Colonialism is an important consideration in moving forward to understand the literature on Aboriginal education because of the profoundly negative impact and distrust it has established. Harper (as cited in Government of Canada, 2008) described residential schools as “a sad chapter in [Canada’s] history” (para. 1) that started in 1870 with the establishment of the first missionary/residential schools. AFN (2010b) noted the intent as:
The clear objective of both missionaries and government was to assimilate Aboriginal children into the lower fringes of mainstream society where children were ripped apart from their families, forcibly removed by priests, Indian Agents, and police offers to receive a sub-standard education. (para. 2)
The residential schools were administered by religious groups who had little or no training in education and whose legacy was physical and sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and the death of many innocent children.
As cited in Stonechild (2006), justification for residential schools was stated by Sir John A. Macdonald on May 9, 1883, in his statement to Parliament:
When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with his parents who are savages; he is surrounded by savages; and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a save who can read and write. It has been strongly pressed upon myself, as head of the Department [of Indian Affairs], that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence. . . . where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men. (p. 9)
Stonechild noted that when Member of Parliament Mr. Charlton asked, “The evolution, I understand is a very gradual one. Has the Hon. Gentleman any information as to the number of generations it will take? Macdonald retorted, “I am not sufficiently Darwinian to tell that” (p. 9). It is important to understand how Social Darwanism influenced Canada’s policies with regard to the treatment of Aboriginal peoples, which Stonechild noted was “a pseudo-scientific belief that some peoples, including Aboriginal peoples, were inherently defective in biological, intellectual, and emotional composition [which] was the prevailing ideology among Canadian elite at the time of confederation” (p. 7). This ideology, which has asserted racial superiority, is applied to the development of man wherein darker skinned peoples were considered savages who were not fully human. As noted by Leonard (2004), during this time,
the progressive social scientists were especially attracted to eugenic ideas. Scholars like Irving Fisher, Francis Amasa Walker, Henry Rogers Seager, Edward Alsworth Ross, John R. Commons, Sidney Webb, Charles Richmond Henderson, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and journalists like Paul Kellogg of the Survey and the New Republic’s Herbert Croly, all invoked eugenic ideas. (p. 1)
These eugenic ideas were used to justify economic development policies that are the foundational beliefs that institutions in the United States, Canada, and around the world were built upon, and they remain a legacy within our institutional systems. During this time this pseudo-science laid the foundation to justify horrific actions against indigenous peoples around the world, including the legacy of residential schools. Sir John A. Macdonald’s role is also important to note as the first Head of Indian Affairs who oversaw the development of the Indian Act (1876) from within which residential schools were established.
Residential schools were one of many very powerful tools that crippled the social, cultural, and educational development of Aboriginal people in Canada. The last residential school closed in 1996, ending this chapter in Canadian history. However, the trauma and legacy of these actions are now known as intergenerational residential school syndrome and have resulted in distrust of educational systems.
The post-secondary education system in Canada, like those around the world, is modelled from the European system with imbedded European culture, values and worldviews. Meek, Teichler, and Kearney (2009) posited that this system expanded exponentially when
massification radically changed the traditional patterns of knowledge production, diffusion and application over the past two decades. In the wake of burgeoning enrolments from the 1970s to 1990s, demand has continued to rise and the world’s student population could reach an estimated 150 million by 2025. (p. 13)
According to Dr. John Henry (personal communication, May 5, 2010) the current tertiary education system is based upon the idealized ‘individualistic’ paradigm of education that conflicts with Aboriginal peoples ‘group motivated’ paradigm. Hendy described this individualistic paradigm to be situated upon the structural framework of
educational codes that insulate practices, relationships and knowledge; a psychological model where learners are judged as educative according to deficit based ranking criteria of mental ability and capacity that are structured by the psychometric model of psychology; a style of institutional practice that is strongly hierarchical and managerial; assessments and evaluation practice that is rationalistic, externally oriented and explicit and strives to be comparative and standardized via the application of limited objective criteria; where separation of school and community is maintained; with educational practices that are relatively isolates from colleagues and privatized, relatively invisible, and where sharing is not encouraged; where knowledge forms are objectives, seen as products, individual and instrumental knowledge; where characteristics of relationships are characterized by an imbalance of power where coercion and dependency can occur; where dominant roles are characterized by transmitter/ receiver, expert/novice, manager/operative, producer/consumer, professional/client; and where students are socialized toward competitiveness and individualisation.
In this individualistic system, many Aboriginal researchers have agreed that “the present school system is culturally alien to native students” (AFN, 2010a, p. 31). According to Battiste (2004), there is a fundamental
rethinking [of] the conceptual, institutional, cultural, legal, and other boundaries that are taken for granted and assumed universal, but act as structural barriers to many, including Aboriginal people, women, visible minorities, and others. In these spaces, these groups are silenced societies in knowledge making, talking, and writing takes place but they are not heard in the production of knowledge because such knowledge is managed by others. The instruments of this hegemony and domination are cultivated in language, discourses, disciplinary knowledge, and institutional policy and practice. (para. 2)
“Change is difficult in higher education. . . [where] the values and organizational dynamics of higher education are unique and especially problematic for making foundational and cultural change” (Williams, Berger, & McClendon, 2005, p. 2). At their core, higher education institutions do not function like other organizations. Educational organizations are built upon “irrational systems, nebulous and multiple goal structures, complex and differentiated campus functions, conflicts between espoused and enacted values, and loosely coupled systems of organization and governance” (p. 3). Where many argue against affirmative action measures, Williams et al. have posited,
The perceived conflict between inclusion and excellence is asserted with no evidence, based on a dominant, industrial model of organizational values that defines excellence in terms of student inputs without consideration of value-added organizational processes. This narrow notion of excellence limits both the expansion of student educational opportunities and the transformation of educational environments. As a result, too few people from historically underrepresented groups enter into higher education, and those who do may be pressed to assimilate into the dominant organizational cultures of colleges and universities. (p. 9)
Recognizing that “knowledge generated by research is the basis of sustainable social development” (Meek et al., 2009, p. 10), Meek et al. asserted that “despite global uniformity in many areas of society, there exists no single answer as to what constitute the most appropriate systems, structures or policies for higher education, research and innovation” (p. 10). Rather, these critical iterative processes should be developed at the local, regional, and national level in the historical, social, economic, political, and cultural contexts necessary, based upon research and knowledge using strategies derived from socially inclusive research and oriented toward the developmental priorities of local stakeholders, regional, and national authorities (p. 8).