Six questions with Jeff Horvath (2012)
Principal, Tsuut’ina High School
What is your current role as an educator?
I am the principal of Tsuut’ina High School on the Tsuu’tina First Nation, neighbouring Calgary, Alberta.
Why did you decide on a career in education?
When I was younger, I remember wanting to enter a field that helps people. In particular, Indigenous people. I realized that I was good with developing relationships. Education emerged as a field that I could pursue that met my passion and my strengths. Also, my mother was a teacher. She attended St. Mary’s Residential School in Kenora, Ontario. She left with a grade 3 education after years of abuse and neglect. For my childhood, my Mom cleaned houses. This was one of the skills she developed at her school. When I was in grade 7, she went back to school to upgrade. She finished her high school in 4 semesters and went on to the University of Calgary where she completed a degree in English Literature and then an Education degree.
She was my inspiration because I believe that for First Nations people to heal, education is the key. Education is the way for our people to achieve a ‘good life’. This ‘good life’ means different things to different people, but overall we want healthy people and healthy families in our communities. It is an exciting time in Indigenous education and could be very well be one of the most important issues in our country. All Canadians must learn about the treaties as well as the legacy of residential schools. Understanding that we are all treaty people and the true history of our nation is the only way true reconciliation can occur.
What kind of leadership skills are required leading a school that focuses on First Nations children?
The greatest leadership skill I need is the ability to build healthy, trusting relationships with students and families. Given the history of residential schools, many families have a strong distrust of educational institutions. Our schools today have come a long way from residential schools (most at least) but there is that lingering bad feeling. The Residential School experience was intended “to kill the Indian in the child” but what it really did was “kill the child in the Indian” and we’ve been dealing with the fall-out of this dark chapter ever since. I see the legacy everyday as our children get off the bus. However, despite the headlines we have to remember that we are in a renaissance for Indigenous people. There are so many of us who have healed or never experienced trauma (though I have not met too many who have not) that are leading and enjoying “a good life”. If we have families, the hope that the vicious cycle ends with our children and their futures as the country gains a better understanding of why the things are the way they are. Everyone has a role in reconciliation.
Do you think the children at your school believe they have the same opportunities to fulfill their dreams as other kids in Canada?
That’s a challenging question because as an educator I want them to believe that yes, they have the same opportunities. But if you look at the history, the statistics, the chronic under funding and the social conditions that many of our young people face, I have a hard time believing this. We know many of our young live in poverty which is harmful enough, but combined with institutionalized racism on many fronts, the future is full of challenge. It’s difficult for our young people to have hope when we live in a society where we are too often judged by our race as well as the incorrect assumptions mainstream Canadians have about Indigenous rights, history and experience. We are not there yet. Many of us are, but not the amount that should be there.
Did your experience with the Leadership Conference provide you with any particular skills or insights that have helped you advance your career?
The conference inspired me to take on this challenge. To lead an Indigenous school as an Indigenous leader is an important role at this point in our history. I am honoured that the community has entrusted me to take care of their young people’s education. We know that their education is a critical component of the foundation of their lives and their journey. It is important work. The conference exposed me to leaders that are in exciting times in their careers. I gained much insight by the conversations and experiences we shared. The people we met on our tour shared their wisdom and life lessons that I use to this day. It was a powerful experience that will help me on my career path for the rest of my life.
How can the conference and its alumni help advance the process of reconciliation between First Peoples and the majority culture?
Building knowledge and some common ground will help with reconciliation. To understand the complexities of our nation’s history between indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians is important for us to move forward. The conference gives leaders, often in key decision making roles in their organizations, some insight into this topic. Ensuring more Indigenous leaders attend the conference – up to 50 in 2017 – also is a major step forward. Building dialogue and shared understanding is critical in reconciliation and the GGCLC provides an important venue for this learning and this experience.