Research Summary

From reticence to resistance: understanding educators’ engagement with indigenous environmental issues in Canada

Strategies for integrating Indigenous environmental issues into curricula

Environmental Education Research

Many Canadian educators recognize the importance of developing curricula through the lens of decolonization, which involves dismantling colonial institutions and restoring rights of and respect for Indigenous peoples. However, Indigenous issues can be very contentious, and educators who discuss these issues with their students may face challenges, such as resistance from students, tension with other teachers, and pushback from administrators. Given these challenges, many teachers are hesitant to broach or engage in deep dialogue about these subjects with their students. However, the author of this study argues that facilitating discussions around controversial issues can help students develop global awareness and critical thinking skills and is a form of advocacy for socially just school systems. This study explored the experiences of Canadian educators who elected to teach about Indigenous environmental issues (IEIs), such as land rights, extractive industry practices, conservation programs, and unsustainable development. Specifically, the author examined how educators incorporated IEIs into their curricula.

The author recruited study participants through his personal and professional networks. Ten Canadian educators, each of whom had taught about IEIs, elected to participate in the study. Participants represented a variety of educational contexts, and included university professors, outdoor and environmental educators, and community-based educators. The author conducted hour-long interviews with each participant. The interviews were analyzed to identify themes, including barriers to IEI incorporation, strategies to overcome the barriers, and challenges associated with strategies.

The author identified several barriers to integrating IEIs into curricula. Participants indicated that they found it difficult to stay current on IEIs. They also expressed concerns about covering all relevant topics given their time and resource constraints. Additionally, they felt largely unsupported by the education and professional development systems, which failed to offer trainings or resources related to IEIs.

The interview data also indicated several strategies participants used to overcome the above barriers. First, interviewees stressed the importance of accessing local resources and cultivating local connections. They spoke about the power of weaving local Indigenous voices into lessons (such as readings, guest speakers, etc.) and using local case studies to make topics relevant and meaningful to students. They also cautioned against generalizing about the experiences of Indigenous people as a whole. Second, participants suggested that engaging with elders, when done respectfully, can be a powerful way to spark dialogue and interest around IEIs. They reported encouraging their students to deeply value the knowledge and wisdom that elders bring to discussions. Third, interviewees celebrated the power of land-based approaches, such as taking students outdoors and into the “field” to learn about local issues. Fourth, interviewees spoke about how storytelling in its many forms—film, spoken and written word, art, etc.—can be used to teach about controversial issues, diffuse conflict, and inspire deep learning. Finally, participants emphasized the importance of practicing administrative activism by teaching about IEIs and advocating for the inclusion of the topic in all curricula.

Participants also discussed the challenges that accompanied the above strategies. They explained the difficulties in cultivating relationships with local Indigenous people because of historic mistreatment. Participants spoke about experiencing resistance from administrators, students, parents, and teachers and having to “choose their battles” in terms of which injustices to advocate against. They regularly encountered such “repressive tolerance” when those in power allowed for a token amount of activism and advocacy around a controversial issue but quashed deep dialogue. Overall, however, participants stressed that approaching the above strategies from a place of genuine respect can go a long way in building trust and strengthening relationships.

This research was limited by the small number of participants recruited through the author’s networks. Results were participant- and context-specific and not generalizable to other teachers in other locations. If this study was repeated in another place and with another group of participants, the results would likely be different. Further, this study did not evaluate the effectiveness of the teachers’ strategies. While teachers indicated these strategies worked in their contexts, it is possible that the same strategies might not work in other contexts. Finally, the study did not investigate whether these strategies were perceived as successful by Indigenous communities.

The author recommends integrating IEIs into curricula to expand students’ civic and global awareness and, ultimately, foster a more inclusive and just society. Educators should first introduce historical IEIs to raise awareness and lay a solid foundation for understanding Indigenous experiences and then ease into more controversial contemporary issues. Contemporary issues should be relevant to the students’ local context when possible, and educators should partner with local Indigenous organizations to provide information directly from Indigenous perspectives. The author emphasizes that students will learn that IEIs are not important if they are absent from the curricula. Thus, the author recommends that additional resources be developed to help educators effectively integrate relevant historic and contemporary information into lessons.

The Bottom Line

This study examined the experiences of ten Canadian educators who chose to teach about Indigenous environmental issues (IEIs). The author found that while they acknowledged several barriers to teaching about IEIs, participants also offered several promising approaches to overcoming these barriers. Participants spoke about the power of using Indigenous storytelling, connections with local Indigenous people, and land-based teaching strategies to engage students in dialogue about IEIs. The author recommends that practitioners use these and other strategies to effectively integrate IEIs into curricula.