In January of 2022, HumanistFreedoms.com reported on a human rights challenge to the Province of Ontario’s public-funding of Catholic schools led by an organizations named One Public Education Now (OPEN). Recently, OPEN has sent us an update on their work.
Two members of OPEN are plaintiffs in a Charter of Rights challenge to the current funding of separate schools in Ontario. The lawsuit states the funding of non-Catholics in separate schools and the funding of Grades 11 and 12 are not protected from Charter challenge and violate the s.15(1) guarantee of equal protection and benefit of the law for all religions and beliefs (including beliefs in no religion).
The two plaintiffs are a teacher who cannot obtain a teaching position in one-third of publicly-funded separate schools because she is not Catholic, and a parent whose children must travel an extra 80 minutes per day in order for them to have a non-denominational public education, and not a publicly-funded Catholic education.
The Attorney-General of Ontario has brought a Motion to Dismiss the Application before it even gets to a full hearing. The Motion is scheduled for Friday, November 25, 2022 and we think it will not be successful for various reasons including that the funding of non-Catholics in separate schools has not been ruled on by any court in Ontario. But obviously it means further delay and further expenses. We have already raised over $175,000, but we know we need to raise more. People can find out more on our website, https://open.cripeweb.org/, where they can also donate through secure PayPal or by E-transfer to firstname.lastname@example.org.
There’s something about elected office(s) and democracy that doesn’t quite match-up well with religious prerequisites. The concepts are fundamentally opposed. Elected office and democracy puts the leadership selection process in the hands of the people that the system is intended to serve while religious prerequisites place the selection process in the hands of religious authorities, regardless of who may be within that system. That seems fairly obvious doesn’t it?
Canadian media outlets have recently reported the outcome of a legal case wherein an Ontario student sued the York Catholic District School Board after having been barred from running for elected office within the school system. It seems that Dasha Kandaharian, an Orthodox Christian (i.e. not a Roman Catholic), was not allowed to run for student trustee at the high school she attended because of that sectarian difference.
Media stories have referred to the case as a “landmark” – which it undoubtedly is. The decision undoubtedly addresses the situation faced by thousands of non-Catholic students who have attended publicly-funded Catholic schools in the past (clearly, Kandaharian was not he first and only student to be barred from the elected office) – and the thousands more who may do so in the future.
What the media have not (that we can find) spent much time in considering is where the Catholic School Board(s) of Ontario may have gotten this notion that a sectarian religious prerequisite for elected office is an acceptable thing.
A person is qualified to be elected as a school board trustee if the person is qualified to vote in a school board election and is a resident of the school board district.
When filing a nomination a candidate must meet all of the following requirements:
a resident within the jurisdiction of the board;
a supporter of the board (“supporter” refers to the individual’s support for one of the four publicly funded school systems. A list of supporters for each system is kept by the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation);
a Canadian citizen;
at least 18 years old;
Roman Catholic (if running for a Catholic school board);
not legally prohibited from voting; and
not disqualified by any legislation from holding school board office.
Note: A candidate, if nominated, must remain qualified throughout the election and, if elected, throughout the term of office. The term of office is 4 years. School board candidates should confirm that they have the qualifications described here and in section 219 of the Education Act. It is the responsibility of the candidate to determine whether he or she is qualified to be elected to and hold office.
In case you’re interested, Section 219 of the Education Act doesn’t seem to actually bear the qualification that we’ve bolded in the language above. Perhaps the argument is implicit or explicit in some other section of the Act. But for the moment, we can skip over that murky inconsistency and observe that the York Catholic District School Board (and any other publicly funded Catholic School Board) appears merely to have been applying the same criteria to the selection and election of Student Trustees as the Government of Ontario appears to tolerate for the selection and election of School Board Trustees.
Well, this landmark court decision rather brings to question whether what’s good for the goose (students) may also be good for the gander (adult politicians).
So let us consider, in the spirit of taking note of landmarks, an entirely fictional scenario: a hypothetical Secular Humanist who happens to be a (legally defined) ‘supporter’ of the Catholic School system in their area decides that they would like to be Board Trustee of that system. Regardless of how they might fare in an open election – how well do you imagine this hypothetical individual might fare in the qualification screening process?
Here is a separate and perhaps more fundamental question: Can you imagine any other elected office in a 21st-century democratic country named Canada where membership in a religious sect would be accepted as a pre-requisite condition?
Under legal pressure from a humanist parent, a school without a religious character in Worcestershire has radically altered its planned Key Stage 4 curriculum for 2022/23, in order to make sure that its religious education is fully inclusive of humanism.
Humanists UK, which supported the parent, said the decision marks a ‘significant win’ in making sure that schools do not force a narrow curriculum on children, and says the Department for Education and other schools must now make sure that such a broad curriculum is also offered everywhere else. In a timely coincidence an amendment to the Schools Bill, to replace RE with ‘religion and worldviews’ education in schools without a religious character, is due to be debated during Report Stage of the Bill on the afternoon of 12 July. The amendment is being proposed by crossbench peer Baroness Meacher.
Humanist parent James Hammond launched the case after learning that his child was being mandated to study an RE GCSE with a syllabus that was not inclusive of non-religious worldviews. No additional teaching was to be provided to make up for this exclusivity. All other schools in the academy trust apart from the one in question appeared to provide inclusive RE. Furthermore, since the school did not provide alternative GCSE options for those withdrawing from RE, if Mr Hammond withdrew his child, then they would have missed out on one GCSE qualification compared with their peers.
The academy has agreed to meet the parent’s request by providing, in addition to the GCSE course, two other units of RE, one for Year 10 and one for Year 11, focusing on non-religious worldviews and taught from a critical and objective perspective. Each unit will run for 6-7 weeks, and will meet the requirement to accord equal respect for non-religious worldviews in RE, as established in 2015 by the Fox case.
Parent James Hammond said:
‘I’m delighted that the school has conceded in this case, and by so doing accepted that its RE provision for years 10 and 11 was unlawful, due to not being inclusive of non-religious worldviews.
‘It was wholly wrong that a school of no religious character was imposing such a narrowly-focused RE curriculum on 15 and 16 years olds: at that age they are developing advanced powers of reason and thought, so to deny them the ability to learn about non-religious beliefs and values was both discriminatory and short-sighted, given the increasingly non-religious demographics in Britain.’
Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Robert Cann said:
‘This is a significant win. The Fox case in 2015, which was supported by Humanists UK, clearly set a legal precedent – this school should never have forced Mr Hammond into taking this action in the first place, and we are glad that it eventually conceded the case.
‘But the fact that the school was able to behave in this way in the first place was due to a failure of leadership by the UK Government. We’d much rather not be going through the courts – the Government must enable the Schools Bill to bring this case law onto the statute book, by accepting today’s amendment on religion and worldviews education.’
Dan Rosenberg of Simpson Millar said:
‘While my client is pleased that the case has been resolved in a way that enables his child to be taught RE in a more inclusive way, it should not have required the threat of legal action to resolve this. Mandating a GCSE course focused exclusively on religious worldviews for all pupils, at a school without a religious character, and as the entirety of their RE provision, was always going to run into legal trouble. The school has sensibly acknowledged the need for a significantly wider offering.
‘My client hopes that other schools will take a cooperative and responsible approach to providing non-discriminatory, inclusive education for all children, and no other parents will need to instruct solicitors to ensure that their concerns and beliefs are taken seriously.’
Amendments to the Government’s Schools Bill that would reform religious education, replace compulsory collective worship with inclusive assemblies, and end religious discrimination for teachers, were debated in the House of Lords on Monday night. Humanists UK has long called for changes to the law in these areas, and worked with members and supporters of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group to see the amendments tabled. However, the Government spoke out against the amendments, leading to them being withdrawn.
The proposed improvements to the Schools Bill were as follows:
Inclusive Religious Education:
to make it explicit that RE outside of faith academies must be inclusive of non-religious worldviews such as humanism – in line with what is already required by case law; and rename the subject accordingly to ‘religion and worldviews’, and
to require faith academies to provide an inclusive alternative to faith-based religious education (RE) for those who request it.
Compulsory collective worship and inclusive assemblies:
to replace the requirement for collective worship outside of faith academies with a requirement for inclusive assemblies, and
to require faith academies to provide a meaningful alternative assembly for pupils withdrawn from collective worship.
To reduce faith-based teacher discrimination, by making it clear that faith academies cannot discriminate on grounds of religion during the hiring or promotion of teaching staff unless there is a ‘genuine occupational requirement’.
Discussing the amendments on collective worship, Baroness Meacher (Crossbench) paid tribute to Humanists UK’s work. She also explained that:
‘under the Human Rights Act 1998 and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, younger children have the right to freedom of religion or belief. We do not seem to provide that in this country at the moment [due to the collective worship law].’
APPHG member Baroness Whitaker (Labour) also rose in support of the inclusive assemblies amendments. She explained that in a diverse society such as the UK, replacing compulsory Christian worship with inclusive assemblies in schools without a religious character is important because:
‘To live with each other, we need to understand each other within a framework of human rights; we need to learn to respect where our fellow citizens are coming from. I suggest that this is a better way to avoid extremism—from any side—than excluding the traditions that people value. Among those are values that establish a moral code that is not faith-based.’
Former Schools Minister and humanist Lord Knight (Labour), speaking in support of the amendments to make RE more inclusive of non-religious worldviews, refuted the Government’s often-used defence of the faith school system, namely that it gives parents choice:
‘The DfE’s associated memorandum declares that it is not compulsory for a child to attend a school with a religious designation, but of course this ignores the fact that, as we have heard, thousands of parents are effectively having to send their children to faith schools every year because there is no suitable alternative locally. That was definitely the case in my former constituency of South Dorset in the rural areas where many or indeed most of the village schools were Church of England schools…’
Lord Shipley (Liberal Democrat) supported the amendments, and pressed the Government to give some clarity on the existing law:
‘As I understand it, these amendments would not actually change the legal position but place existing case law into statute. In 2015, in the case of Fox v Secretary of State for Education, the High Court ruled against the DfE and in favour of three humanist parents and their children who challenged the Government’s relegation of non-religious world views in the new subject content for GCSE religious studies. The court stated that religious and non-religious world views, such as humanism, must be afforded equal respect in the RE curriculum…’
‘These are admirable aims… It is important to break down stigmas, and non-religious children in faith schools should not be made to feel left out if they opt out. The Government should think carefully about how to encourage this here. The amendments and the work in Wales are a way forward to do this’.
Responding for the Government, Baroness Penn explained that the Government was not going to support the amendments, believing them to be ‘unnecessary’ – even claiming that compulsory collective worship was a way to further the ‘spiritual, moral, social and cultural’ (SMSC) education of children. In so doing, she failed to recognise that children from non-religious backgrounds are automatically failed by such requirements.
Baroness Penn then went on to say that there was no parental demand for inclusive RE and therefore providing for it was not necessary:
‘I am unaware of significant demand from parents who withdraw their children from religious education to have this replaced by education representative of a wider range of religious and non-religious beliefs… we believe that it [the amendment] is unnecessary because RE will likely already include the concept of non-religious world views.
The Government’s claim that RE is already inclusive of non-religious worldviews is false: Humanists UK knows of many examples of narrowly-focused RE curriculums, and often works with parents to challenge these. Furthermore simply ‘including the concept’ of non-religious worldviews is by no means the same as affording it the ‘equal respect’ required following the 2015 Fox Case.
Baroness Penn finished her speech by making it clear that the Government had no intention to remove the discriminatory privileges afforded to faith schools in the recruitment of teachers:
‘The Government supports the freedoms and protections associated with academies with a religious character, including their freedoms to continue to appoint, promote and remunerate their teachers and deal with their employment with reference to the relevant religion or religious denomination.’
The Baroness’s response on behalf of the Government made no reference to the fact that the amendment would in fact have retained the ‘genuine occupational requirement’ (GOR) qualification – which is no more than a faith school should require if, for example, needing to recruit a religious teacher to lead a specific act of worship. Northern Ireland has recently changed the law to remove this ability to discriminate against teachers on grounds of religion if there is no GOR; the rest of the UK now lags behind.
Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Robert Cann said:
‘It was heartening to see such support in Parliament, even late on a Monday evening, for these important amendments, and we’re grateful to all peers who spoke so eloquently about religious education, inclusive assemblies, and teacher discrimination.
‘The Schools Bill is a great opportunity to improve the law around religion in schools to make our education system fit for the 21st century. While not surprising, we will use the Government’s negative response to plan our approach to the Report Stage of the Bill, and look forward to working with peers again. These issues are not going away.’
For further comment or information, media should contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at email@example.com or phone 020 7324 3072 or 07534 248 596.
Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by 100,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.
The following article has been compiled from information provided by OPEN.
An application stating the current funding of Ontario separate schools violates s.15(1) of the Charter of Rights has been filed at the Ontario Superior Court and served on the Ontario government on behalf of One Public Education Now (OPEN) lawyers Adair Goldberg Bieber.
The two plaintiffs, a public high school teacher, and a parent of children in the French public school system, are founding members of OPEN (One Public Education Now). OPEN is a coalition of groups and individuals dedicated to challenging the current discriminatory funding of the schools of one religion.
Many people want to do something about this discriminatory funding of one religious school system, but don’t know what to do. Governments and political parties ignore letters, articles and petitions. But they can’t ignore lawsuits, and people can do something by contributing to our challenge. Our lawsuit is funded by the donations of many people and needs additional funding to continue our legal fight.
The Application states there have been sufficient changes since 1987 that the Reference re Bill 30 Supreme Court of Canada ruling that the Charter does not apply to the funding of Ontario separate schools should be re-examined.
Therefore, the only rights protected from Charter challenge are those that existed in 1867 and are protected by s.93(1); and the public funding of non-Catholics at separate schools and the public funding of Grades 11 and 12 at separate schools, neither of which existed in 1867, violate the equality sections of the Charter of Rights.
Not only is the public funding contrary to the Charter of Rights, but it wastes money in duplicate administration and unnecessary busing of students at a time when money is needed for, among other things, protecting the safety of teachers and students. Estimating the savings is difficult because so many of the costs are hidden but it has been estimated up to 1.6 billion dollars a year could be saved. So many people think separate schools are funded by residential property taxes, not realizing just 7% of separate school operational funding, and none of the capital funding, come from the property taxes of residential separate school supporters.
OPEN’s Positions Regarding Funding of Catholic School System in Ontario
Separate schools were started under historical circumstances that no longer exist; for example, there were fights between Protestants and Catholics in public schools and Ontario agreed to protect separate Catholic schools in return for Quebec protecting separate Protestant schools; these circumstances no longer apply
So much has changed since the 1987 Reference re Bill 30 Supreme Court of Canada decision, such as Quebec abolishing its funding of separate schools in 1997, that the ruling the Charter of Rights does not apply to the funding of Ontario separate schools, should be reconsidered
Separate schools are not paid for by separate school residential property taxes.
Capital funding is paid for entirely by general provincial revenues. In general, only 7% of operating revenues of separate schools come from residential property taxes; 15% comes from business property taxes; 70% comes from general provincial funding.
By contrast, 15% of public school funding comes from residential property taxes and only about 60% from general provincial funding.
The current system wastes money. Boards of Trustees, Superintendents of Education, Board offices and administrative staff, are duplicated.
We don’t have two fire services, one for Catholics and one for everyone else. Think of the waste if we did.
Students are bused to the closest public or separate school, instead of walking or being bused to the nearest publicly-supported public school.
Local community schools are being closed that could be kept open if all local students went to a public local school, not split between public and separate schools
Estimating the savings is difficult because so many of the costs are hidden but it has been estimated up to 1.6 billion dollars a year could be saved.
One third of Ontario publicly-funded teaching jobs are denied to the two-thirds of the population who are not Catholic even though all Ontario tax-payers pay for these schools.
Of course Catholics who want to can pay to send their children to religious schools, just as Anglicans, Baptists, Muslims and others do. What is unfair is the government, for outdated reasons, funding one religious group .
People have signed petitions, written articles, and sent letters and emails. But because all the major parties support the status quo, nothing changes.
In our search for interesting, challenging and critical perspectives on contemporary humanism, we occasionally find articles published via other venues that we think humanistfreedoms.com readers may enjoy. The following article was located on Kansas Reflector. Steve Lopes is a Lawrence resident who taught technology in a suburban Boston high school and other tech schools for 15 years. He was a union organizer for Kansas-NEA for 30 years and over the past 10 years has advised progressive groups and Democrats in Douglas, Johnson and Wyandotte counties.
As a former teacher, I strongly oppose the use of CRT in public school classrooms – but I’m not talking about critical race theory.
I’m talking about Crappy Rejection Teaching, the concerted effort of self-serving political forces to deny our students a quality objective education. Crappy Rejection Teaching has a long history of misleading students and coercing teachers to avert truth in favor of selective political agendas.
This CRT is an intentional effort by adults with weird personal agendas, usually based on dubious sources, to promote their prejudiced views at the expense of our children’s future success. They are forcing this generation, our future leaders, to accept a dumbed down curriculum and limited opportunities. We have a responsibility for teaching our children facts and truth, however uncomfortable.
This current assault on quality public education is just the latest in ongoing efforts by the ignorance lobby to promote their personal beliefs as valid, and therefore imperative for everyone.
My first experience with a CRT-like assault was as a suburban Boston high school teacher in the 1970s, when our district was accused of promoting secular humanism. My teacher colleagues scratched their heads in disbelief. What is this stuff? The leader of our local teachers’ union suggested a way to respond.
We forgave our accusers and thanked them for bringing this to our attention, and after further investigation, several of us accepted this secular humanism as a meaningful personal belief.
In the 1980s, as a field organizer for Kansas NEA, I frequently represented members facing challenges for teaching objectionable stuff. In one district, a local pastor who denied evolution, urged the school board to promote the teaching of Creationism. The biology teacher presented an evidence-based defense of evolution that persuaded the board to retain the science curriculum.
In 1999, there was a concerted effort to force the Kansas State Board of Education to include intelligent design in school science standards. In response, educators statewide organized Kansas Citizens for Science to demand evidence-based standards.
In 2005, the anti-science majority on the state board held bogus hearings during which KCFS exposed the flawed logic of intelligent design. These hearings were documented in the film “Kansas vs. Darwin.”
Additionally, KCFS efforts led to the subsequent election of a majority of board members who endorsed the scientific method.
On Nov. 10, 2021, this Associated Press headline appeared: “Kansas District Orders 29 Books Removed From Circulation.” The Goddard school district had placed holds on this lengthy list of books in their school libraries based on a single parent objection to “language he found offensive.” The district ultimately reinstated the books.
The history of book banning to restrict learning goes back to the origin of books and continues to this day.
Now, the critical race theory scare tactics have arrived in Kansas.
Partisans have been diverting the public’s attention from developing and implementing effective solutions that address real education challenges in favor of unfounded propaganda. Recently seven local school board candidates running against the teaching of critical race theory were elected in Kansas communities.
With the state and national GOP leveraging dubious science to energize their base, the anticipated Democratic Party response has been … limited to nonexistent.
The kids are all right
How do we respond to this craziness in the absence of a countervailing force? We must ask the group with the most to lose from this craziness: our children.
I have a proposal based on my faith in Gen Z (those born between 1997 and 2012).
This generation, which will suffer most from this disinformation campaign, should rise and say: “STOP” on behalf of themselves and our future.
Activists at public schools and colleges could form interest groups — perhaps with names like: “Teach Us the Truth About History” — and demand evidence-based curricula in their classrooms.
If you’re a young person who agrees with this assessment, let the adults in your life know that the actions of extremists are damaging their future opportunities. Spread the word, not out of partisanship but because we all deserve to know the truth about our country and its past.
Americans have stood up to Crappy Rejection Teaching in the past. We can do it again.
In our search for interesting, challenging and critical perspectives on contemporary humanism, we occasionally find articles published via other venues that we think humanistfreedoms.com readers may enjoy. The following article was located on SAGE Open, an open-access publishing source. Dr. Robertson has kindly provided a brief opening paragraph for HumanistFreedoms.com. (Note that bold features are ours and may not coincide with any emphasis that Dr. Robertson might prefer.)
The Medicine Wheel Revisited: Reflections on Indigenization in Counseling and Education
Enlightenment humanism seeks universal values common to the human condition. For example, in humanism the dignity of the person is valued regardless of the race, creed, sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity or geographic location of that person. Similarly, empirical scientific truth will apply to all individuals, irrespective of divinely given alternate “realities” that are subjectively held. In this article I argue that the methods of science and reason that makes such a naturalistic understanding possible are compatible with traditional aboriginal worldviews, but that each culture must ground the Enlightenment to its traditions for that culture to participate equally in the scientific revolution. I call this process of adapting new technologies to local cultures “indigenization.” I recommend a secular approach to indigenization relating modern conceptual thought to traditional cultures in a way that is consistent with traditional constructs. In this article, I use the ancient medicine wheels found on the Great Plains of North America to illustrate how this could be done.
This article is peer reviewed and was first published by SAGE Open as “open access.” It may be referenced: Robertson, LH. (2021) The Medicine Wheel Revisited: reflections on indigenization in counselling and education, Sage Open, 11(2) 1-11 DOI: 10.1177/21582440211015202
Indigenization involves relating traditional cultures to modern methods, concepts, and science to facilitate their use by those populations. Despite attempts to indigenize both the practice of counseling and the content of educational curricula, mental health and educational deficits in Amerindian communities have remained. This article suggests indigenization in the North American context is often based on a reified view of culture that discounts naturalistic and scientific approaches, and that this dynamic inhibits progressive cultural change at institutional and community levels. A secular approach to indigenization is proposed that relates modern conceptual thought to traditional cultures in a way that is consistent with traditional constructs. The medicine wheel, traditional to North American Great Plains cultures, is applied to counseling to illustrate how concepts found in aboriginal cultures could inform modern practice with wider applications to curriculum development. Related tensions involving interpretations of aboriginal spiritualities and modernity are discussed.
As Director of Lifeskills for the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College in Regina, Canada, during the 1980s, I would be asked, “Why do we (aboriginal people1) always have to become more like them (non-aboriginal people), why can’t they become more like us?” While modern North American cultures are constituted by the histories of their constituent peoples, including those aboriginal to the continent,2 these students were actually voicing alienation from a modern educational system that emphasizes mathematics, logical constancy, and chronological time delineated behavior—skills that were not indigenous to Canadian hunter-gathering societies. Attempts to rectify such alienation have included calls for the indigenization of curricula that are pictured as “western” or “European” (Barman et al., 1986; Louie et al., 2017).
Counseling is also pictured as Euro-American and unsupportive of aboriginal cultural traditions (McCormick, 1996; Poonwassie & Charter, 2001; Sojonky, 2010) with the result that some aboriginal students are unwilling to see nonnative counselors (Dolan, 1995). Indigenization in this context is a process whereby an imported psychology is transformed in ways that are appropriate to the local culture (Adair, 2006).3 Indigenization may be understood as the appropriation of technologies, practices, or systems of conceptual thought in ways that accord with the receiving culture.
Swidler (1986) redefined culture as excluding change to technology and material artifacts while including “beliefs, ritual practices, art forms, and ceremonies, as well as informal cultural practices such as language, gossip, stories, and rituals of daily life” (p. 273). Although technologies and artifacts per se may not be part of culture, the ways that they are used and interpretive significance given them would be. In this article, cultures are held to be fluid concepts consisting of generally shared experiences or generic representations that may be called cultural schemas common to populations linked by tradition (Quinn, 2011). As counseling and education can effect change in the mental schemas held by clients and students, the acquisition of the knowledge, attitudes, and skills required by them to participate successfully in modern economies will inevitably lead to change in their family and community cultures. The alternate view that cultures are defined entities as opposed to fluid concepts leads to at least two important corollaries: (a) a person could have incompletely or inadequately learned a culture with which he or she identifies or is otherwise assigned making that person a less worthy representative; and (b) speakers from a defined culture may make knowledge claims that are at variance with those made by speakers from other cultures but are nonetheless of greater truth for the represented cultural group. Representative of this perspective on culture, a peer reviewer of an earlier version of this manuscript asked whether the author was aboriginal and writing from an indigenous perspective. Had I identified as a person with aboriginal ancestry, I could still have been accused, under this paradigm, of not taking an “aboriginal perspective.” Such a static and defined view of culture is similar to a religiously held dogma in that deviations from a prescribed belief system are proscribed.
The goal of this article is to suggest a paradigm of dynamic cultural change compatible with secular enlightenment that is rooted in cultures indigenous to North America. Using the concept of the medicine wheel as a metaphor for traditional cultural knowledge generally, it is argued that the practice of indigenization in counseling and curriculum development will contribute to progressive change. World views based on a static or essentialist view of culture, it will be argued, have impeded participation in the modern economy by aboriginal peoples.4 It is suggested that historical and interpretive factors used in advancing the essentialist view are in need of reexamination. We begin by establishing a case for such a reframe.
Stalled Education: Colonization and “Indian Control”
Education is an important value in human cultures. Goulet and Goulet (2014) identified three forms of the teaching-learning process conceptualized in the indigenous Cree language: “kiskinaumegahin (teaching another), kiskinaumasowin (teaching oneself), and kiskinaumatowin (teaching each other)” (p. 65). While teaching as a profession was necessitated by the increased complexities of modern civilization and falls within the rubric of “teaching another,” the introduction of such education to students aboriginal to Canada had disastrous consequences. The Canadian government contracted with five churches to provide education with the goal of assimilating indigenous students into the colonial economy5 with the churches responsible for operating costs. The churches planned to cover these costs by generating income through industrial production. For example, schools on the Canadian prairies typically taught farming and animal husbandry with students providing manual labor half days. When these “industrial schools” failed to generate sufficient revenues, many students suffered from malnutrition and dis- ease. Furthermore, examples of physical and sexual abuse Indian Residential Schools were widespread (Aboriginal Healing Foundation, 2006; Barman et al., 1986). While such experiences contributed to a negative view of education among many indigenous people, it is important to also consider that this view was not universally held. When the Canadian government attempted to end the residential school program in 1969,6 the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) successfully lobbied to keep the schools open in their province. Hired by FSIN as part of this process, educational consultants Robertson and Redman (1988) were told the Indian residential school system was to be maintained because (a) the quality of residential school education was considered superior to that offered by on-reserve day schools and (b) the schools effectively provided an alternative to the apprehension of children in dysfunctional families by child welfare agencies.7
Schools have also been viewed as a vehicle for cultural preservation. In a 1972 policy document, the National Indian Brotherhood (NIB) declared, “The present school system is culturally alien to native students . . . School curricula in federal and provincial/territorial schools should recognize Indian culture, values, customs, languages and the Indian contribution to Canadian development” (“Indian control of Indian education,” 1972, p. 9). Prototypically, the Plains Indians Cultural Survival School was established in Calgary, Canada, with 50% of its curriculum consisting of cultural components, including “bustle-making, hide-tanning, drumming, Indian dances, native languages, tepee-making and visits with native elders” (Friesen, 1983, p. 54). This model emphasizing indigenous cultural restoration coupled with local control at primary, secondary, technical and university levels has been replicated across Canada.
This level of indigenization did not result in improved academic achievement. Richards (2014) found that aboriginal students have a significantly higher incompletion rate in band-run reserve-based secondary schools (58%) than in provincial schools (30%). Those who do graduate may not have the literacy skills implied by their grade level. During my experience as an educational psychologist with a northern community college servicing a largely (80%) aboriginal population, I found that graduates of band-run schools often obtained scores 3 to 7 years below grade level on standardized tests of reading and mathematical achievement. A study of Grade 3, 6, and 9 Albertans found that 50% of aboriginal students were not achieving at grade level (Richards & Scott, 2009).
This educational achievement gap cannot be totally attributed to shortfalls in funding. In their comparative study, Richards and Scott (2009) found that federal funding for First Nations schools exceeded the average per student funding provided by provincial governments by more than $4,000 CAD.8 The achievement gap in education could be partly explained by conflicting expectations between educational authorities and local communities. At the university level, Robertson et al. (2015) documented examples of indigenous students whose educational success was considered secondary to the culturally sanctioned demands of their families. Students in counseling described themselves as “caught between two worlds” with the implication that their formal education was considered secondary in one of those worlds.
Another explanation for the education gap between aboriginal, particularly Amerindian, and non-aboriginal students is that the increase in aboriginal cultural content has brought with it a concomitant assumption that traditional “aboriginal ways of knowing” are equivalent to modern conceptual thought. But as Widdowson and Howard (2013) warned, “Because hunting and gathering/horticultural societies lack a culture of literacy, incorporating aboriginal traditions will not facilitate the values, skills, and attitudes that aboriginal people will need to obtain a scientific understanding of the world” (p. 303).9 As a considerable body of research emphasizes the necessity for cultural grounding in learning (Banks, 2001; Hutcheon, 1999; Petersson et al., 2007), a suggestion that cultural teaching may retard learning requires further examination.
Anyone bereft of culture would not have the constructs, the mental scaffolds, upon which to organize and understand experience. Indeed, such a person would not have the language to describe that experience. This is not how cultural loss is usually presented. A more essentialized view is that culture is a “thing” that exists independent of a body of people but can be possessed by them (Waldram, 2004). In such a view, modern science and mathematics may be presented as European, colonialist, or “western.” However, extending the definition used by Swidler (1986), modern conceptual thoughts, especially as found in science and advanced mathematics such as statistics, are not, in themselves, cultural, thus freeing each culture to appropriate scientific, mathematical, and concomitant critical thinking abilities in the course of their own evolution. The evolution of Euro-American cultures from their medieval roots included (a) scientific discoveries rendering old faith-based teachings obsolete and (b) cross-cultural contact contributing to a globalization of their (Euro-American) world view. As a result of this evolution, any school curriculum that taught a geocentric model of the universe or the inherent superiority of European races would not be tolerated. Nonetheless, a continuity of descent marks this education as “European” to students within the Euro- American tradition. The indigenization of curricula within Amerindian traditions requires a similar descent, and such a cultural descent has also been recommended in counseling (Chandler & Lalonde, 1998; Poonwassie & Charter, 2001).
The use of multisensory presentations, democratization of grading, and the use of oral storytelling has been commended as representing indigenization of methodologies in the Canadian context (Louie et al., 2017). All of these techniques had been previously commended by non-aboriginal educators in non-aboriginal settings (McCown et al., 1996; Nelson & Michaelis, 1980; Postman & Weingartner, 1969); therefore, the marker of aboriginality could not have been found in the method but in the content. The development of active listening and critical thinking skills may be enhanced by cross-cultural content grounded in the student’s own culture, but if the purpose of teaching cultural content is to inculcate the student in a particular belief system or worldview, then that would serve to thwart the development of such critical thinking abilities.
While the reification of culture may have the effect of closing minds to new knowledge, it is also possible to view education as a process of opening minds to new possibilities with debates about culture and multiculturalism at the heart of education as a meaningful project (Robertson et al., 2020). If we view all cultures as aggregates evolved from historical and contemporary appropriation, then each participant in the cultural project becomes an authorized speaker capable of investing in culture in creative ways with applications dependent on context and purpose. Under this paradigm, education has the potential to be transformative (Robertson & Conrad, 2016) with individual self-definition enhanced and expanded from a menu of possibilities of increasing size and scope.
Ethical Issues in Education and Counseling Associated With Cultural Reification
While it has been suggested that education and mental health gaps facing Amerindian peoples in Canada may be attributed to cultural insensitivity and even racism on the part of providers (Barman et al., 1986; Chandler & Lalonde, 1998; Louie et al., 2017), a lack of receptivity to services perceived as “western” or “Euro-Canadian” by indigenous students may also explain such deficiencies. It is argued here that the reification of a set of beliefs about aboriginal spirituality creates resistance to learning modern concepts and that such reification is counterproductive in a quest for cultural continuity. In this example, the Medicine Wheel, as a sacred and unvarying ontological dictum is unhelpful, but the medicine wheel concept as an epistemological understanding may serve as a bridge for connecting culture to technological and scientific development. The medicine wheel has been used in various forms to build identity (Mussel, 2005), adult lifeskills development (Lavalley & Wilson, 2006), and adult basic education (Clarke et al., 1998), and such usage suggests the compatibility of the medicine wheel concept with science and reason. Before building on this theme, we need to consider the process of reification.
The Cree elder advised, “If you have even a little (aboriginal ancestry) then you can choose to be either Indian or white, but you cannot be both.”10 Such a view conflates race with culture with the implication that culture is a quantifiable thing that is subject to choice only if one is of mixed ancestry, and even then only as a binary “either or” proposition. In such an essentialist view, cultural assimilation may be equated with genocide (Swidrovich, 2004; Wesley-Esquimaux & Smolewski, 2004). While effective teaching and counseling necessarily relates to the worldview of the student or client, the essentialist view holds that if the individual does not sufficiently know or identify with their ascribed culture, then he or she has lost some- thing and is judged to be unhealthy (Robertson, 2011b). “Loss of culture” by those who can trace at least part of their genetic ancestry to those aboriginal to North America has been blamed for a host of social problems with cultural restoration frequently framed as “healing” (Brave Heart, 2003; McCormick, 1996; Robertson, 2014a).
The process of cultural restoration is not always appreciated. Elders in one northern community said they recognized that their community had not always been Christian, but efforts to teach them Aboriginal Spirituality11 based on southern (plains buffalo culture) normative beliefs12 felt oppressive (Robertson, 2015). Such conflict between Aboriginal Spirituality and Christianity has not been uncommon (Aboriginal Healing Foundation, 2006). Swidler (1986) explained that during “unsettled times,” ideologies become highly articulated and directive “because they model patterns of action that do not ‘come naturally’” (p. 284).
Religious belief, as defined here, begins when a source is considered authoritatively omnipotent. For example, a Saulteaux elder expressed the concern that “white” schools teach his grandchildren Earth goes around the sun, but his elders taught him the reverse (Scott & Nippi, 2004). If the views of these long-deceased elders were taken as revealed truths not subject to material evidence, then these views were held religiously. Such religiously held views may conflict with scientific teachings in educational settings. For example, Ontario philosopher Christopher DiCarlo faced a university disciplinary hearing after two students complained his suggestion of a common human African ancestry was insensitive to an Amerindian teaching that aboriginal people were placed on the American continents by a “Creator” (Kaill, 2005). While notions of a geocentric universe and a creator-god are also indigenous to European cultures, cultural accommodations have been made, allowing teachers to reference science even in non-science courses. Teaching religiously held belief as fact (or an alternative factum) in education classes can be offensive to people with a scientific worldview. One participant in a workshop on Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition for staff at a northern community college commented, Our provincial Department of Higher Education and Manpower has no more business teaching Native Spirituality—with the intent of conversion—than it has teaching Tibetan Buddhism . . . Imagine what towering indignation would have been engendered had (the instructor) been a Catholic and she had asked us to burn incense, to partake in Holy Sacraments, to confess our sins, and tied problem-solving to the four points of the Cross. (Robertson, 2011a, pp. 99–100)
The “four points of the Cross” in this example is an allusion to the four parts of the Medicine Wheel reproduced in Figure 1. This medicine wheel has been capitalized, referenced in the singular, and described as a sacred part of Aboriginal Spirituality (Dyck, 1998; Sanderson, 2010).
The quadrants represent what are thought of as the four dimensions essential for life balance: mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual. This medicine wheel may be expanded to include four seasons, directions, races, and periods of life overlayed on the basic medicine wheel with each item in a set of four presented in separate quadrants. Holism is then defined as must be represented in the life of the individual for that person to be healthy.
Figure 1. The standard medicine wheel identified with Aboriginal Spirituality.
The division of the circle into four quadrants makes mathematical sense if it is used to represent two variables—one on each of the x- and y-axis, but the use of the number four in this medicine wheel is arbitrary. For example, the notion that there are four races – red, yellow, black, and white – does not conform to scientific understandings of the concept (Miele, 2002; Pinker, 2002; Templeton, 1998) and may have been appropriated from the Christian children’s song Jesus Loves Me. While it may be generally thought that there are four seasons, the traditional Woodland Cree had six. The representation of four life stages, including child, teenager, adult, and elder, must be a recent application to the medicine wheel because the concept of “teenager” is a modern European invention.
There is no direct translation for the English word mental in languages aboriginal to Canada. For example, the Cree word/phrase Kiskwew (literally, “s/he is crazy”) is used to represent the term in that language to the angst of practicing mental health workers. It can be inferred that whoever first added the word mental to the Medicine Wheel was probably thinking in a European language, and then sought to translate the concept into an aboriginal language. As the wheel was not indigenous to aboriginal North American cultures, the very term medicine wheel must be viewed as a cultural appropriation. Widdowson and Howard (2013) questioned whether the concept itself could be used to advance critical thinking, the dissemination of abstract ideas, or the organization of complex information into constituent parts:
While it appears that the Medicine Wheel . . . offers a more systematic pedagogical technique (as compared to concrete conceptualizations in hunter-gatherer societies), this turns out to be a mirage. The “constituent parts” that emerge from the “breaking down of complex situations” are arbitrarily constructed, the only basis for which is a spiritual belief about the significance of the number four. (p. 294)
The teaching of this Medicine Wheel along with other beliefs associated with Aboriginal Spirituality presents an ethical dilemma for professionals who believe education involves teaching analytic skills concomitant with opening young minds to multiple possibilities. Psychotherapists and counselors who assume the construction of an aboriginal self is based on Aboriginal Spirituality potentially do disservice to aboriginal clients whose worldviews are constructed differently. It will be argued that there is a much older concept of the medicine wheel that is amenable to both modern education and counseling that is client-centered.
Using the Lens of Diversity to Understand the Stone Medicine Wheels of the Plains
There have been tens of thousands of circular structures dotting the Great Plains of North America with most identified as “tipi rings”—stones used to hold the flaps of a tipi in place. Some rings do not fit this explanation. After restricting the definition to include only those circular stone structures too large to be a tipi ring having a central stone cairn, one or more concentric stone circles, and/or two or more stone lines radiating outward from the center, Brumley (1988) estimated that there were between 100 to 200 stone medicine wheels on the plains. Two medicine wheels (one near the Bow River in southern Alberta and another at Medicine Mountain, Wyoming) are divided into 28 pie- shaped parts (Grinnell, 1922). It has been suggested that medicine wheels in Wisconsin (Bender, 2008), Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Wyoming (Freeman, 2009) are aligned with astrological phenomena, but this suggestion remains controversial (Vogt, 2015). Restricting the definition to include only those structures divided into four (or multiples of the number four) would exclude these medicine wheels from the classification.
In estimating there to be more than 340 medicine wheels, Robertson (2014b) included circular structures too large to be tipi rings that are not divided at all, and those that are divided without reference to a central hub or spokes as with, for example, parallel lines. An example of such a medicine wheel can be found at the Tie Creek site in eastern Manitoba, Canada (Steinbring & Muller, 2012). This site includes a triangle centering a large circle of stones connected by a complex of lines to other petroforms, including a large winged bird. It would be curious to deny that this is a “medicine wheel” while conferring the title on other structures that have potentially less obvious interpretive and ceremonial significance. An equally important consideration is that the act of taking a modern definition of the term medicine wheel and applying it to ancient stone structures (albeit loosely to figures divided in ways that are not multiples of the number four) restricts the interpretive possibilities that may be attached to such structures, thereby potentially minimizing the traditional cultural wisdom contained therein. It is argued here that the traditional spirituality of the aboriginal inhabitants of North America employed flexible teachings having a pragmatic character.
Figure 2. The generic medicine wheel of Roberts et al. (1998).
This flexible and pragmatic interpretation of the medicine wheel concept may be applied to counseling.
Using the Medicine Wheel Concept in Counseling
Adlerians traditionally eschew the medical model in favor of a psychotherapy focussed on educating the client in new behaviors that better meet individual goals (Christensen & Marchant, 1993; Morris, 1993/2004). In comparing the holism of the aboriginal medicine wheel with that of Individual (Adlerian) Psychology, Roberts et al. (1998) acknowledged, “A wide variety of medicine wheels exist and no one claims a particular official symbol” (p. 137). Nonetheless, they produced what they called a “generic” medicine wheel reproduced in Figure 2. The reference to four directions in this figure suggests wholeness, but the attachment of the qualities of power, uniqueness, vision, and connectedness to specific directions appears to be arbitrary. The quality of individual uniqueness is not often attributed to collectivist cultures; however, the sense that we are unique individual beings is necessary to exercise personal decision-making and forward planning (Damon & Hart, 1988; Robertson, 2020).
I taught an undergraduate university class on contemporary native health issues in which students were invited to create their own personal medicine wheel. While many drew a wheel with four divisions, the number of spokes ranged from 0 to 18. One aboriginal person drew a series of concentric circles with herself surrounded by family, community, “helpers” (meaning outside agencies such as educators and counselors), and “white” society. Another student used spokes to divide a circle into categories representing vision, compassion, family, work, education, language (Cree), planning, doing, love, nature, and God. Although it might be possible to reduce such a self-characterization to four more general categories, doing so serves to constrain the individual’s meaning and relational experience.
If counseling were to be viewed as advice giving, then it would be expected that the advice so given would be informed by the cultural background of the counselor. Alternatively, the counselor could learn and reference a set of values appropriate for the individual based on his or her assigned cultural designation. Either stance is prescriptive with the direction of client-change determined by forces external to the client. Traditionally, professional counselors and psychotherapists use more client-centered approaches with advice giving minimized.
Counselors concerned with issues of identity within the field of psychology typically attempt to create a shared holistic understanding of the selves of their clients (Adler, 1927/1957; Dryden et al., 2001; Epstein, 1994) with client- directed self-change based on new information or alternative preferred narratives (Hermans, 2006; Robertson, 2016; Strong & Zeman, 2005). The role of the counselor is to assist in information gathering and the generation of alternative interpretations. While the use of a reified Medicine Wheel both constrains the presentation of the self and externalizes the direction of change, it is argued here that the use of the medicine wheel concept is both in keeping with aboriginal tradition and consistent with a nondirective view of counseling. Counselors may use the concept of the medicine wheel without teaching any one form as correct. Examples of different medicine wheels could be presented so as to capture the idea of diversity along with the common theme of holism. These unique medicine wheels would reflect individual values, behaviors, and world views, and the act of self-reflection may promote self-understanding with the decision to initiate change in keeping with the principle that the client is the expert on himself.
Both aboriginal and western counseling accepts client individuality within a social context and decision-making based on client choice. In a qualitative analysis of the writings of 17 schools of psychology and the transcripts of an equal number of interviewed Inuit elders, Korhonen (2002) found universal acceptance of such client-centeredness in problem definition, goal-setting, and choice of interventions. Positive psychologists (Dahlsgaard et al., 2005; Hart & Sasso, 2011; Seligman et al., 2005) have reported cross-cultural success by inviting clients to define for themselves terms like happiness and meaning and to cognitively plan, within their contexts, ways of meeting those objectives. While Christopher and Hickinbottom (2008) argued that using such an ethic privileges the individual to make decisions for the benefit of his or herself (thus giving apparent support to an individualist perspective), I replied (Robertson, 2017) that the capacity for individual volition implied in such tasks as forward planning is itself cross-cultural, and that the capacity for logical thought, including the assumption of an objective reality, flows from a cross-culturally informed cognitive self. This understanding of the self as a volitional, rational, and reflective entity both unites modern schools of psychotherapy and resonates with the self as found in collectivist societies (Robertson, 2020). If the client is viewed as self-actualizing, then he or she effectively becomes a culture of one and each counseling relationship becomes a cross-cultural exploration. In such a paradigm, aboriginal identity development can be supported without presuppositions as to what that identity will entail. While the Medicine Wheel pictured in Figure 1 makes such presuppositions as to how an aboriginal self should look, the medicine wheel in Figure 3 illustrates how the different schools of psychology gain an understanding of the self that is embedded in each “culture of one.”
Figure 3 was prepared by recognizing a continuum between physical and mental states of the individual on the x-axis and a continuum between active and passive states on the y-axis. The intersection of the two axes creates four quadrants labeled: cognitive, emotive, physiological, and behavioral. Various therapies were situated on those quad- rants based on their primary focus. Given a holistic perspective, it is anticipated that intervention directed at any one quadrant will necessarily create change in the other three. Thus, a client with attention deficit disorder could be given stimulant medication with the expected result that the medication will influence subsequent emotions, cognitions, and behavior. Similarly, a behavioral plan directed at the same condition would be expected to produce changes in the other three quadrants. Of course, some therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, may address two or more quadrants directly as part of their methodology. Counselors can use this medicine wheel to explain to clients the process and expected results of therapy while building a holistic picture of the client’s self (Robertson, 2020).
If we view traditional indigenous cultures as holistic (Poonwassie & Charter, 2001; Sanderson, 2010), then distinctions between modern constructs such as education and counseling may be seen as arbitrary. As we have seen, education in the modern era can be transformative of the self while counseling as practiced by many psychotherapists is often educational. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that practices and conceptualizations predating the modern era in any given culture would transcend modern categorical boundaries. It has been argued here that such transcendence is a potentiality of the ancient itineration of the medicine wheel. As culture does not include technology or artifacts (Swidler, 1986), modern scientific and mathematical laws also transcend culture. Thus, while the Age of Enlightenment leading to the modern explosion of knowledge began in Europe, thus rendering the term western science an accurate description of the locale of that knowledge explosion during one historical epoch, the corollary that there are other culturally bound “ways of knowing” that are equally efficacious serves to defeat both the educational objective (Robertson et al., 2020) and the psychotherapeutic objective of developing “mind” (Robertson, 2017). It
Figure 3. An application of the aboriginal concept of the medicine wheel to the practice of counseling psychology situating various therapies in quadrants defined by two axes: physical/mental and active/passive.
is the function of culture, then, to relate to science, technology, mathematics, and existing artifacts in some ways. The challenge then is not to replace “western science” with “cultural wisdom” but to link the knowledge therein to indigenous cultures. By facilitating a meaningful appropriation of the techniques by which new knowledge may be learned, aboriginal people will generate new knowledge. We are aided by the belief that aboriginal spirituality is not a religion but a variety of life stances that are open to change based on evidence and reason.
This article began with the suggestion that curricular indigenization to Amerindian cultures will necessarily involve the rooting of modern conceptual thought to earlier cultural constructs in a process of directed evolution. Figure 3 demonstrated how the medicine wheel can be used to illustrate modern conceptual thought in counseling and psychotherapy. Just as it is possible to use the concept of the medicine wheel without attempting to enforce a particular world view, other themes in aboriginal spirituality may be referenced without reifying a particular set of practices and beliefs. Berry (1999) found that a relationship with the land such as being able to hunt, trap, fish, and go berry picking was generally important to the spirits of Inuit, Amerindian, and Metis peoples. It is not necessary to script a particular way of interacting with the land. For example, Robertson (2015) reported on a successful community development program that included Christian indigenous elders taking youth out into the Precambrian Boreal Forest of northern Canada to learn survival skills. In the author’s private practice as a counseling psychologist, it is sometimes suggested that clients consider spending time on family “traplines,” an area traditionally used by a family for the purpose of trapping fur-bearing animals. What the clients do on their trapline that is therapeutic is individualized.
From a holistic perspective, both the student counseling services and curriculum offered by an educational institution are part of a common institutional culture. The indigenization of one cannot be successfully accomplished in isolation. While this article drew on an exemplar involving counseling practice, it is an exemplar with implications for curriculum development. Both involve opening minds to new possibilities. The individual agency implied by such education is not incompatible with cultural grounding:
A relativist position that all cultural tenets are of equal truth or value serves to nullify the cognitive revolution; however, the capacity to take an objective stance can be applied to the interpretive understanding of textual and oral tradition. We hold that it is possible to be inclusive of cultures even if their basic texts are contradictory, provided the process is of being challenged by tradition and working to adopt it in the manner appropriate to one’s own historical circumstance and in preparation for the pluralistic situation of living with other people. (Robertson et al., 2020, pp. 22–23)
The challenge discussed here involves the application of the medicine wheel concept to modern knowledge. As has been noted, the reified Medicine Wheel has already been used to illustrate the concept of race, but inaccurately. It is common in anthropology to note that genetic interchange through population movements over the last hundreds of thousands of years has ensured that there are no human sub- species or races (Lewontin, 2006; Livingstone, 1993; Templeton, 1998). The notion that there is only one race (the human race) could be illustrated by a wheel without divisions. Discussion of the more traditional view that there are three races, Mongoloid, Caucasoid, and Negroid (Nei & Roychoudhury, 1974; Rushton & Ankney, 1993), could be illustrated by dividing the wheel into three with major sub- divisions (e.g., most South Asians and Middle Eastern people are classified as Caucasoid in this system) noted within their respective places in the wheel. The more nuanced view that there are seven races (Edwards, 2003; Miele, 2002) could be similarly illustrated. Boundaries between racial categories could be made diffuse to indicate that racial demarcation is largely arbitrary with no one characteristic common to any race.
It has been customary to think of the medicine wheel as representing four directions, but in a three-dimensional world, there are six. The directions of “up” and “down” could be illustrated by adding a line, perpendicular to the two-dimensional directions, at the center of the wheel. The resultant “medicine sphere” could be used to illustrate numerous three-dimensional concepts in nature. The addition of movement to this sphere could be used to illustrate the fourth dimension of time and some of the effects of relativity. It is contended that linking such modern concepts with historical processes will aid in the internalization of both.
The ultimate objective of both counseling and education is the development of informed logical and critical thought allowing the individual to seek an objective stance relative to received tradition. Failure to ground such skills in indigenous cultures will make their transmission feel assimilationist and foreign. This article has explored the use of the concept of the medicine wheel as one bridge linking indigeneity with modernity. It is hoped that this exemplar will con- tribute to the development and use of other markers of aboriginality in education and counseling.
This article received support from Humanist Canada.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, author- ship, and/or publication of this article.
In this article, the terms aboriginal and indigenous are used to reference people, things, and ideas that were commonly pres- ent prior to colonization or modernity. The terms are not capi- talized when used as adjectives but are capitalized when used as part of a proper noun. The reason for this convention will become apparent in the subsequent discussion distinguishing between Aboriginal Spirituality and the more generic “aborigi- nal spiritualities.”
Much that was indigenous to the Americas, such as foods (potatoes, corn, bison, beans, and turkeys), pharmaceuticals (aspirin, coca, peyote, and quinine), industrial products (rub- ber), clothing (moccasins), transportation (canoes, toboggans), and habit-forming substances (tobacco, chewing gum), have been appropriated into the general culture.
Adair (2006) was talking specifically about a need for a psy- chology indigenous to Canada and not a psychology indig- enous to people aboriginal to Canada.
Half a century ago, an indigenous Cree lawyer (Wuttunee, 1971) predicted policies of cultural reification pursued by Amerindian leaders of the day would result in impoverished communities dependent on increasing levels of govern- ment largess. That prediction has been realized (Helin, 2011; Richards & Scott, 2009).
This was actually the second European colonization of the North West with the first involving participation in the fur trade by its aboriginal inhabitants in a direct relationship with Britain. Canadian expansion involved the development of the North West as an agricultural and industrial hinterland (see Innis, 1930/1970; Ray, 1974; Robertson, 2015).
This was the second time the Canadian government attempted to end the Indian Residential Schools program. An earlier attempt to do so in 1907 was reversed subsequent to a successful lobby by western churches and Amerindian chiefs (Woods, 2012).
During the 1960s, the provincial authorities reluctantly took over responsibility for Indian child welfare, but they did not have sufficient foster or adoptive parents of indigenous ancestry to meet the child welfare need. The Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) viewed student place- ment at residential schools preferable to “adopting out” to non-aboriginal parents. A two-step process resulted in the transfer of authority for these schools to those Indian bands that contributed to the student population with Indian authori- ties first administering the physical plant. This development was not divorced from child welfare. As Director of the Health and Social Development Commission for FSIN, the author oversaw the development of a document titled “Indian Control of Indian Child Welfare” that paralleled the earlier docu- ment “Indian Control of Indian Education.” Indian Child and Family Service (ICFS) agencies were developed on each band replacing provincial child welfare services during the 1990s. While, officially, the last Indian Residential School in Canada closed in 1996, in 1999 the author completed psychologi- cal assessments of students at a facility offering a residential school program identical to its earlier mandate, but it was now called a “child welfare” facility. The ICFS agencies in northern Saskatchewan had given themselves each a quota of children to be sent to this institution that was still popularly known as the Prince Albert Residential School.
When provincial funding for school districts with fewer than 1,000 students was compared with federal per capita funding, the per capita advantage enjoyed by Amerindian educational authorities shrank to $2,547.
Working from a critical postmodernist perspective, Strong (2002) declared science to be a “white, male way of knowing” and that “truth” is something arrived at through the “discourse of knowledgeable people” (p. 3). In advocating the use of the reified Medicine Wheel, Dyck (1998) declared that “western science” was devoid of spirituality and creativity, and that people recognized as knowledgeable in presenting traditional teachings should be recognized as authoritative . In contrast, science is a process of learning about an independent reality by reducing subjective bias by using hypothesis testing (Bhaskar, 1975; Bloom & Weisberg, 2007), or as Wilson (1999) said, “Science . . . is the organized, systematic enterprise that gath- ers knowledge about the world and condenses the knowledge into testable laws and principles” (p. 58). The idea that there is an objective reality that may be discerned through careful observation predates Europe’s “scientific revolution” by about 2 millennia and is cross cultural (Robertson, 2020). Therefore, the idea that people from so-called collectivist cultures cannot be objective is suspect.
This is from personal communication with Cree elder Ernest Tootoosis, Poundmaker Indian Reserve, 1971. This advice has since been repeated to me by several aboriginal elders and is aligned with the Iroquoian “Two Row Wampum” teaching that the “Redman” and the “Whiteman” will paddle in separate (but parallel) canoes and that if someone tries to have a foot in both canoes, “there will be a high wind and the boats will separate and the person that has his feet in each of the boats shall fall between the boats . . .” (Onkehonweh as cited in Widdowson, 2013, p. 341). Other elders may have different understandings.
In this article, “Aboriginal Spirituality” (upper case) is a proper noun referencing a faith-based belief system (see Robertson, 2014b). The term aboriginal spirituality when lowercased ref- erences older beliefs that included supernatural attribution, but was nonetheless evidence based and thus open to change.
During the early 19th century, many Cree bands, in alli- ance with a Siouxian people called the Assiniboine, invaded the northern plains of North America. These “Plains Cree” adopted many Siouxian “buffalo culture” practices such as powwows, sun dances, and horse dances. The Cree remaining in the woodlands did not adopt these practices but, as Poliandri (2011) and Waldram (2014) have noted, Great Plains cultural practices have become increasingly identified with Aboriginal Spirituality across North America.
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In his 1914 poem Mending Wall, Robert Frost made significant use of the old proverb, good fences make good neighbors. In the poem, a narrator explains that “something there is that doesn’t love a wall” and this something tears down a sturdy stone wall that separates the narrator’s property from the neighbor’s. So each year, the narrator and the neighbor meet on an appointed day to “walk the line and set the line between us one again”, the neighbor often reciting the ancient wisdom. Good fences make good neighbors. Meanwhile, the narrator wants to suggest the mischievous force that is tearing down the wall is “elves” but would prefer for the neighbor to say so.
It’s a lovely poem which aptly reminds the reader how to keep one’s metaphorical apple’s from eating-up someone else’s metaphorical pine cones .
In Canada, there is a new Facebook chat group named Secular Wall with an interest to walk the line and mend the wall. The group states that it wishes to “connect all Canadians opposed to the discriminatory and wasteful public funding of religious schools (especially in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario) plus healthcare institutions. Secular Wall members support every citizen’s undisputed RIGHT to worship however they please … with the corresponding RESPONSIBILITY to fully fund their own beliefs.“
The organizers of Secular Wall seem to have staked-out familiar, but necessary, territory. Just as there are many individuals who would prefer not to have all their pine cones eaten-up by the neighbor’s apples – there are also plenty of apple-growers who would like to keep their apples from tasting of pine. A bit of annual wall mending is indeed a good thing.
After all, the really does seem to be a great deal of elf-activity from year to year and the walls won’t mend themselves.
The group has a stated zero tolerance for hate speech or profanity, which suggests that dialogue may maintain a level of dignity and respect despite a topic likely to bring out deep-seated values, perspectives and opinions.
If you have an interest in the integrity of your own domain, you may want to join the conversation.
Humanist Canada, a national voice for humanism in Canada has announced the return of its (third annual) student essay contest for 2021. With thousands of dollars in prizes (for both English and French language essays) and a far more open field, this year’s contest design is far more inclusive and inviting!
You may want to spread the word!
The 2021 contest deadline has been set as May 21, 2021 and the organizers have provided a Frequently Asked Questions page for those who may have questions.
In 2020, Humanist Canada had a designated theme (Religion and Humanism in Education) that students were asked to write upon. On the current announcement there does not appears to be a theme. Instead, the organizers have provide the guidance that recommended topics include:
This seems to be sufficiently broad to encourage any number of submissions – particularly in light of the uniquely-worded definition of humanism that appears on the contest FAQ page: “Humanism is a dynamic way of life that is guided by rational thought, inspired by music and art and motivated by ethics, compassion and fairness.“
Another change in the competition since 2020 appears to be who the competition is open to. In 2020, Humanist Canada stated that “We welcome Canadian high school students to submit their strongest ideas, thoughts, and arguments to us.” For 2021, the competition seems to have been opened up with wider eligibility criteria:
Anyone enrolled in a Canadian educational institution/ Canadian citizen studying abroad
Junior Category: 17 years old and younger on May 21, 2021
Senior Category: 18-25 years old on May 21, 2021
In addition, the competition expects to award prizes in each of two streams – English and French. Wow! Talk about opening up the field.
There is a contest submission form on the Humanist Canada website. This is a sweet opportunity for some talented students to earn some much-needed tuition money or to launch themselves on a writing career!
About Humanist Canada
Humanist Canada (HC) promotes education and awareness of humanism. We are a resource for secular groups and causes across Canada. We support the advancement of scientific, academic, medical, and human rights efforts.
In the weeks leading up to Labour Day and the annual return to school, Canadian media outlets have provided ample coverage of the unprecedented stresses and challenges the COVID-19 pandemic have created for politicians and educators.
On September 1, 2020, CBC reported that Ontario’s school boards will need to ‘collapse’ some classes, trustees group says. It appears that school boards are coping with a dramatic increase in online learning in response to the pandemic. School boards and media covering Ontario’s education system have focused-on class sizes as a key element of funding agreements with the province.
On August 31, 2020 The Globe and Mail published an article stating that Ontario’s education unions file labour board challenge over school pandemic plans. The upshot is that Ontario’s four education unions are challening the provincial government’s approach to the coming school year….with a focus on smaller class sizes.
Back in July, The Toronto Star reported that Opening Ontario schools safely amid COVID could require up to $3.2 billion funding for staff, cleaning supplies, say Liberals, staff union.
What is absent from all of this discourse? Any evidence that educators, politicians or the media have recognized how fundamentally-flawed, ill-prepared and out-dated the design of Ontario’s education system is.
Who does seem to have recognized this issue? Administrators. CBC reported on September 2, 2020 that Ontario school boards lose 20% of education directors as daunting pandemic year looms, even quoting Alana Murray, a retiring Director in the Bluewater District that “I guess my timing was pretty good.”
The timing to recognize that Ontario’s publicly-funded education system is terribly outdated and badly in need of reform isn’t just “pretty good” – it is critical.
Federal and provincial governments are tripping over themselves, and each other, in hurried efforts to distribute supplies, maintain social distancing, fulfill online learning needs, negotiate with educate unions and sort our their funding agreements. How it will all be paid for is anyone’s guess. Or isn’t it everyone’s certainty that the costs of COVID-19, whether within the domain of education spending or across the whole public sector, will be paid via taxes?
Ontario’s government, whether anybody wants to admit it or not, is faced with a critical problem to redesign and modernize Ontario’s publicly-funded education system. No small part of that will be recognizing and addressing one of Ontario’s most expensive anachronisms – the ongoing public funding of separate Catholic schools. After COVID-19, we can’t afford it any longer.