Lena Recollet didn’t understand why her son was refusing to complete one of his assignments — until she discovered what it was.
“He got really upset; he called it paper bag animals,” she said.
“I looked and it was worse than what he was saying. There was an LCBO bag,” Recollet told CBC Toronto.
The assignment was for a Grade 9 virtual course called Expressions of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Cultures in the Toronto District School Board (TDSB).
“This was a non-Indigenous teacher trying to tell the students to make medicine bags with paper bags and they have to draw their favourite animal on it,” said Recollet, who is Anishnaaabe and a language instructor with the TDSB.
The teacher had used the paper liquor store bag as an example for the students to follow.
Recollet is from Wiikwemkoong First Nation on Manitoulin Island but now lives in Toronto. A medicine bag is a deeply spiritual and sacred item that has been used by Indigenous peoples for thousands of years for protection. They are generally made out of leather, not paper.
The TDSB says the teacher is no longer instructing the course, but Indigenous educators say the incident speaks to a larger structural issue concerning the lack of professional development and hiring practices.
Recollet said she informed the board’s Urban Indigenous Education Centre and filed a complaint with the board’s Human Rights Office against the teacher, Donna Blanco.
“It’s not an appropriate assignment. There’s so many things wrong with it; misrepresentation, cultural appropriation, using an LCBO bag is racism,” she said.
“Even if we weren’t Indigenous, an LCBO bag shouldn’t have been used to begin with. He’s in Grade 9.”
In her complaint, Recollet said, she listed the desired outcome as having Blanco removed from the course and asked the board to ensure her son was not in a class of hers again.
But Recollet said the bigger issue is having a non-Indigenous teacher instruct the Indigenous arts course. She also wants to see the process of submitting a racism or discrimination complaint within the board improved.
Assignment ‘makes a mockery of things we value’ professor says
Jennifer Brant teaches courses on Indigenous literatures, anti-racism and settler colonialism, and structural and colonial violence in education at the University of Toronto. She says these are the types of assignments “that connect to the negative stereotypes against Indigenous peoples and are completely inappropriate and harmful.”
“For Indigenous students, this is a direct attack on cultural identity and makes a mockery of the things that we value,” Brant said, adding that an Indigenous arts course should be taught by an Indigenous educator.
Brant said her own kids have also been assigned insensitive projects throughout their schooling, and is disappointed that these incidents are still happening.
“I want to say it’s shocking, but it isn’t shocking. It’s deeply troubling how common these types of insensitive or inappropriate assignments occur.”
Brant said as the push continues to bring more Indigenous content into the education system, she feels there needs to be more mandatory training.
“I feel teachers have not had enough professional development opportunities or they aren’t thinking deeply enough about how to do that in appropriate ways.”
In an emailed statement to CBC News, the TDSB said it “found this incident to be completely unacceptable and immediately took steps to address this cultural appropriation,” adding, “this particular lesson is not part of the curriculum and should not have been taught.”
When asked why a non-Indigenous teacher was instructing the course, the board said: “While our preference is for Indigenous teachers to teach Indigenous courses, that is not always possible.”
The TDSB says non-Indigenous teachers can teach this course providing they receive additional training through the board’s Urban Indigenous Education Centre. It says in some cases, teachers have also enrolled in an additional courses.
The board notes Indigenous artists and community members are available to support staff and that the TDSB is actively exploring ways to increase the number of Indigenous staff “not just in teaching, but in all areas of the school board. Part of this work will be through the dismantling of systemic barriers faced by Indigenous educators.”
Blanco, the teacher, did not respond to CBC’s request for comment. The TDSB confirmed she is still working at the board but is no longer teaching the course.
Recollet says she told her son his feelings about the assignment were valid. She drove him to a craft store and he made the bag out of leather instead of paper to complete the assignment.
“This shouldn’t be happening at all. These programs exist because people fought for these programs to exist,” she said.
And while she doesn’t believe in 2021 that fight should still be happening, she’s hoping that speaking out provokes change.
“This is deep work.”