Educators in the Northwest Territories want to see more Indigenous teachers

Iman Kassam
APTN National News
YELLOWKNIFE – An educator in the Northwest Territories says the territory and schools must do more to attract and develop Aboriginal teachers.

Denise Kurszewski, a Nihtat Gwich’in, has been teaching in the north for 30 years. She’s the Superintendent of Schools in the Beaufort Delta Region and has an impressive list of skills – from moose hide tanning, to authoring articles on food security, and overseeing eight community schools.

“In an aboriginal community you tend to be a teacher, a counselor, a mother, an advisor,” said Kurszewski. “You play many different roles and I’m not sure everyone is prepared for that”

Denise Kurszewski - Superintendent of Schools in the Beaufort Delta Region
Denise Kurszewski, Superintendant of Beaufort Schools in NWT. Photo:Iman Kassam/APTN

Kurszewski says it’s a difficult role, but she wants to see more paid Indigenous teachers working in northern communities.

Recruitment and retention of community-based First Nation, Inuit, and Métis educators in the north is a big challenge in the Northwest Territories.

Out of the territory’s 682 teachers, only 108 are Indigenous.

Kurszewski is determined to see that number grow.

“Once you are a teacher, once you are an educator, that in itself instills confidence. You know that your own history, your own knowledge, is important and should be validated, and you begin to spread this message” she said.

Aboriginal teachers from across Canada were recently in Yellowknife to attend the Aboriginal Educators Symposium. The area of focus was how to recruit and retain aboriginal educators.

According to a report by Manitoba’s department of Education, students are more likely to be interested in learning material if they find it relevant to their lives, therefore, it is crucial for connections to be made between curricular topics and the real world, particularly the world in which the students find themselves. Research shows that one way to do this is to hire Aboriginal teachers from the communities who can share the same knowledge and culture as the students.

Teachers at Aboriginal Symposium
Teachers at Aboriginal symposium in Yellowknife. Photo: Iman Kassam/APTN


Kurszewski said teaching Indigenous and non-Indigenous students about the north’s history of colonization and the contributions that Aboriginal people have made to Canadian society is something only Aboriginal teachers can do. She added, the only way for students to move away from their colonial past is through a teacher who understands where they come from.

But the struggle in recruiting Indigenous teachers is complex.

Teachers at the symposium shared their stories on what it’s like working in a community that is healing from trauma, and has little access to health and wellness resources.

Northern Aboriginal teachers pointed to a type of systemic bullying called lateral violence. Kweykeay, a grassroots First Nation education consulting company, defined it as a type of violence that occurs within marginalized groups where members strike out at each other as a result of being oppressed. The oppressed become the oppressors of themselves and each other. Common behaviours that prevent positive change from occurring include gossiping, bullying, finger-pointing, backstabbing and shunning.

And Kurszewski said she has seen and heard first-hand that lateral violence can tear people down.

“The general idea that you have a job and your life is disciplined and you’re somewhat balanced in life… there’s jealousy because people don’t know how to attain that for themselves,” said Kurszewski. “In a small community, people may feel that they can’t work in that kind of environment.”

Jane Arychuck, President of Aurora College, has been an educator in the Northwest Territories for 34 years. She said she sees the effects of lateral violence on northern teachers, and can testify to how hard it is being a teacher in a remote northern community.

“If you seem like you are getting yourself out of the community, getting above some of your issues, and becoming a professional or “better”, the community starts to pull you down and lateral violence is very prevalent in many of our communities.”

Jane Arychuk - President Aurora College (1)
Jane Arychuck, President Aurora College. Photo: Iman Kassam/APTN

The Northwest Territories is home to 33 communities, 49 schools, and 2 post-secondary institutions. Many of them are remote, isolated, and face social, economic, and cultural challenges.

Aurora College offers a Bachelors of Education through the University of Saskatchewan. The program has been offered in select northern communities and every year, 5-10 Indigenous students graduate. But Arychuck says it’s not enough. The hardest part of recruiting Indigenous teachers, is combating lateral violence.

Arychuck said the hardest part of recruiting aboriginal teachers, is combating lateral violence.

“I think from my experience it comes from the dysfunctions that have happened in our communities, some of the un-wellness in our community,” she said. “People are seen as successful and [other] people in the community chose to speak badly about them, to be really hard on them. It’s been come to known as lateral violence. It’s really hard on people’s self-esteem. It brings them down and makes them feel ‘Is it worth fighting to bring myself up?’

As a result, she said some people leave their communities at the risk of being shamed and shunned.

But Kurszewski is interested in cubing that mentality. It will take time and a lot of help, she said.

“We really want to move forward. I think we have the answers within ourselves, but we need help in actioning those.”

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