Sessions Overview


(The following is a brief summary of how I conduct racism workshops for senior students. This information was requested by Ms. Savannah Baskin, Programs Director for the United Nations of Canada office in Ottawa with the view to future collaboration on initiatives concerning racism and human/aboriginal rights in Canada).

Hi Savannah,

Thanks for getting back to me. I will try to give you an overview of a typical session for high school students.

The first challenge and, what I find has a bearing on the success of the entire session, is to create a conducive atmosphere for communication. The physical set-up of the room is therefore important and includes placing 60 chairs in concentric semi-cirles, much like a small theater – the chairs are as close together as possible yet allowing a comfortable amount of leg and arm room. The reason for this arrangement is to ensure that all of the students are ‘with me’ during the session and not moving their chairs to the back of the room as many would like to do. This seating arrangement allows me the maximum amount of eye contact plus I don’t have to project my voice as much when the students are closer. I find that most students accept this arrangement but there are always a certain percentage (usually the more scattered males) who are determined to grab their chairs and head for the back walls of the library or class room. This is a critical stage of the session (the first five minutes) where I must establish some degree of authority with these particular students. After doing this so many times I have become adept at psychologically arm-wrestling these students into accepting the fact that this ‘is’ the way it is and that’s it. I remember my high school days and I can relate to what’s going on in there heads – some of these students simple don’t want to be there. (It never ceases to amaze me that these are oftentimes the students who benefit the most by the end of the workshop).

Continuing on with atmosphere, I try to ensure that there are the least amount of distractions during the session. I normally pre-arrange with the teacher or principal as to the need for no interruptions/comings and goings etc. Often students will bring their I-pods/headphones and sometimes food and beverages into the classroom and I have to insist that all this stuff be put aside for the duration of the workshop. I usually get some resistance to this but it quickly establishes the ground rules and facilitates a much smoother presentation. (There has been the rare occasion where one or more students are intent on disrupting the session and I arrange beforehand with the teaching staff for the students removal).

My personal set-up is quite simple – a stool, my guitar, a blackboard and an easel. The easel is used to display large maps, cross-sections of skin and other images helpful to the presentation. On occasion I will also bring in samples of my photography which never ceases to trigger a delightful exchange between myself and the students. To break the ice I normally start the session with an earthy/humorous song or some stand-up comedy and will continue to inject humor and music sporadically throughout the lesson. The blackboard is useful for drawing simple diagrams or highlighting numerical figures or statistics. (I recently purchased a digital projector and over the winter months will work on coming up with a slideshow to aid the presentation).

So, we are ready to begin.

There are so many different angles from which to start. After a short introduction and some personal history I can segue into a number of subjects which include: racism/ethnicity/science (both on a global scale or within Canada); my early battles with ADD, substance abuse, addictions, petty crime, sexual abuse and how these experiences may resonate with some students; native history and the residential schools; the Canadian Constitution and Aboriginal Rights; The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms; creativity and art; individualism and the development of artistic character. The majority of sessions focus on racism and the residential schools but often art instructors will request a session centering more on art and creativity.

One thing I try to encourage from the beginning is the involvement of the students in the session – asking questions, even the difficult ones, becoming engaged with the issues being presented, etc. The songs and humor are designed, not only to break the ice, but also to get the kids interacting with me and having the interaction carry over to the lesson. It is prearranged for the students to bring a notepad and pencil or pen to the session in order to write down particular words, phrases and their meaning, such as: homophobia, ethnocentrism, ethnicity, religio-centrism, racial stereotypes, concepts, racial slurs, etc. I find that the students have a longer retention of the meanings of the terms if they actually write out the definitions themselves.

Much of the material on racism/ethnicity is presented with the aid of a large map of the world (pre-civilization) tracing global cultures back to their early beginnings. (I will be lifting some images from National Geographic for the slideshow). This particular segment of the presentation is pretty much straight forward and is meant to explain, in scientific terms, how our multi-cultural world came about. I clarify that this is a purely scientific point of view and not meant to challenge or threaten the religious or cultural beliefs of any of the students. (This segment is laid out in the document I sent to you).

The segment on native history, aboriginal rights and the residential schools is usually an eye-opener for students (especially those who have had little exposure to native studies). Many students are amazed and even shocked by the accounts of what actually happened in the Indian Residential schools. It confounds me that some Gr. 10 and even Gr. 11 students in some Canadian school districts have never even heard of the schools or the racist attitudes and policies that created them.

Of all the subjects I present, this is probably the strongest and most passionate because of my families experiences in the schools and the persecution they endured under the Indian Act. Fortunately I only spent two and a half years in such an institution but both my grandparents endured their entire youth (age 5 to 17) at the Dunbow Residential school in High River, AB. This was from 1895 to about 1911. I was separated from my family and platooned through 17 white foster homes and institutions before I was allowed to reconnect with my family but by that time my grandfather had died and my grandmother (they were both Cree/Blackfoot/French) was so ashamed of her native ancestry that she never mentioned a single word about it. This is a difficult part of our history but the kids today have to know what happened here in Canada in order to understand how deeply rooted the damage is that exists among Aboriginal communities today.

(Note: The document I sent to you is a work in progress-it is only the first installment of a larger work which will be entitled “Trilogy”. Although I have written much on the issues of the residential schools, the Indian Act and the now-protected rights of Aboriginal Peoples under the Canadian Constitution, I will be re-writing everything and adding it to the “Trilogy” as the second part. The third installment may ruffle some feathers because it tackles the sensitive issue of gender as seen through the eyes of human biology and genetics. This final part of the “Trilogy” may have little to do with racism but much to do with discrimination and prejudice against Canada’s gay and lesbian community. It will provide a simple, scientific and down-to-earth explanation of genetics and how gender works – that the laws of nature ensure diversity in all things organic including human gender. Nature is not a black/white phenomenon – it allows for alot of gray area).

The most challenging obstacle I encounter during the sessions with Gr 10-12 is that a certain percentage of students already have their minds made up as to what Aboriginal People are all about. Someone has ‘gotten to them’ – it may be parents, relatives, peers, whoever – but racial stereotypes, ethnocentric concepts and attitudes of superiority (along with all the common racial slurs) are fairly entrenched by the time these kids reach high school. This is a problem because these are the kids who are going on to become the general population and they undoubtedly will wind up teaching their kids and probably other kids the same ideas. I have done sessions that included the children of known white supremacists and members of the Aryan Nations movement – these students are the first to voice their hatred when the subject of Aboriginal Rights, self-government or settling native land claims comes up. They are usually a small minority but they show up in just about every session – I can spot them. As soon as mention anything Aboriginal they begin to glare (it’s an actual glare) at me as if to say ‘how dare you suggest that natives be given rights and land and self-government, etc’. I hope I’m not sounding over dramatic but this is what I actually encounter at the senior level. This is the reason I have been encouraging schools to introduce a serious discussion of these issues beginning at the Gr 4 level. At least then the kids will have an even chance at making up their own minds about what’s going on in the world around them.

(Note: I will forward some letters from a group of Gr 4 – 6 students from Sparwood, BC who attended such an introductory session on racism/science – it is clear from their comments that they were able to grasp the simple science behind melanin and skin color, adaptation, and the development of unique cultural characteristics under the conditions of isolation). I don’t know if anything I say will change the minds of the senior students mentioned above but I do know that if someone had come into the schools when they were in Gr 4 and provided some clear and simple facts about human biology and how we human beings became such a variety of colors, languages, religions and cultural identities, then perhaps I wouldn’t have to arm-wrestle with them today. ‘Nough said.

(Note: The successes I have experienced over the years, in terms of ‘getting through’ to the majority of students far, far outweighs the few problems I have with aforementioned minority. I usually leave a session feeling honored and blessed that I have the opportunity to be involved with such a noble vocation).

Getting back to the general format, my sessions are a minimum of 90 minutes. If I have more time (like a second session added) I can break the students up into working groups and have each develop a Bill of Rights for their school or a Bill of Rights for Aboriginal people and have them present their working group’s results to the rest of the class. Another project is for the working groups to come up with their own solutions on how to fix the problems in Canada’s relationship with its Aboriginal People. Each working group is equipped with its own display board on which they can write out their ideas plus each group has to elect a spokesperson to represent the group. (One student can be responsible for taking notes and writing a report which can be distributed to the class at a later date). There are many issues that can be worked on in these groups, for example: what to do about racism in schools; racism in their city; racism in Canada; coming up with their own definition of racism; their own definition of a Human Right, etc, etc.

And, finally, I arrange these school tours by sending out an information package to the Aboriginal Education coordinator for each school district. British Columbia has 99 regional school districts and thus far I have presented in approximately 35 (an average of 5-6 schools per district). I also have a strong program for elementary schools which focuses more on humor, songs and an introduction to native history and the colonization of Canada. I have a fixed rate of $295 per concert/workshop and usually present two per day (one in the am and one in the pm). Tours are getting more costly, especially with the higher gas prices so I am considering raising my rates this year by $50 per session (for areas outside of BC).

I hope this is helpful to you. If you would like to see the package I have been sending out and listen to some of my self produced CDs just send me your mailing address. Thank you for your consideration.

Dennis Lakusta