Features & Resources

Centred in unlearning and learning: Indigenous focused Pro-D

We can not teach what we do not understand. And understanding is as much a personal commitment as it is a professional one.

That’s why a recent professional day saw teachers, CUPE staff members, administrators and district staff all fill the gym and hallways of NWSS … there to participate in the Indigenous Focussed Professional Development Day that was hosted and organized by New Westminster Schools’ Indigenous Education staff and the District leadership team.

It was a powerful day, as Indigenous leaders and community members shared their reflections, hopes, cultural teachings and some hard but important truths with all who gathered together.

To set the tone for the day, there was a welcome and some reflections by Chief Rhonda Larrabee, and drumming and prayer by elder Glen Williams.

Superintendent Karim Hachlaf took advantage of the rare gathering of so many staff to share some thoughts about work that has been done, and about the work ahead that we’ll all need to be part of as we look forward. Then he passed the stage back to the day’s MC, Connie Swan, the District Vice Principal for Indigenous Education.

Connie then introduced the first of two keynote speakers for the day: Dr. Gwen Point. Dr. Point took the time to talk about the critical need to embed Indigenous Knowledge into curriculum. She shared stories about powerful conversations and the many reasons why it was so important to share and teach Indigenous languages and practices across all cultures. She talked about her own struggles that she’d faced. And she talked about the generations of students who desperately need to see Indigenous knowledge shared and valued, now.

Despite having to deliver her speech virtually, her moving words inspired elder Glen Williams to spontaneously honour her and her work with song, in a powerful moment of appreciation before a brief break (a break inclusive of a delicious table full of fried bannock).

Then came the second key note speaker: the Honourable Stephen Point. With heart and passion he shared his lessons through story. He talked about a smart young student who was doing good work, but still failing because he couldn’t bring himself to hand in his completed assignments … struggling with his sense of self-worth and a system that didn’t seem to see or care for him. Mr. Point reflected that this young man was not alone in feeling that way. He connected to all of us in the room with laughter, while landing the solemn understanding of how vital (and how often absent) connection can feel for Indigenous students and their families.

Then Indigenous students from NWSS took over the stage. Young, powerful women, participating in a mini-fashion show to honour Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). And while the designer, Linda Kay Peters, was unable to come, her cousin stood in her place. She talked about the importance of the red dresses, the realities faced by loved ones of MMIWG, and she outlined the intricate symbolism that was pictured in the tipi dress in particular. (See more photos below.)

The afternoon was filled with individually selected workshops, with staff engaging in sessions discussing the importance of disrupting Indigenous specific racism, to sessions about everything from cedar weaving to working with Indigenous plants and medicines to make medicine pouches.

40 staff members missed all these activities, as they instead had been selected to attend a fieldtrip to Mission, to participate in a profoundly moving tour of the former St. Mary’s Residential School.

Led by Naxaxalhts’i Albert “Sonny” Jules McHalsie, the Cultural Advisor / Sxweyxwiyam (Historian) for the Stó:lō Research and Resource Management Centre, New Westminster Schools staff toured the institutional space and the grounds around it. They absorbed Sonny’s recounted tales of how his family experienced walking into those stark kindergarten “classrooms” of the residential schools … such a contrast to the warm and welcoming spaces we know now. The group of staff took in the cultural teachings he shared, sometimes seemingly frozen in space as the historical realities and their generational legacies felt just a little extra real in that space.

There were lessons and take away moments for all our staff at this Indigenous Focused Professional Development Day. Some of them were personal: stories and anecdotes that painted the divide and continued need to work towards reconciliation. Some of the learning will connect directly into classroom lessons for students across the district.

Together, as we walk into National Indigenous History Month in June (with National Indigenous Peoples Day on June 21st), we do so a little further along our journey than we were the year before. There is generational trauma and history to learn more about, and generations of healing to be part of. There is rich culture to learn more from, and lessons we need to teach more.

We do this the only way we can, together.