreal’s Mile End should frost its gym windows at the request of a next-door Hasidic synagogue or whether publicly-funded daycares should serve halal meats.

Confronting a raging culture war in January 2007, Quebec’s Liberal government appointed a Consultative Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences, co-chaired by prominent intellectuals Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor. Their May 2008 report waded into the sensitive questions about how immigrants can or should integrate with Quebec society, and how to uphold the ideal of secularism, while accommodating non-conforming religious practices. The Bouchard-Taylor report recommended removing a large crucifix from the Quebec National Assembly, abandoning prayers before municipal council meetings, and barring civil servants in positions of authority — like judges, police officers and prosecutors — from wearing religious symbols at work. It also attempted to draw the line at the school system. Students and teachers, as well as nurses, should be allowed to wear religious attire like the hijab and turban to school.

The CAQ’s Bill 21 goes one step further in reaffirming and enforcing secularism in the public sector. Unlike previous legislation, it stipulates exactly which professions would be restricted from wearing religious symbols, including teachers and principals. It is also more court-proof – because it invokes the notwithstanding clause to protect it from being struck down by courts for violating the Canadian and Quebec charters of rights. While Bill 21 does not target any one religion specifically, Charles Taylor has expressed grave reservations about its potential impact on visible religious minorities. In his April 2019 testimony during QNA hearings on the bill, he reversed his previous position. Since the horrific late January 2017 Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre mass shooting, he claims any change must be considered in the context of a society “full of Islamophobia.” 

Impact of Quebec’s Bill 21 on Society and Education

Noisy public debates over Bill 21 and mass protests by teachers, students and affected public officials have failed to alter Quebec public opinion. , According to a May 2019 public opinion poll, a majority of Quebeckers, (63 per cent) favoured the measure restricting religious symbols, and of that cohort, 88 per cent showed signs of anti- Islamic sentiment. The only age group that broke with the trend was youth, aged 18 to 25, consisting mostly of university/college students and recent graduates.

Passage of Bill 21 made Quebec the first jurisdiction in North America to enact legislation enforcing a religion-free dress code. Quebec’s largest school board, the Commission scolaire de Montreal, lined up with the Quebec English school boards in refusing to implement Bill 21 without consultation or modification. Most of the urban metropolitan boards serve diverse populations, including Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu students.

The Quebec government of Premier Legault sees this law as the next stage in the evolution of the modern Quebec state, exemplified in the state school system. It is also a clear demonstration of the profound influence of the French intellectual culture, privileging collective rights over individual rights and liberties.   Severing religion from the state is, in many ways, like defending the republic. Any sign or kind of encroachment on larcity/secularism, including the presence of religious symbols or the wearing of religious attire, is seen as a threat to the state. Democratic public institutions, from the CAQ and PQ perspective, exist to represent the will of the majority, which, at times, means overriding the interests of minorities.

What is driving the Quebec government’s determined push for secularism in government services, including the schools? Is the Quebec nationalist conception of the neutral state rooted in the French intellectual tradition? Should the protections guaranteed for individual freedom and minority rights enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms ever be overridden?  Where should governments draw the line in imposing state policy on citizens? 






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