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Exploring conceptions of disability held by Anishinaabe secondary school students

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Christensen , Carly Beth 


After a century of using schooling to denigrate Indigenous populations, Canada’s Indigenous communities were granted self-governance over schooling in 1982. In the wake of self-governance, special education remains largely unreformed, caused in part by assumed universality. This research therefore explores the conceptions of disability held by Anishinaabe youth within their communities, and school. Under Canada’s dual system of schooling, the federal government oversees Indigenous self-governing schools and allocates funding, while provincial governments control settler schooling. The federal system remains largely invisible because of a lack of policies, and exclusion from regional, national, and international assessments. This research occurred in a recently established, Anishinaabe self-governing secondary school that services six Anishinaabe communities. Uniquely positioned to examine disability, the students attending this school had all previously accessed special education provisions in their former provincial schools.

This topic was examined during a 10-month multisite case study in Canada’s Sub-Arctic region. As a disabled, white, former teacher, and female researcher, I attempt to become an Anishinaabe-ally, by employing Indigenist methodologies. Centring the voices of the participants was demonstrated by using photovoice projects, Anishinaabe talking circles, and walking interviews. Maintaining three types of research journals, and ensuring participatory collaboration, led to the emergence of walking interviews as a data collection tool. The students expanded the research to include a student-led community powwow, which became a fascinating opportunity for data collection and community involvement. In seeking to contextualise the participants, data collection also includes recorded, semi-structured interviews, and casual conversations with students, teachers, elders, chiefs and family members, are recounted in my research journals.

The role of schooling in Canada’s genocide, seems to cause the Anishinaabe self-governing school to be framed by the students, their family members, and elders, as a critical space for healing. In an apartheid-like state that segregates and isolates reserves, my findings highlight the significance of the school as a location for racial interaction in Canada. The school involved in this research became the central location for contact between settlers and Anishinaabe people. Thus, Indigenous self-governing schools seem to be a crucial space for convergence between settler and Indigenous worldviews. For instance, notions of disability enacted in the school’s programming attempted to align with Anishinaabe conceptions. Within my findings, conceptions of disability were intertwined with Anishinaabe spiritual beliefs, most significantly, interrelatedness. This belief caused Anishinaabe participants to conceptualise disability as an imbalance in the “medicine wheel”, which frames humans as seeking a balance in mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual aspects of themselves. The students engaged in myriad individual and community spiritual practices, for the purpose of seeking balance at home and at school. Repeatedly, the Anishinaabe participants considered their imbalances to be rooted in settler colonialism. As such, culturally-appropriate school programming for Anishinaabe students, seems to necessitate facilitating Anishinaabe spiritual practices related to healing, and addressing disparities stemming from settler colonialism.





Singal , Nidhi


settler colonialism, disability, special education, First Nations, Indigenous, Anishinaabe, southern disability theories, secondary school


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Cambridge Trust scholarship British Association of International and Comparative Education fieldwork scholarship