When Rob Riel began his journey into education 25 years ago he kept his Métis identity hidden.
“I really didn’t announce that I was Indigenous because I didn’t know if that was going to be a good or bad thing. I was scared,” said Riel.
At the time there weren’t many Indigenous educators and even fewer Indigenous students going into education programs after high school.
Since then, Riel has embraced his Métis roots and has made it his career to increase Indigenous representation in a number of Winnipeg schools as the director of Indigenous education for the Winnipeg School Division.
“Now having conversations with my family and my parents on who I am and identity, I really think it is an opportunity now to be really proud of who you are as an Indigenous person moving forward,” Riel told APTN News.
Even though things have changed in the decades since Riel began his career, a new report shows there’s still a long way to go.
The State of Equity in Education Report released by the Winnipeg Indigenous Executive Circle (WIEC), a cohort of representatives from Indigenous grassroots organizations, states Indigenous educators are underrepresented in the city’s school systems.
The report is based from surveys distributed to each of the seven school divisions in the city.
According to the responses, Indigenous students make up nearly 17 per cent of the total school population, while Indigenous teachers make up only eight per cent of the teacher population.
“We want to work together with the school divisions to close that gap and try and get more Indigenous teachers within the schools,” said Trevor LaForte, co-chair for WIEC.
The report estimates the city would have to hire an additional 570 Indigenous teachers to properly reflect the Indigenous population in Winnipeg schools.
But it doesn’t end with hiring more teachers LaForte says. There needs to be more Indigenous educators at all levels, including as school trustees and on school boards.
“We would like to get more people with an Indigenous background to be sitting at those tables when policy and procedure comes up so that there is an Indigenous viewpoint that they can bring into the discussion,” he said.
LaForte adds it’s important for Indigenous youth to see themselves in leadership roles, “to have them as a role model or an inspiration…you can’t put a value on how beneficial that is to youth.”
The report also shows there is a lack of Indigenous student pursuing education in post-secondary institutions in the province.
From 2011 to 2015 the mean average of Indigenous students enrolled in the University of Winnipeg’s bachelor of education program was seven per cent. For the University of Manitoba’s bachelor of education program the total was less at five per cent.
Cameron Adams is a student at the University of Winnipeg where he is in an integrated bachelor of Indigenous languages and education program.
When he graduates in two years he wants to teach Cree in Winnipeg school systems.
“That’s something I’m passionate about,” he told APTN.
Adams says he’s noticed a lack of Indigenous educators, especially teaching language, while doing practicums for his degree.
He believes there needs to be more resources for Indigenous students.
“We need to make sure there’s increased supports but also push people to learn their languages and learn about their cultures but as well as want to teach that so [they] can pass it on.”
The Winnipeg School Division facilitates the Build From Within teacher development program in conjunction with the University of Winnipeg and Indspire Canada. The program provides a path for Indigenous high school students to become teachers.
Since starting nearly two years ago, 45 students have gone through the program, says Riel.
The report features 10 calls to action including the development and implementation of an employment and equity policy and program in each of the school divisions and enrollment targets for post-secondary schools.