Go home Qallunaat! - Decolonizing student-teacher discourse in Nunavut's classrooms: A Pedagogy of R

By Jay McKechnie

 Pond Inlet, NU



Jay McKechnie has been teaching social studies in Nunavut since 2007. Jay coordinates the annual Nasivvik Kajjausaktut Program that connects youth and Elders on land trips in the Pond Inlet area. 



             The Nunavut grade 10 social studies curriculum offers a dynamic site for the nation-wide discussion regarding reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians. Education must play a leading role in this healing process. As a Qallunaat (non-Inuit) educator living in an isolated Inuit community, I understand that I am a representing agent of colonization. As such, teaching topics on colonization, can at times, escalate to violence and behavioural issues (McKechnie, 2014). I would like to examine this further by drawing on my personal experience teaching grade 10 social studies in Nunavut, while connecting these experiences to the larger context of reconciliation. I will examine the teacher-student colonial confrontation as an opportunity to decolonize discourse, and to discuss how teachers must act to facilitate dialogue, as a means of teaching for democracy.

 Key words: Nunavut, education, decolonization, dialogue, social studies, democracy



             The history of colonialism is what binds Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians. As a Qallunaat (non-Inuit) social studies teacher living in Nunavut this history also informs the relationship between student and teacher. The daily engagement on issues of colonialism can sometimes escalate to angry outbursts and violence. Teachers in Nunavut generally lack the necessary training to contextualize these episodes. Teacher reflection is key to such moments of discomfort by responding through a pedagogy of reconciliation.

            The objective of any social studies curriculum, and public education in general, is to foster the values of democracy and to prepare students for their roles as citizens (Cook & Westheimer, 2006; Osborne, 2000; Levin, 2000). This goal is complicated in the Nunavut context where a large percentage of students drop out in grade 10 (O’Gorman & Pandey, 2014). Thus, grade 10 social studies may be the last school-based setting to engage issues of colonization, cultural identity, and citizenship for many students.

            In this article, I will use my experience teaching the Nunavut grade 10 social studies curriculum as a site of colonial confrontation. I then discuss the tendency to view culture through a binary prism of Inuit vs. Qallunaat. I conclude by placing the teacher in the role of facilitator by decolonizing discourse in preparing students for their role as citizens.


The Confrontation: Nunavut Social Studies and Student-Teacher Dialogue

            Nunavut’s social studies program is based on Alberta curriculum; however, Nunavut has incorporated culturally relevant modules to deliver this curriculum. The five modules as a whole are referred to as: Silajualirniq – Social Studies 10: Inuuqatiqiitsiarniq – Seeking Harmony, and is comprised of (1) Staking the Claim: Dreams, Democracy and Canadian Inuit, (2) Rights, Responsibilities and Justice, (3) Governance and Leadership, (4) The Residential School System in Canada: Understanding the Past – Seeking Reconciliation – Building Hope for Tomorrow, and (5) Inuuqatigiitsiarniq Project (Government of Nunavut,2014-2015). The Silajualirniq curriculum focuses primarily on the transition period in Nunavut (early twentieth-century) that resulted from increased government intervention in the Eastern Arctic that resulted in a tremendous loss of Inuit autonomy (Tester & Kulchyski, 1994).

            These topics of cultural loss can provoke strong emotional reactions in students. The “Go home Qallunaat!” refrain is common. I have also been called a racist, accused of destroying Inuktitut and Inuit culture, and other things students associate with a representing agent of colonization. This moment of confrontation most often occurs within the first two weeks of the semester.

            As good teaching practice, I spend the first days of a new course going over classroom, teacher, and student expectations. These expectations are discussed, debated, and then established through consensus. Having clear expectations from day one is crucial and the importance of containment practices cannot be understated. Creating a safe and consistent learning environment is key to fostering dialogue through mutual trust, respect, and humility. This approach is also culturally relevant as the “[e]stablishment of a personal relationship was essential to the nature and transmission of Inuit knowledge” (Laugrand & Oosten, 2009, p.128). However, as a result of the history of colonialism (particularly residential school), issues of attachment and trauma are prevalent. The ability to develop secure attachments and trusting relationships is fundamental for learning. Students must understand classroom expectations and be able to accurately predict the consequences of behaviour that is deemed inappropriate (McKechnie, 2015).


Disrupting the Binary Concept of Identity

            In my experience, these confrontations occur mostly among young males. A deep sense of cultural loss is associated with being in school, which prevents students from the perceived cultural landscape of camp-based living. I say “perceived” because the land, for all intensive purposes, is becoming increasingly more difficult to access due to the associated costs. Students will often lament “I am Qallunaat when I’m in school” or bully others by saying: “He is not a real Inuk because he does not go out on the land”. There is certainly a real sense of Inuit identity as Inuit do maintain a unique, but not homogeneous, identity due to their geographical isolation (Martin, 2012). It takes considerable effort to reinforce the idea that identity is fluid and to resist the tendency to essentialize what it means to be “Inuk” [Inuit singular].

            This student angst is firmly rooted in a fragmented sense of identity that is stuck between two worlds. Some students have constructed binaries between what it means to “Inuit” and what at it means to be “Qallunaat”. The institution of schooling is grounded in Eurocentricism (Willinsky, 1998), whereas students are still strong in Inuktitut and culture. They have difficulty closing the gap between what they perceive as Inuit knowledge, which is often completely relegated to the past, and cotemporary life in the communities (McKechnie, 2014). This gap is further complicated by the dominant discourse in Nunavut that contains notions of North and South, Inuit and Qallunaat, dichotomies and essentialized way of viewing the world through the binary of Eurocentric and Inuit epistemologies. Deconstructing and resisting the maintenance of these opposing epistemologies is a necessary step in the process of reconciliation (St. Denis, 2007).

            The students I teach in social studies 10 are working in English as a second language. Their emotions are raw and they sometimes lack the language required to articulate how they feel. I strive to provide the vocabulary needed to express their needs, to speak out against historical injustice, and to speak of the possibility of change. As Mark Kingwell (2012) writes, “[d]iscourse defines us, not the other way around” (p.223). We as Canadians live within the discourse of colonialism. Humans, as social beings, demand language to articulate themselves. Through language we produce knowledge and, by sharing language, epistemologies, and cognitive styles, we can create a classroom environment to critically examine the sociohistoric subtleties of identity creation (Kincheloe, 2010). The strength of the Nunavut grade 10 social studies modules is that they incorporate Inuktitut and Inuit epistemologies that act to facilitate this conversation in a culturally relevant way (Ladson-Billings, 1995; Aylward, 2009). This conversation is primarily accomplished through traditional Inuit knowledge, referred to as the Inuit Qaujimajatauqangit principles (Laugrand & Oosten, 2009).

            In the classroom colonial confrontation, students tend to identify Inuit as “victim”, and the oft repeated reaction of the non-Inuit teacher is to feel a sense of colonial guilt or, worse, totally relegate the issue to the distant past and deny any personal responsibility for action (Stanley, 2000). If a teacher lacks the critical discourse that allows her to use this moment for reconciliation, the status quo is simply maintained.

            The vast majority of teachers at the senior level are non-Inuit. The need for critical reflection on one’s personal epistemology is key. This reflection, however, is left to the discretion of teachers themselves who received little-to-no training in culturally relevant pedagogy (McKechnie, 2014). Here the relationship between teacher and student takes center stage; as Paulo Freire (1970) suggests, the correct method of education lies in dialogue. Teachers must speak with students. Freire explains, “[c]ritical and liberating dialogue, which presupposes action, must be carried on with the oppressed at whatever stage of their struggle for liberation” (Freire, 1970, p.65). Only a problem-solving approach to education makes this possible. Within the classroom, teacher and student exist together. In this sense, education is an opportunity to transform reality by recognizing the creation of reality as a process that does not remain static (Freire, 1970). The moment of confrontation demands reflection. And, only reflection can bring genuine dialogue. But this process takes tremendous energy on the part of the teacher.


Pedagogy of Reconciliation: Reflection as Praxis

            A good teacher infuses reflection in to her practice so she can grow along side her students. A classroom based on reflective practice has the power to transform. If the classroom operates as an unreflective space, it can also have the power to oppress. The tension that exists between the role of educations in society, and the pure emotional commitment the profession demands, can be difficult to reconcile.

            Schools are spaces of confrontation. The consequences of confrontation determine whether schools liberate or perpetuate hegemonic relationships. As stated above, creating a safe learning environment is essential. Teachers must constantly engage a pedagogy of discomfort, through active reflection, to assist towards liberation (Freire, 1970). In Nunavut, this liberation requires a shared narrative of colonization by escaping the bonds of “oppressed” and “oppressor” consciousness by deconstructing and resisting historic binaries and “Eurocentric roadblocks” (Berger, 2009). Teachers must be willing and prepared to initiate this dialogue. A reflective teacher can decolonize classroom discussion by asking herself: are students validated through dialogue or are they oppressed through teacher authority? The colonial confrontation between Inuit students and non-Inuit teachers can lead to transformative dialogue. This moment of true communication gives classroom life the most profound meaning (Freire, 1970).

            By using people’s historicity as the starting point (Freire, 1970), the Nunavut grade 10 social studies curriculum establishes both student and teacher within the same historical moment, which can at times create tension. The subtleties of student behaviour create a “starting point” for dialogue. When tension arises, teachers are wise to ask the questions: what is my role in this situation? What is the appropriate way to respond?

            A teacher who is unable to ask this question misses an opportunity to deliver education that is transformative. Teachers are the ones to facilitate knowledge for freedom, or knowledge as oppressor. As Freire argues, “[l]iberating education consist in acts of cognition, not transferrals of information” (Freire, 1970 p.79). Being an effective teacher requires an emotional commitment, but emotions can create a barrier to change without reflection. Reflective teaching must become praxis to fulfill the promise of education to create change by decolonizing discourse.


Conclusion: Teaching for Democracy

            I believe strongly in public education and the broad mandate of education’s ability to produce possibilities for the future by operating as a vehicle of liberation. My role as a facilitator involves reconciling myself as both an agent of colonialism and as an agent of resistance (McKechnie, 2014).

            Nunavut (in partnership with the Northwest Territories) is a leader in Canada for mandating the study of residential schools in the grade 10 social studies curriculum. We as educators can all work towards decolonizing education through encouraging, supporting, and implementing teacher training that engages a pedagogy of reconciliation, and by helping students resist the tendency to essentialize cultural identity. Engaging a pedagogy of reconciliation, through a shared narrative of colonization (St. Denis, 2007; Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015), will only strengthen our democracy through active citizenship and deliberation.




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