10 Steps to Start the Conversation


Sandra Mudryj, Principal, St. Patrick Catholic School, Toronto CDSB
Dr. Frank Pio, ED.D., Program Support Teacher, Toronto CDSB FMNI Program

10 Conversation Steps

Acknowledging the 500+ year narrative of Canada’s Indigenous people for your Catholic school community


Where do you start a more than 500-year-old story to build an inclusive community in a Catholic setting?

As school leaders we have a moral imperative to establish tangible steps to create an inclusive educational community where the narrative can be heard and shared in a safe and respectful forum. The narrative of Canada’s Indigenous peoples is one of a history of cultural and physical abuse.

This narrative begins with the Royal Proclamation of 1493 by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. Pope Alexander, through the Doctrine of Discovery, decrees that non-Christian nations may no longer own land in the face of claims made by Christian sovereigns. In effect, Indigenous people were placed under the guardianship of Christian nations. Next is the 1867 British North America Act and the 1876 Indian Act, which further confirmed that Canada’s Indigenous people were under the direct control of the Canadian Federal Government.

Through the Indian Act, the government denied Indigenous peoples the basic rights that most Canadians take for granted. This was followed by the federal government’s removal of Indigenous children from their communities from 1820 to the 1970s. Indigenous children were placed in church-run boarding schools far from their home communities. In these schools children endured emotional, physical and sexual abuse, which has left lasting impacts on Indigenous communities and culture. The last residential school in Canada closed in 1996.

As Catholic educators, we must be mindful of the past as we educate our students in learning about the narrative of our country’s Indigenous peoples and how as Canadians we can move forward. Engagement of students, parents and staff of First Nation, Métis and Inuit (FNMI) background requires us to be conscious of the history and legacy of Canada’s Indigenous peoples. The pedagogy must be respectful of the traditions, culture and spirituality of Indigenous peoples.

The following 10 steps provide examples of how the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) began this conversation, and how the board has set the direction for acknowledging the narrative of our FNMI students and sharing of the story of Indigenous peoples in Canada. Central to this is the building of relationships and connections with the FNMI community to help provide schools with the necessary resources to engage Catholic school communities in meaningful learning experiences.


  • Engage in dialogue with family connections within your school community (e.g. parents, students, grandparents) by creating an environment where the student sees themselves and their heritage both in the school and in the curriculum.
  • TCDSB created a poster campaign entitled “I AM…,” which is made up of a mosaic of current self-identified students in the board and is displayed prominently in all schools.


  • As school leaders, actively seek out opportunities to participate in FNMI ceremonies so that you better understand the intricacies of the heritage and cultural traditions (smudging, etc.)
  • TCDSB hosted a CPCO conference in 2012 for Catholic principals which featured a session entitled “Leading The Instructional Program: Fostering An Understanding of Aboriginal Perspectives in An Inclusive School Community.”


  • To enable teachers to continue the story telling after the experts leave; establish professional development for teachers to ensure that the message and community connections are sustainable and viable. This comes through only when you develop a sense of trust with community members, which is authentic and respectful.
  • TCDSB has hosted yearly Teacher Symposiums since 2010. Topics have included FNMI curriculum, teaching and learning, culture and identity, community and student voices.


  • Each board is mandated by the ministry to have a FNMI lead teacher to create a Board Action Plan to obtain funding and resources to support FNMI projects and initiatives. FNMI credit-bearing courses also receive direct ministry funding.


  • Foster partnerships with the Aboriginal community by inviting Elders and FNMI organizations to develop and lead workshops for teachers and students.
  • TCDSB has partnered with members of FNMI communities to create opportunities for elementary and secondary school visits on topics that include: History and Treaties; Contemporary Issues of FNMI Peoples; Myths; Stereotypes and Misconceptions of FNMI Peoples; Protocols; Melding of Traditions and Contemporary Life.


  • Introduce tangible initiatives to your school, such as including prayers for morning announcements, displays in hallways, and recognition of June 21st National Aboriginal Day
  • Since 2010, the TCDSB has hosted National Aboriginal Week with FNMI speakers, dancers, storytellers, art exhibitions and music. These events are open to elementary and secondary students, teachers, staff and administrators, and provide a forum to showcase student work relating to FNMI themes.


  • Include class activities on topics such as the Blanket ceremony (www.kairosblanketexercise.org), drum and dance presentations, treaties, demystifying false stories, stereotyping and dream catchers.
  • TCDSB initiated the The Northern Spirit Games in 2007. Each year 1800 elementary students from Grades 4, 5 and 6 are hosted by six high schools. The students participate in traditional First Nations, Métis and Inuit games, which focus on physical strength, agility and endurance. This includes a hand drum session led by a FNMI Knowledge Keeper. Over 20,000 students have participated over the past nine years.


  • Invite storytellers to share FNMI oral tradition and teachings that convey a moral lesson that connects to our Catholic virtues and faith, incorporating traditional spiritual ceremonies such as smudging.
  • TCDSB is piloting an Elder in Residence Program. Working in collaboration with community partners, an Elder will identify and address topics relevant to the health, including mental health, and well-being of Aboriginal students in our board.
  • Since 2013 a traditional storyteller has visited elementary and secondary schools across TCDSB.


  • Develop mentorship programs for your school that connect to local communities by inviting FNMI members and academic experts from OISE, York University, University of Toronto and McMaster University. Mentors include Elders and mentees who are FNMI undergraduate and graduate students, sharing their personal journey and stories.
  • A TCDSB school mentorship program started in 2014. In partnership with OISE/University of Toronto, the TCDSB Aboriginal Mentorship Program is an opportunity for OISE Aboriginal undergraduate and graduate students and First Nation Elders to work as peer mentors with students in the classroom from Kindergarten to Grade 12.


  • Access agencies outside of the FNMI community such as public libraries, the Royal Ontario Museum, The Bata Shoe Museum and the Aboriginal Education Office at the Ministry of Education.
  • Since 2011 the TCDSB and the Toronto Public Library have hosted a series of workshops detailing First Nation, Métis and Inuit Children’s Books for Elementary teachers from Kindergarten to Grade 6.

As school leaders, we need to work in partnership with the FNMI community to tell this story to all our students. This narrative varies from region to region and community to community particularly within larger urban settings such as the Greater Toronto Area. The continual and collaborative effort requires engagement and input with all stakeholders: students, parents, staff and the FNMI community. These 10 steps are just the beginning. It is your role, as the Catholic instructional leader, to ensure that the narrative continues, is shared, and becomes part of your school culture and community.

Aboriginal Education


The above article was featured in the Aboriginal Education
issue of CPCO’s Principal Connections magazine.

If you would like to read the whole issue, you can purchase it here.

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