Developed by
Dr. Judith M. Newman

Practice as Inquiry


Mary Young

Around the end of February, 1996, I received a call from Bloodvein, a place I still call home. The person I spoke to asked if I was free on Tuesday, March 26, 1996. He said, if you are, we are having an Aboriginal Youth Conference, and we would like you to come and talk about your personal educational experiences. I responded by saying that I was free and I would be happy to do whatever I could to encourage the youth to keep going to school.

After I hung up the phone I thought I wonder if I can do this. I didn't give it much thought until the day before I was supposed to go. This was not the first time, I have been asked to talk about these experiences, but somehow I knew it was time to tell the truth. The time had arrived to tell the students and my people, what it has been like for me since I left home.

Acknowledging these feelings made me feel quite nervous. What will I say? How much can I tell them? The previous times I presented, I never had the courage to talk about how homesick and lonely I was for my parents, my brothers and sisters and my friends. I was never able to tell the the audience that when I had left home I cried every day for the first three months. I decided a few years, months, days, hours, minutes, seconds ago, achieving the level of education I have, has been much, much too expensive and I really could not afford to have it pent up inside of me anymore. I had come to a realization that I needed to share these experiences. Not just share them, but I had to do it in a meaningful way so that my stories may benefit those who are now beginning their journey. If I can help in one small way to alleviate some of the pain and discomfort the students are now experiencing, then I think it's time for me to take some responsibility and begin acting like a role model I claim to be.

The night before I was scheduled to travel to Bloodvein I told my partner that I didn't want to go. He said "Remember what you always say; you say you do it for the students". I also knew if I didn't go, I would not feel very good about it. They were expecting me.

When we landed I thought about my late father; I even looked for him, because when he was alive, he would always pick me up at the airport. I knew he was there in spirit and the thought comforted me. My mother was not there, because she suffered a stroke in December, 1995 and is still in the hospital, awaiting a bed in a personal care home. My parents not being there reminded me that things have changed; I have changed.

The Aboriginal Youth Conference began with an opening prayer by one of the elders. Ten students, ranging from 10 to 16 years of age and seven adults, including my oldest sister and one of my younger sisters, were in attendance. Immediately before my session, an elder, my Uncle Antoine spoke in Saulteaux about his personal experiences; he talked about the first time the white man came to the reserve. He said, "yes, the white man brought books, but if we did not resist, we would not have a place we could call home. I did not speak English, I had to depend on other people on the reserve to help me understand what was happening. Education is important. We need to understand the ways of the white man but they need to understand ours. Keep going to school" Then he said something I will never forget...he pointed at his feet and said...DON'T JUST LOOK WHERE YOU'RE GOING; LOOK WAY AHEAD; LOOK INTO THE FUTURE.

What my uncle had to say was momentous for me. I hadn't worked for an education for the community; I'd done it for myself. I realized at that moment I was meant to be there. I, too, need to be reminded by my elders, to look beyond where I am now. His words made me understand the importance of protecting the culture. Hearing him speak in Saulteaux, I remember leaving home at fourteen for an education. I remembered the experiences that helped shape who I am today--the times at the residential school, at Kelvin High, at the University of Winnipeg, and now at the University of Manitoba.

For almost thirty years I have been engaged in study of one sort or another, "looking where I'm going" but not seeing far ahead. Listening to my uncle I found myself remembering my educational experiences--many painful. I found myself feeling a sense of responsibility to share what had happened to me--to encourage those young people as best I could to pursue an education, but also, to let them know how difficult that can sometimes be.

I had decided to bring some of the writing I had done in a course I am presently taking. I thought if I couldn't tell my stories, perhaps I would be able to read some of them. I placed my binder on the floor and I said, "These papers you see are all about what happened to me when I first left to go to school. I won't read you all of them, but let me share one or two."

I spent years trying to get into a Masters program. I have worked at the University of Winnipeg for eleven years as a Native Student Advisor. Not having a graduate degree in my position disturbed me. I felt many times that I had no credibility. I had done extremely poor in my undergraduate degree and I regretted not taking my education as seriously as I should have. I began taking courses in Native Studies at the University of Manitoba in 1986, mainly to convince myself I could do better. I had no intention of doing the Post-Baccalaureate Certificate in Education. It was not until I enrolled in education courses that I met professors who were extremely helpful and suggested I could transfer the credits I had into the P.B.C.E. program. I completed it in October 1993. In January 1994, I was finally accepted into the Masters program in Education at the University of Manitoba.

I enrolled in an Action research course taught by Judith Newman in September, 1995. First, I knew it was different from other research methods I had read about and second, it seemed to me the course was something I had been looking for--a vehicle I could use to do my thesis. When I was contemplating taking the course, I decided to go and talk to Dr. Newman about it. After she explained the course and her expectations, I seriously considered not taking the course because I could not see myself "doing research on myself", or perhaps I was afraid of what I would find out about myself, both as a person and an educator? I knew the course was going to be difficult. I did not know where it would take me, or how I was going to use it for my thesis.

One requirement of the course was a piece of reflective writing every week. Every week I would faithfully write my reflections about what I had read or what had happened at work and looked for something magical to emerge--something which might tell me why I am. I would ask Judith for direction and she would ask, " What do you think the issues are? What are the tensions?" I kept writing about my work and responding to what I was reading, keeping the real stories at arm's length. And Judith kept prodding me to look inward, to "tell stories." Finally, one day I let a story come...

I turned 14 in the summer of 1966 and just graduated from grade eight and plans had been made earlier that I would go to a residential school for my grade nine. I was part of these plans because I desperately wanted to finish high school and if I did I would be the first one from my community. Over the years, I had watched students leave on the plane and I told day I will be the one going on the plane, but I will not return until I graduate.

I remember the day I left like it was yesterday. The excitement was overwhelming and I was out to prove something to someone, but I don't think it was me. Did I think I would be better than the others who had quit and come back? Or was I serious about learning something different...something that might help me and my people? Today, in my work as an advisor and counsellor, there is not a day that goes by when a student comes in and says I am interested in going to university. I usually ask what would you like to study and the answer is always "I want to work with my people, so I want something I can use". In his article, "Redefinition of Indian Education", Hampton states "the second standard of Indian education is service. Education is to serve the people. Its purpose is not individual advancement or status" (1995, p. 21). This statement is not only recognized by most Aboriginal people who are working in the education system, but also the students I work with. We all know there is an expectation from our communities to offer and give back what we have learned. What is not always talked about is how "being educated" sometimes sets us apart from the rest of the community, not just our communities, but we are seen by the dominant culture as being different, "a success story".

In June 1971, I was finally in Grade 12, for the second time. I was in the wrong program at Churchill High School and in order for me to go to university, I needed to go back and pick up university entrance subjects. I completed these courses at Kelvin High School. I was excited, but I was also depressed. There were times I was excited about graduating, but that also meant I was going to be set apart from the other Aboriginal students, including my older brothers and sisters. Now where was I going to belong? What's so important about finishing high school anyway? Edelsky and Harman (1989) suggest that "the child or adult who has put one foot into the new exciting new world where language is power may feel a strong tug on her other foot from those left behind. Family and friends may express resentment, jealousy, abandonment, or simply, incomprehension at their loved one's movement away from them" (p. 400).

When I reflect about this time, I think about what Hampton said about education and how it is not based on "individual advancement or status", but it is to serve the people. In many ways I did neglect and deny who I was and where I came from because it was easier for me. That way I didn't have to answer questions about my family and there were times I thought admitting being "Indian" would hurt my chances to succeed. Those times were very confusing. Kohl (1994) talks about purposely not learning Yiddish and it's not until he goes to Harvard that he realizes he had made a mistake. He states "I wanted to be myself, neither minority or majority, and rejected both the pressure to assimilate and to separate. It was very hard to walk that thin line alone, yet there was no one to talk to about my desire to learn everything Harvard had to offer without giving up myself" (p. 24). I didn't give up my language, but I rejected my culture. I hated sitting in the classroom when my teachers presented anything that had to do with Aboriginal people because it was always so negative. It was as if they were talking about me. Perhaps this poem will clarify the agony and the ugly space I was in. It describes what I went through in high school.


I heard
"The Only Good Indian
Is a Dead Indian"
I never heard that on
The reserve
I was fine before I
Came to the city
What is wrong with me

I have no answer
All I know is that
I am afraid of making
A mistake
I am afraid if I succeed
It will not make any

There was a time
Laughing at myself
Came easily
Now all I feel is
I am afraid to open
My mouth
I know I am not dead
Does that mean
I am no good?

I must be no good
Because I feel ugly
I hate being Indian
Why was I born on the
Reserve anyway?

There is nothing I can do
To change that
I can't change who I am
I'm afraid I am
Not prepared to die
Just yet
So I have to try
"To be a Good Indian".

When I finished the poem, it reminded me of the times I had convinced myself I could never write a poem. Perhaps, it is not a poem that would be considered a masterpiece in an English class, but it is a poem which describes where I have been. It is a reminder; what I wanted to do and accomplish in the first place.

According to Connelly and Clandinin (1990) "The study of narrative, therefore, is the study of the ways humans experience the world. This general notion translates into the view that education is the construction and reconstruction of personal and social stories; teachers and learners are storytellers and characters in their own and other's stories" (p. 2). The very first time I stepped into a classroom, my dream was always to master the English language. Here I am in my mid-forties and I am still trying to learn the language. I can get by and I can sometimes describe how I feel with the language, but when it comes to articulating exactly how I feel, it fails me. It fails me because it is a language, which does not connect with my heart, my family, my history, my dreams, but it is a language I can manipulate when it suits me. What this means is; I give up part of what I want to say, therefore, I give up part of me. How honest can that be?

It makes me realize what I have given up to get an education. An expense, I did not visualize, nor did I imagine. Grant (1994) contends that "who we are is written on our bodies, our hearts, our souls. That is what it means to be Native in the dawn of the twentieth century" (p. 74). The place in the paper or assignment has arrived where I find myself just wanting to cry. Cry for what? Cry, because I feel sorry for myself, or cry because I have denied for so long who I am? Am I just realizing now, how I have bought into the system? A system, so foreign, but I keep trying to live it. Is this also the part I admit why I did not want to take this course? Connelly and Clandinin (1990) suggest further that "for the researcher, this is a portion of the complexity of narrative, because a life is also a matter of growth toward an imagined future and therefore, involves retelling stories and attempts to reliving stories. A person is, at once, engaged in living, telling, retelling and reliving stories (p. 4). "Action research is as much about uncovering our assumptions as it is about seeing new connections" (Newman, 1995, p. 6).

What then did I assume was going to happen if I got an education? What was I fighting for and what am I continuing to fight for? Where did I think I was going to end up? Have I done what I wanted to do? Grant (1994) states, "Memories are stories--pictures of the mind, gathered up and words put to them, making them live and breathe" (p. 109). I cannot do "research on myself", unless I am willing to tell some of my stories and hopefully, the stories I choose to tell, will help me figure out why I am the way I am and why I do the things the way I do, both personally and professionally. These stories are not just stories. As Grant suggests, they come alive and I have to relive them so that I can find meaning and admit to myself, that each story I have to tell has had some impact on how I work and how I view the world. These stories are like a mirror of my past, but they are also a reflection of the problems I thought I had dealt with and wonder why they keep reappearing?

The Indian agent (counsellor), my mother and I met two or three times before I actually left home. My mother was adamant about me going to Pine Creek Residential School. I remember very clearly the Indian agent promising my mother I would go there and I also remember the relief in my mother's eyes. It was clear to everyone where I would go to school.

I had to stay overnight in Winnipeg before I could get on the bus to Camperville. That night was very strange. I stayed at the Assiniboine Residence, where my oldest sister and brother had gone. When I arrived, a nun met me at the front door and I found out later her name was Sister Charette. I followed her down the hall, up the stairs, past the washroom and finally ending up in the dormitory. It was huge; it seemed like endless rows of beds, all painted white, made up with either pink or brown blankets at the foot of each bed. Sister said, there are not very many students here yet, so you can have this bed right by the door. I asked her if anybody else was coming and she said, no. I could feel my heart pounding. I had always shared a room with my sisters and here I was with all these empty beds. Sister Charette asked me if I remembered where the washroom was and I told her I did. At that she said, have a good sleep then. I heard her walk down the hall, down the stairs...I was completely alone; I was scared. I had never been alone before; I sat on the bed and I wondered what my sisters were doing. I wished they were here with me. I thought about my parents and all I wanted was to go home. My heart felt so heavy and I was very tired. I tossed and turned and tried to find a comfortable position, but I couldn't. The noise of the traffic was unbearable; how can anybody sleep? I continued to lay there and stared at the ceiling and all of a sudden I felt tears running down both sides of my face. I felt so lonely; a feeling I had never experienced. What have I done? Why did I want to come to school so badly? Maybe when I get to Camperville, it will be better....

When the bus arrived, the bus driver announced we were in Sandy Bay. I panicked. This is not where I'm supposed to be. All I could think of was; my mother is not going to know where I am. She is never going to find me. How come Mr. Peters lied to her? Why did Father Emile put me on the wrong bus? I had no way of calling my mother to tell her where I was. What am I going to do? There were other students with me and when we got to the Sandy Bay residential school, the two nuns who were there took us to the kitchen for something to eat. I remember sitting in the huge kitchen and there were rows and rows of tables and benches. I didn't feel like eating and it made me feel worse that the nuns didn't seem to notice they got an extra student. My mother would have noticed. I thought about the times, we went somewhere as a family. She would count all of us, sometimes two or three times, until she was satisfied she didn't forget any of us.

After we ate I remember going up to the dorm; it looked exactly the same as the one I slept in, the night before. I didn't want to be there. I just wanted to go home. I felt abandoned and I had no idea where I was. The more I thought about Mr. Peters and Father Emile, the more angry I became. There were both liars--nobody lies to my mother and I was not going to be part of it. I, too, felt cheated, lied to, and I didn't understand any of it.

The next day, more students arrived. The following days are a blur but I remember the second evening very well. There were about sixty girls in the dorm, but it was so quiet; no one was talking. We quietly put our pyjamas on, washed up and there was no noise until Sister told us to kneel down to say our prayers. Prayer at that moment didn't seem to provide any solace. All I could think of was how am I going to get out of here? I was very confused. But there was one thing I knew for sure; I was miserable and I was not going to stay here. I was going to find a way to leave. I had no idea whether that was possible, but I was going to do everything in my power to change my situation. Classes were going to start the next day and I thought, why would I start school here when I'm not going to be here for very long? I really did not know what I was going to do, but whatever it was, I would have to decide before classes start. I knew the nuns were not going to help me because when I told them I was at the wrong school the very first night, they didn't seem too concerned. I would have to do this myself. But who do I talk to? Then I REMEMBERED seeing an office when I came in, but I didn't know how to get there.

I knew the office was on the main floor. As I walked down the hallway, I felt more like the hunted, instead of the hunter. I was scared and I kept looking behind me to see if anyone was following me. The hallway seemed endless. Brave, I wasn't, but I kept walking until I finally found the principal's office. I knocked on the door; my heart was racing. I felt like running away, but where would I go? After all this, the principal is probably not even here. He has to be here. I knocked again. I noticed my arm was a bit heavier and the knock was not as loud and it lacked confidence. Oh come on, Please be there.

Finally the door opened, the priest in his full cassock, looked puzzled to see me at the door. He looked down the hall to see if anyone else was with me. His facial expression clearly indicated I was disturbing him. My brothers and sisters and I had seen enough priests to know when we bothered them and I was bothering this one. I asked him if I could talk to him and he said, "Come in, have a seat". "Father", I said, "there has been a big mistake. I was supposed to go to Camperville, not here". He said, "What is your name?" I told him and he looked at his list and he said, "No mistake has been made. You are to remain in this school and nothing can be done about it." But my mother...thinks I'm in Camperville. And Mr. Peters told her that's where I was going". He looked at me and he said, "There is nothing I can do". I continued to sit in the chair; it was a comfortable chair. I don't remember ever sitting in a leather chair before, but this was not an ordinary situation either. "Go back to the playroom and tell Sister Stephanie you will be staying". I responded by saying, "I'm not going to stay here, Father".

There was an extra chair, one of those oak chairs with no padding, in his office and I got up; picked it up and I said I am going to sit outside your office until you transfer me". "You can't sit there," he said. "Go back to the playroom". No; I'm going to sit here. I took the chair and I put it right outside his office. I sat there for a week, but it seemed like forever, I would go and eat, go to bed with the other girls, but I was not going to classes.

When I was sitting in the chair, I felt so far away from home. The long hallway; the clean floors did not do much to comfort me. My bum was getting sore, but I was not going to give up what I started. I tried putting both my hands between the chair and my bum. I leaned forward and rocked, but nothing seemed to relieve the stress or the ache. What's going to happen to me? I stared at the floor and I began to cry. No one really came to check to see what I was doing? I began to have some doubts about whether my "sit in" was going to have any effect? Tomorrow is going to be Friday, I don't want to be here for the weekend.

The next day I resumed my spot, but I was feeling quite uncomfortable and was certainly not as confident that anything was going to come out of my daring "resistance". But I can't give up. About one o'clock in the afternoon, Father Chaput came out of his office and he said "Go and get your things, you are going to Camperville this afternoon". I couldn't believe my ears. I left the chair where it was, and as I ran down the hall, I yelled back to Father, "Thank you!"

I did it! I am going to be transferred. About an hour later, I was sitting in the playroom and Sister Stephanie came in and she said "Come with me to the front, the cab is coming any minute. I picked up my suitcase and made the trek down the hallway, which had become quite familiar. We passed Father Chaput's office...the chair, my chair was not there. There was not a trace of my rebellious act. I felt kind of proud. I got in the cab and never looked back. The sun was shining; it felt good on my face. For a fourteen year old girl, I felt pretty good for what I had just done.

I was reading Kohl's article, "I Won't Learn From You" in the plane and his statement about exclusion grabbed my attention. He states, "exclusion, whether based on gender, race, class, or any other category, is a way of insulting or injuring people" (1994, p. 21). Reading and thinking with him caused me to reflect on my educational experiences. This is the reason why I was going home. I wondered how I could explain to the students about the exclusion of our history and our people in schools. I have to tell them how this affected me as a student. What stories can I share with them so that they will understand the challenges I faced while I was going through high school? Are there certain stories which would be more helpful and meaningful?

As I was asking myself these questions, it dawned on me that I had been hurt because my history, my people and I had been excluded. It was like I didn't exist at all and, in order for me to think I belonged somewhere, I had rejected my family and my "Aboriginal" identity. It was a survival technique which, in retrospect, has shaped and constructed who I have become as a person and an educator. Going home helped me admit to myself that I went through high school feeling isolated, alienated myself from my people and family, but most of all, I alienated myself from myself. Is this what Edelsky and Harman (1991) mean when they say, "for some students, then, their growth in competence as language users may bring to them and to their families a confused and confusing mix of pride, loss, and pain. this pain has at least two sources: one coming from outside the student and the other from within" (p. 400).

I was very proud of myself when I graduated from high school and all I wanted to do was go home and show my diploma to my parents. I had done what I wanted to do, but in a strange kind of way, I felt alone and estranged. It is true what Judith Newman says about "action research". It "allows us to pose some important questions, it invites us to see contradictions in our beliefs and practices, it affords insight into the large political issues and, more important, it challenges us to change" (1994, p. 13).

So what have I learned? I have learned that I have lied to myself and I have tried to ignore and block some of the experiences I have had, because I didn't want to face them. I now understand, from this inquiry, that all of these things have contributed to my own confusion of who I am. I had no idea what I was going to discover and I certainly did not know that this journey was going to be this painful.

When I counsel or advise the students I now work with, I understand their confusion, their feelings of isolation, their experiences with racism, but what I had not done is to reflect on my own experiences. I thought I had dealt with them, when in fact, I simply had placed them on the back burner, hoping they would not come back to haunt me. It is clear to me now, why I continue to feel these same tensions at work. I have not learned yet, how to cope with any kind of misunderstanding and when something confuses me, I alienate and isolate myself.

I do not remember having a "voice" in class; like Kohl I had no one to talk to. I internalized my disappointments, my pain, and I would never tell anyone about my shame. There has been two or three classes in my graduate program, including the Action Research course I am taking now, where I feel I have a voice. My thoughts wandered back to the class and I wondered what the other students think of me. I wondered whether I talked too much; something I was never concerned about in high school. It certainly was not an issue in residential school.

In my first year, I learned very quickly not to question or answer back, disobey or break the rules. When I look back on the second evening at Sandy Bay, I now understand why it was so quiet that evening: we were not allowed to talk. As Sellars, (1992) eloquently describes it, "we were more like robots than normal children--always taking orders, never involved in decision-making of any kind. We were never asked what we thought or encouraged to think for ourselves. We learned very soon after arriving at the schools that expressing ourselves, speaking our minds or questioning anything would only get us into trouble" (p. 84).

Throughout high school and university, I would occasionally think about the three years I spent in residential school and I would find myself feeling embarrassed because I had actually attended one. I felt like I had gone to a reform school. I resented having to tell any one where I had done my grade nine. The truth is the concept of residential schools intrigued me and I wanted to know the history.

When I accidentally arrived in Sandy Bay, at the age of fourteen, I was totally unaware of the purpose of residential schools. Finally in 1994, I did a research paper on RESIDENTIAL SCHOOLS: The Impact on the Aboriginal Community. According to Miller (1989), "in these new institutions, Indian children were insulated from the influences of their own people and subjected to a program designed to lead them to forget who they were and to adopt the ways and values of their teachers" (p. 112). It is clear that the purpose of the institutions was not only to educate and civilize the children, but also to convert them to Christianity.

When I decided to come to school, I thought I would go to a high school like everyone else. Remembering the time I sat in the hallway at Sandy Bay residential school, gives me the chills. I cannot believe I was not punished. If I would have known, what I learned years later, would I have actively resisted? How do I answer this question? I can only base it on what I knew then and that was, I wanted to go where my mother wanted me to go. At the time, that was the only thing that mattered to me.

Over the years, I have heard Aboriginal people refer to themselves as "products of the residential school system" and I kept telling myself that I was not. Throughout this inquiry, I have told stories about my experiences in residential school and as I was telling my stories in Bloodvein, I came to the conclusion that I am not only a product, but I have been institutionalized. I work in a system, where I am scared to say anything, and if I do, I do it to appease and I look for approval. Both are symptoms of alienation. Admitting at work helped me understand what Bissex meant when she said, "we share our meanings with each other in the hope that the meanings of one person's story will help others seek and find meanings of theirs" (p. 775). Not only is it time to tell my stories but I must be true to myself so that others may find meaning in theirs.

Bissex, Glenda. 1988. On Learning and Not Learning From Teaching. Language Arts, 65 (8): 771-775.

Connelly, Michael & Clandinin, Jean. 1990. Stories of Experience and Narrative Inquiry. Educational Researcher, June-July: 2-14.

Conroy, Frank. 1991. Think About Ways We Know and Don't. Harper's Magazine, Nov: 68-70

Grant, Beth. 1994. Writing as Witness. Women's Press; Toronto, Ontario.

Hampton, Eber. 1995. Towards a Redefinition of Indian Education In: First Nations Education in Canada: The Circle Unfolds. Edited by Marie Battiste and Jean Barman. UBC Press Vancouver, British Columbia.

Harman, Susan & Edelsky, Carol. 1989. The Risks of Whole Language Literacy: Alienation and Connection. In: Interwoven Conversations: Learning and Teaching Through Critical Reflection. (1991) by Judith Newman. Toronto: OISE Press. 392-406.

Kohl, Herbert. 1994. I Won't Learn From You. New York: The New Press.

Miller, J.R. 1989. Skyscrapers Hide the Heavens: A History of Indian-White Relations in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Newman, Judith M. 1994. Action Research: Exploring the Tensions of Teaching (Unpublished).

Newman, Judith M. 1991. Interwoven Conversations: Learning and Teaching Through Critical Reflection. Toronto: OISE Press.

Sellars, Bev. 1992. "Racism in the name of education" in Racism and Education: Different Perspectives and Experiences. Canadian Teacher's Federation: Ottawa, Ontario.

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