The University of Ottawa’s faculty of social sciences (FSS) hosted a seminar on Oct. 5 on the topic of the Kitigan Zibi school. Photo: Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation Tribal Council/Provided
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The seminar is latest in series on Indigenization and decolonisation of knowledge

The University of Ottawa’s faculty of social sciences (FSS) hosted a seminar on Oct. 5 on the topic of the Kitigan Zibi school, an autonomous school operating under an independent Indigenous education system. The talk was the latest installment in a new series of seminars on various aspects of Indigenization and the decolonization of knowledge.

The seminar featured Anishinaabe Algonquin guest speakers Anita Tenasco and Jenny Tenasco from the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation, located two hours north of Ottawa. Anita Tenasco has served her community in a myriad of roles for 26 years. Today, she is the director of education for Kitigan Zibi. Her mother and co-panelist, Jenny Tenasco, is a proponent of the Kitigan Zibi school, where she leads workshops and shares her experiences as a residential school survivor.

The pair joined the FSS in order to teach students at the University of Ottawa about the challenges of administering an autonomous Indigenous education system.

Reclaiming the classroom

The Kitigan Zibi School was established in 1980 in order to provide a holistic First Nations education to students on Kitigan Zibi territory and beyond. However, 30 years later, Indigenous educators like the Tenascos are still fighting off attempts to assimilate their schools into the provincial models. 

“We’ve been lobbying with the federal government for years, we’ve been protesting on Parliament Hill, and there’s been very little understanding of how our schools function on reserves in our communities. Because there’s this constant comparison with the provincial schools. And there’s been this push by the federal government for our school here in Kitigan Zibi —  and all First Nations schools —  to fit into the model of the provincial school system,” said Anita Tenasco.

“That has not worked for us, it never did … It hasn’t been successful. The provincial model has not provided us with a lot of graduates.”

Since 1985, students with high school diplomas from the school in Kitigan Zibi have gone on to receive undergraduate, masters, and PhD degrees both in Canada and the United States. Despite demonstrable proof of the quality of the education students receive, the province of Quebec still does not accept diplomas from the Kitigan Zibi school as proof of high school graduation. 

Now, the school faces a new threat; the federal government is pushing First Nations communities to partake in the Regional Education Agreement in order to formalize and centralize the administration of Indigenous education, with no regard to differences in language, culture, or geography. 

“This is very scary. I’m very worried about this. Once this Regional Education Agreement moves forward, I’m getting the feeling that Indigenous Services Canada is going to wipe their hands of First Nations in terms of funding our schools,” said Anita Tenasco.

Despite the persistence of forces working against their school and others like it, the Tenascos have a firm belief in the importance of their work, and are dedicated to protecting it. 

“[Some of the students are] very surprised that they’re meeting an alive residential school survivor, because maybe they don’t have one in the family, and they think it happened so long ago, but we’re still here,” said Jenny Tenasco. 

Jenny Tenasco spoke of siblings being separated by fences between the elementary and high schools in Kenora, Ont. that youth from Kitigan Zibi were forced to attend under the residential school system. It was only in the summers — for the lucky ones — that families were reunited. It is therefore important for Jenny that autonomous Indigenous education is able to maintain family ties.

“I am very proud of our school, where relatives see each other and we communicate, we have activities together outdoors, we gather and celebrate being Anishinabe.”

Towards Indigenization on campus

Catherine Dussault, an Indigenous curriculum specialist with FSS, organized this event. She thinks it is important that the U of O host events like this in order to work towards decolonizing the institution. 

“Indigenous peoples, they want to take back control of their education, and also to get to speak for themselves. So [we need] to create this opportunity for them to speak up, and to talk about their issues in their own terms with their own protocols,” said Dussault, referencing the prayer which Jenny Tenasco recited in Anishinaabemowin to open the seminar. 

Dussault thinks it is especially important to create opportunities for students at the U of O to hear from Indigenous voices outside of the academic sphere. 

“I think that when we hear from people who actually don’t have access sometimes to the colonial institutions for various reasons, because they are hostile to them … we can learn so much,” she said. “Sometimes we are a little bit in a bubble within the institution. And it’s super important to open our eyes to these other realities.”

To hear more stories like these, join FSS for the next seminar on decolonizing museums, which will be held on Nov. 2.