Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Education Elder Verna Kirkness: A Life Building Education and Human Rights

At the studio just after the interview
 This is a two part 40 minute interview with Elder Verna Kirkness about her life in education and the building of the new field of Aboriginal Education. Verna has recently released her memoirs about her 50 year career in Aboriginal education. Creating Space: My Life and Work in Indigenous Education. She describes in great detail the roles and philosophy that she took to building the dream for equality and capacity for Aboriginal peoples to choose their own education system based on quality. While her early career started in Indian Residential Schools as one of the only Indigenous staff she slowly grew to understand her personal fields of influence that she could create  for a safer place that was more respectful of the students.

Verna explained that every few years she would change jobs looking for different experiences. Over time these jobs led her to become part of the pioneers in Aboriginal education working in small communities to the assembly of First Nations to the University of British Columbia. Her work eventually allowed her to help in the building of the First Long House of Learning... Well as Verna said `I am talking too much you should read the book [or listen to the interview].'

The book is published by University of Manitoba Press. 

To Learn More (Podcast)


Part II

posing before we start with Verna and Albee Eisbrenner

adjusting the microphone
Asking the tough questions with Kamila Cecelon


  1. I absolutely love Elder Kirkness’ views on Aboriginal Education, especially her perspective on aboriginal children being transported to Winnipeg for education. She notes that “they [the students] don’t have anyone to talk to… they don’t have anyone to help them get on in the city”. This, depending on the school that these aboriginal students are attending, can be very true and could create a very isolating environment for those students. She also states that there was very little counselling for the aboriginal students, and the only services that were offered came from Indian Affairs, not the school division or the school itself. This could prove to be problematic for future generations, as Randolph Wimmer, in his text entitled Experiences of Beginning Aboriginal Teachers in Band-Controlled Schools claims that “a significant change is taking place in many parts of Canada with respect to the growth in numbers of school-aged children of Aboriginal ancestry” (821). Therefore, it imperative that teachers maintain a certain level of knowledge in regards to aboriginal education and counselling so that we can provide a better schooling experience for all of our students. It is not about pigeon-holing certain students, it is about creating equality for all of our students and providing them with the support that they need.
    This is especially for those students of aboriginal descent living in the inner-city and low income areas. These students require the most resources and the most help so that they can receive the assistance that they so desperately need. I don’t think that we have been doing an adequate job when it comes to providing enough resources for our at-risk students. This stems from the strong correlation between low-income status and lower levels of education. Jack Watson makes an excellent point when he states in his text, Poverty and Crime, that “Society needs to address slums and homelessness not because they are, so one argument goes, breeding grounds of crime, but because a civilized society should simply do so. Society should not be ashamed of the poor, but of poverty itself” (2000). By providing more adequate social services to our low-income and struggling aboriginal communities, we could help eliminate the problems that are strongly associated with poverty, crime and low levels of education. It is the duty of the many to care for those that are the least well off.

    Works Cited:

    Watson, J. (2000, Feb). Poverty and crime. Law Now, 24, 43. Retrieved from

    Wimmer, R., Legare, L., Arcand, Y., & Cottrell, M. (2009). Experiences of beginning aboriginal teachers in band-controlled schools. Canadian Journal of Education, 32(4), 817-849. Retrieved from

  2. After listening to the podcast with Verna Kirkness on human rights, I would like to discuss two ideas, firstly the increased emphasis on university, and secondly the ratio of aboriginal males to females in university. Verna says that university is being pushed far more than trades at the moment. I believe this to be true for non-aboriginal students as well as for aboriginal students. In 2007, my final year of high school it seemed that all the students were talking about who was going to university and who is not. The students who said they were going to university received much more praise than those going into trades work. Now, there are more job available in trade work. Trade work can be very rewarding, I would like to see it emphasized more for aboriginal and non-aboriginal youth. Secondly, as Verna mentioned they’re are more aboriginal women in university then men. Canada’s 2006 census states that “Slightly more Aboriginal females had postsecondary education (about 36%) when compared to Aboriginal males (33%)” (census, 2012, pg. 2). This may be a small number, but you would expect it to be even or tilted in the favor of more men having post-secondary education. This makes me wonder on whether there are more aboriginal men in colleges for trade work. There are more non-aboriginal males in post-secondary education (52%) then non-aboriginal females (50%). Clearly, the number of aboriginal youth attending a post-secondary institution is not as high as it should be, something must be done.
    Works Cited
    Government of Canada. (2012). Aboriginal Women in Canada: A statistical Profile from the 2006 Cenus. Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. Retrieved from

  3. Creating quality education for all the students in Manitoba is not an easy task. Listening to the interviews I have gained insights into some aspects of Aboriginal Education. Dr. Verna Kirkness has traveled around the country for indigenous education and I believe we can all learn a lot from her. Her holistic view for education in that everything should be connected; I think is where education as a whole should be directed. For every student there needs to be connections in order for meaningful learning to occur, connections between subjects and connections to the world around. Integration through cross-curricular subjects allows for differentiation of instruction and for all students to be successful in a class.
    The benefits of integration and a more holistic view of education is that it allows for flexibility within the class, it builds on prior knowledge, allows reflection of the world and it matches the way students think. Being able to integrate the various subjects, aids in the success of students as the understanding of the material is connected. When the student learns about one concept and the teacher connects it to another concept or idea they are better prepared to justify their understanding. (
    During the interview, Robert asked Verna if education is headed toward more integration or segregation of Aboriginal Education. I really appreciated her answer. She said that “we will just take our place as we are doing now and live in the world as we are.” I think that as Canadians we need to realize that we are one nation and we can learn, work and live together.
    Obviously there are steps that need to be taken in order for education to move forward and I don’t think it will ever stop changing. I believe that learning is a life-long process and education will continue to move forward as long as educators remember to continue to grow, learn and challenge themselves.

  4. I praise Verna for her work in the education system for the past 50 years, and even more to be able to share it through her book Creating Space. As Robert so idyllically articulates, she truly is a "pioneer" in Aboriginal Education. As a Cree woman, she illuminates aspects of the education system that hindered education for Aboriginals, that undoubtedly resulted in the disconnect we see today with Aboriginal students and the Western school system, but she also reinforced the constant need to make concrete changes that would benefit students. In this podcast, Verna mentions early that when she too, first began teaching she "Never thought of connecting the curriculum to our people for the first 9 years..". This was almost surprising to hear from an Aboriginal teacher; however this was in the 1960s and very early in her teaching career. We see the hesitation of teaching Aboriginal education everyday through mostly non-aboriginal teachers. Verna mentions in her book that she had a strong support system for her schooling - her uncle, mother and an individual outside her family, Betsy Flett - pg.15. Throughout Verna's book she touches base on various experiences teaching all over Canada, and the effect it had on her students. One thing I found very interesting was the prospect of an Aboriginal teacher, teaching at a Residential school. Granted, this was simply just the way things were at the time, she does note that while she taught at Birtle residential school in the late 1950s, she had a hard time being there and seeing Indian children isolated from their families:
    " I think they identified with me because I was an Indian too. It certainly was not because I was teaching them from a Native perspective. I was just teaching as I had been taught to do and followed the Manitoba curriculum using the authorized textbooks- none of which had anything to do with the curriculum" pg 33
    I too hope, that in the next 50 years that Aboriginals will not be "assimilated" but rather, find their own place in the world as Verna outlines.

  5. The blog post that I have decided to respond to is entitled, “Education Elder Verna Kirkness: A Life Building Education and Human Rights” which discusses an interview with an Aboriginal Elder named Verna Kirkness (Ouellette, 2013). She has committed her life to Aboriginal education and she began teaching over 50 years ago (Ouellette, 2013). She has experience working in residential schools and this has influenced her philosophy on teaching children in a respectful and safe manner (Ouellette, 2013).

    The reason I chose to respond to this blog entry is because my group project for Aboriginal Education was on the topic of positioning ourselves within the spectrum of education of Aboriginal perspectives and values. In our project we explored the various perspectives of non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal education in Canadian school systems and who is responsible for education Aboriginal youth (Kirkness, 1999). It is interesting to learn about Verna’s ideology because she is an Aboriginal elder and educator with experience teaching Aboriginal students. Is this the only perspective that Aboriginal students should be exposed to in their educational journey? Should they only be taught by Aboriginal teachers? I believe that non-Aboriginal students would have valuable, insightful, and meaningful learning experiences with teachers that are Aboriginal and I believe that the same is true for relationships between Aboriginal students and non-Aboriginal teachers. The cultural background and identity of educators and their students should not limit their interactions and developments of relationships (Kirkness, 1999). How will we learn to value and appreciate various cultures if there is limited exposure to diversity? The important element that must be addressed in the education of all students is how to effectively celebrate and appreciate differences, in whichever form they are represented; linguistic, cultural, spiritual, orientation, etc.

    Overall, I believe that strengthening relationships between non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal communities is essential in developing equality and understanding. All perspectives should be integrated and present within educational experiences so that all students and educators feel recognized and valued.

    Ouellette, R.F. (2013). Education elder Verna Kirkness: A life building education and human rights. Retrieved from verna-kirkness-life.html

    Kirkness, V. (1999). Aboriginal education in Canada: A retrospective and prospective. Journal of American Indian Education, 39 (1).

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