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A New Westminster Schools journey toward Reconciliation…
A New Westminster Schools journey toward Reconciliation
Canadians are just starting to come to grips with the country’s history with Aboriginal peoples — and at New Westminster Schools, the first steps of the journey are underway.
From Pow Wow dancing to salmon feasts, and from smudges to traditional rites of passage — students across the district are increasingly experiencing the living cultures of First Peoples.
They are also starting to experience Aboriginal ways of learning and knowing in all subject areas, a key component of BC’s new redesigned curriculum.
Taking the whole school on a cultural journey…
Richard McBride and F.W. Howay elementary schools each held an “Aboriginal Awareness Week’ last year that involved every student in the school joining hands in powwow dancing or taking part in school potlatches.
At Richard McBride, a dramatic artificial fire ‘burned’ in the centre of the gymnasium as students grouped in earth, air, and water clans danced and shared traditional foods together. They were guided in their celebration by Coast Salish guests who drummed and sang in their traditional Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) language.
At FW Howay, members of the Wild Moccasin Dancers led 135 students and staff assembled in the gymnasium last June in a whole-school Pow Wow dance – followed by a feast of salmon and bannock. The magnificent regalia worn by the young Pow Wow guest dancer featured 25 pounds of hand-sewn beadwork — adding to the impressive endurance in his high-energy fancy dance performance.
For students, the experiences were the culmination of a week of hands-on learning about Canada’s Aboriginal peoples.
“It was a wonderful learning experience not only for the students, but also for teachers and staff,” said FW Howay Principal Jamie Sadler. Richard McBride teacher Joanne Simpson said the weeklong experience immersed “all of our students in an authentic cultural experience led by First Nations peoples.”
Both events benefitted from the strong support of each schools’ Parent Advisory Committees – and more is planned for this year.
Smudging ceremonies: a quiet moment shared…
At Queen Elizabeth School in Queensborough, Jenny Thompson’s kindergarten students and parents voluntarily joined the district’s first-ever indoor smudging ceremony at the end of June. As the pungent smell of sage and sweet grass filled the classroom, the children were clearly filled with wonder, curiosity, and respect.
For Aboriginal Education support worker Ros Swanson, who performed the ceremony, smudging is a chance to share an Aboriginal tradition focused on healing and cleansing.
For the school district, support of smudging is one way to give students the opportunity to learn about the roles of First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples in the past, present, and future of Canada – and to create inclusive and culturally responsive schools for all students.
Innovative teaching and First Peoples Principles of Learning…
More and more, teachers are embedding culturally relevant approaches to teaching and learning in their daily classroom activities.
At Connaught Heights elementary school, a year of outdoor learning in teacher Laurie Wong’s weekly kindergarten “Forest Friday” classes included the traditional talking circle along with myths and stories. The children also learned to count from one to ten in Nuxalk, thanks to the district’s Aboriginal Education Co-ordinator Bertha Lansdowne whose family is from Bella Coola on the Central West Coast.
At the high school level, seven classes of students keen to hear and learn about an Indigenous language were introduced last year to Halq’eme’ylem through guest visitor Dr. Ethel Gardner. She played a key role in revitalizing the traditional language of her Sto:lo people of the region, and in doing so demonstrated the connection between language and worldview.
Many teachers are finding guidance for their classroom explorations in resources like the First Peoples Principles of Learning, which recognize the connections between the natural world and identity, the role of different generations in learning processes, or the significance of traditional ecological knowledge, a perspective that can help inform understanding in subject areas like the sciences.
Still others have launched action research projects with the help of innovation grants from the New Westminster school district, encouraging teams of teachers to discover new and creative ways to support student learning.
Several of the 17 grants last year supported projects inspired by Aboriginal learning principles. High school teachers M.J. Hunt, Trevor O’Rourke and Satnam Sangra launched the “Identity Project,” giving their classes the opportunity to ask “What does it mean to be Canadian?” Students explored their journey to New Westminster, and through the sharing of language, culture and personal history – as Indigenous, settlers, newcomers or visitors – they were better able to articulate their Canadian identity in relation to a blended social history.
A highlight for teachers and staff at the district’s professional development event earlier this year was nationally recognized First Nations artist Carey Newman. Newman created the monument known as the Witness Blanket, made up of 877 objects that survivors associated with their experience of residential schools in Canada. As the keynote speaker, he offered his insights to staff and teachers as the district begins to integrate Aboriginal culture and perspectives across all areas of learning in BC.
Newman said the experience of making the Witness Blanket changed him. And he hopes the spirit that lives in the objects entrusted to him by survivors for the project “will command our attention and push us all towards change.”
“A blanket in my ancestral traditions uplifts the spirit, protects the vulnerable, honors the strong. The Witness Blanket is for survivors and the children who never came home, for the displaced and for the parents afraid the truth would affect their children….It is for those in anger and in pain, for the dignity stolen. I made this blanket so I will never forget. So we will never forget.”
“We are proud of them and they should be of themselves…”
New Westminster Schools is also committed to improving school success for its more than 300 Aboriginal students. An Aboriginal Education teams helps students develop pride, confidence and self-esteem through identification with their ancestry and success in their academic learning.
The Qayqayt Honouring and Rite of Passage ceremony recognizes and honours important school transitions in the lives of Aboriginal learners and takes place annually. The ceremony marks the shift from kindergarten to grade school, from grade 8 to high school, and from high school graduation to the life a young adult. The solemn rite incorporates cedar branches, ceremonial blankets, drumming and singing to honour the students whose achievements are witnessed by families, friends, and supporters – and by teachers, school principals, the district Superintendent, and trustees.
School Board Chair Kelly Slade-Kerr explained during a public school board meeting afterward that in her experience as a witness to the ceremony, the “sense of warmth, pride and support for the achievement of each of the students in the ceremony was palpable.”
“We were proud of them and they should be proud of themselves,” she said.
The district is guided in its cultural, social and academic support of students by the Aboriginal Education Advisory Committee – which includes Qayqayt First Nation Chief Rhonda Larrabee, a devoted and passionate supporter of education in the district.
In addition, the new district role of graduation coach provides academic support for students in grades 9 to 12, part of a team of Aboriginal Education support workers, counselors and administrators working together to make sure students are charting a path to success.
It’s still shocking: Coming to grips with historical wrongs…
Bertha Lansdowne is the district’s Aboriginal Education Coordinator. She noted that “enthusiasm and interest is being generated across the district for inclusion of Aboriginal perspectives.” She notes that while teachers are often afraid of making mistakes, or of inadvertently misinterpreting cultural practices, they are encouraged to take the leap – and to keep in mind that she is ‘just an email away.”
“It’s been a good year for schools exploring ways to include Aboriginal perspectives in the classroom.”
But along with the experience of a vibrant and living culture is a growing understanding of the painful past.
Sarah Wethered spent last summer reading at least 15 first-person accounts of people who went to Canada’s Indian Residential Schools as she helped researched resources for teachers to use in their classes.
“It absolutely shocks me every time,” said the teacher librarian at New Westminster Secondary School.
Wethered introduces many of her social studies classes to books that feature the authentic voices of those whose have survived residential schools. For one of her social studies classes, she picked up the book: “I am not a number” by Kay Dupuis. And with no introduction or explanation, she read the children’s story to her grade 10 students.
“By the end, I had some of the students weeping in my class. They are just so upset – and the more they learn about residential schools, the more upset they become – and then they want to know how Canada is going to do right by First Peoples. ”
The emphasis on Aboriginal perspectives in BC’s redesigned curriculum is a response to a “call for action” from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The commission investigated the impact of the Indian Residential Schools which forcibly removed more than 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children from their families to assimilate them into the dominant culture. Children lost their language, their names, their identities, their culture, and their connections to families and communities. More than 130 schools across Canada were built starting in the 1870s. The last school closed in 1996
During this time, Canada’s public education system taught citizens that Aboriginal peoples, languages, and cultures were inferior. As the Honourable Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the commission, said, “We need to correct those perceptions.”
Orange Shirt Day marks a step in the healing process…
In confronting the historical injustices of the past, the role of the public education system is key. This week, the New Westminster Schools Board of Education declared Orange Shirt Day honoring survivors of the residential schools as an event lasting for the entire week.
“The purpose of the week isn’t just to wear an orange shirt – but to be a marker of advances of the work that Truth and Reconciliation Commission is calling for – and for our schools and community to be a welcoming and inclusive learning environment for Aboriginal learners and for all kids,” said school board vice-chair Mark Gifford.
The national movement honors the experience of survivors of Indian residential schools and their families. It was started in 2013 by Phyllis Jack Webstad, of the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation near Williams Lake B.C., in memory of her first day at residential school in 1973.
That’s the day authorities took away the new orange shirt given to her grandmother, making her feel that ‘no one cared’ and that she was ‘worth nothing.”
Lansdowne called the event “an opportunity for the school district staff and students to learn about Canada’s Residential School history and to start thinking about what reconciliation will look like – both in the classroom and in their communities.”
Learning from Authentic Voices…
A critical step in on the path to reconciliation is making sure that voices are heard.
Wethered and NWSS librarian Lorena Jones spent the summer evaluating First Nations resources for the high school’s book bins on first Nations issues, available for teachers to use across multiple subject areas.
In honour of Orange Shirt Day, Wethered and Jones will be hosting a Book Talk event on October 5, inviting teachers and their classes to discover resources supporting learning, teaching, and exploration.
The bins feature everything from graphic novels to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – although Jones notes that as teachers begin to incorporate Aboriginal perspectives throughout the curriculum, there will be a pressing need for more resources, particularly in the sciences.
For Wethered, reading is a gateway to facing Canada’s past. She grew up in Duncan in the 1980s near the largest ‘Indian reserve’ in B.C. and never learned a thing about the First Nations in her vicinity.
She said that students often have visceral reactions when they learn of the residential school experience of young Aboriginal children – including the idea that children would be punished for speaking their Indigenous languages, or have their hair cut off, or be refused access to their families is often shocking.
“Every kid can understand being homesick, or not being able to see your parents. What if you were ripped from your family and sent away and not know when you are going to see them again?” Wethered said that for 30% of her students, English is not the first language, and that they can relate to the fear of such an experience.
She also finds that in her social studies classes, the learning journey into Canada’s Residential Schools allows students to begin to grapple with social justices issues more generally.
“Students are learning compassion and empathy as they confront the experiences other peoples. And that becomes the basis for asking about social justice issues in Canada more broadly – about the Komagata Maru, the Japanese internments, the Chinese head tax, the turning away of the St. Louis,” a ship carrying Jewish refugees from World War Two who were refused entry to Canada.
Wethered’s students have also looked at official government apologies for past injustices and asked: what makes a good apology and why.
”I think students can see the first step to reconciliation is to acknowledge the past. And the apologies are the first step in learning.”
Expanding the worldview of learners…
For NWSS librarian Lorena Jones, graphic novels are a particularly engaging resource to meet the diverse learning needs of high school students. Among the media centre’s culturally relevant resources, she highlights a graphic novel that tells the story of an Aboriginal youth from a broken family who ends up in jail.
“He goes through a lot of soul searching and what he discovers is healing and resilience instead of punishment and self-loathing – the traditional Eurocentric approach to incarceration.” She said the book is based on a dissertation by a non-Aboriginal author, but uses art and image, dialogue, action and symbolism to tell the story.
“I’m looking for authentic resources that are accurate, rich, free of bias and stereotypes, and that can be read on multiple levels. This book could be read as a universal story about a man seeking to establish his identity, overcoming his challenges and surviving. From that perspective, it appeals to everyone, so it’s a point of entry into the specifics of Canadian and First Nations history.
“But it can also be read as a Canadian study of the inter-generational effects of residential schools. .And it raises ideas about the First Nations concept of rehabilitation and healing in contrast to the Eurocentric idea of punishment.”
Jones said that fundamentally, education helps expand student worldviews to an understanding of how we construct knowledge.
“That means, from a Eurocentric perspective, you would typically look at a textbook as the authority for knowledge. But among First Nations, you learn from your Elders, your community, from the land, and through listening. You learn from your local environment, rather than from ‘once upon a time’ in England.”
Jones said educators know the best way to teach is to incorporate multiple world views – and that’s a significant shift from the one worldview the school system has traditionally transmitted.
“I think every day should be Orange Shirt Day,” said Wethered. “Before we can move forward as a country, we need to acknowledge the wrongs of the past. And it’s not that hard for us as human beings to care about what happened to these children. All of us can do that.”