I grew up living, learning and playing in Vancouver, British Columbia, on the ancestral and unceded lands of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations. I saw Indigenous people but I did not hear their voices. In school we learned about a culture that was part of our past. Not our present. Definitely not our future. Yesterday on National Indigenous Peoples Day, the first day of summer on June 21, 2019, that had changed. And to quote an expert on joy, Chief Dan George, ”And my heart soars”.
In the Summer 2019 edition of the Montecristo magazine, Robert Davidson talks about when he erected a totem in Masset in 1969. It was the first one that had been raised since the 1880’s. “…it opened the door for the elders to pass the incredible knowledge that was muted…Before the totem pole was raised we had no idea of their knowledge. I had no idea that art was so important.” I think Vancouver educators are hopeful that the poles raised at the VSB this week to advance reconciliation with Indigenous people and celebrated on National Indigenous Peoples Day with 1000 plus people to bear witness to the event, will be part of many positive and productive learning conversations. I am deeply grateful that Akemi Eddy took her Grade 1 students to see the carvers in process and brought back wood shavings. Angie Goetz was able to support students in transforming the shavings into their own beautiful art. Akemi also took three of our students with Indigenous heritage down to the VSB ceremony with our ever-supportive PAC parent, Kathleen Leung- Delorme. These students were able to bear witness to the smudge at the beginning of the day in the presence of Judy Wilson-Raybould and Joyce Perrault.
I was fortunate to meet Joyce Perrault when I was the vice-principal at Norma Rose Point K-8 school in Vancouver. It was one of the many schools that she was working as an Indigenous Education Enhancement Worker. Not only was she able to establish a strong rapport with students in the relatively short weekly assignment at the school, but she was a sweet and gentle soul with a plethora of ideas to empower Indigenous students in finding their own voices, and to support non-Indigenous students in applying Indigenous teachings to explore their own pathways. The hallway displays were inspired, interactive and collaborative ventures created with the Indigenous students she was working with. She had put together a flipbook of the Medicine Wheel Teachings from her Anishinaabe/ Ojibwe heritage that she had implemented with students over the years. She was looking for a publisher. I had no doubt it would be published. She thought the publisher would use her text and drawings. I thought that the publisher would use the text and assign an artist to market it as a hardcopy version that could be used in libraries and on coffee tables, as well as a soft cover for use by individual kids.
The publisher smart enough to pick up the book was Peppermint Toast Publishing. It is a small publisher in New Westminster that publishes one book per year. They made a wise choice. Joyce Perrault’s first book, All Creation Represented: A Child’s Guide to the Medicine Wheel, was published in 2017 with Terra Mar’s amazing illustrations. The Vancouver School Board alone has purchased 250 copies. Her second publication is in process to support educators in teaching Indigenous ways of knowing through Medicine Wheel teachings.
This year, as principal of University Hill Elementary School, I did not have the number of Indigenous students, to warrant the assignment of an Indigenous Education Enhancement worker. However in Vancouver, it is mandatory for all public schools to have an Indigenous goal to support the quest to decolonize education. At University Hill Elementary, our Indigenous goal is: To increase knowledge, acceptance, empathy, awareness and appreciation of Indigenous histories, traditions, cultures and contributions among all students in an authentic way.
Our teachers took on this goal with enthusiasm. When I arrived at the school, Melody Ludski, had already taken the lead in having a spindal whorl commissioned by Musqueam carver, Richard Campbell. He came to unveil his amazing carving with his daughter shortly after the Truth and Reconciliation walk in 2017. I was talking about how impressed I had been with the fluency of the young woman speaking Musqueam on the stage at the end of the Truth and Reconciliation Walk, only to discover that she was Richard Campbell’s daughter. And she was standing in front of me. Bonus! We had amazing teaching that day and our students were able to hear the welcome in the Musqueam language from Richard’s daughter, Vanessa Campbell . Richard Campbell also shared the process of his carving, from the inspiration in the selection of wood to the finished product. He also shared that he was a survivor of the residential school system. Students, educators and parents in the audience witnessed first-hand the pain of the experience and the incredible support in the father-daughter relationship.
Many of our teachers have been engaged in personal, professional development around Indigenous teachings via VSB supported inquiry studies, school based professional development, book clubs and university coursework. Our students have been the winners. Delta authored materials published by Strong Nation Publishing have been implemented by primary teachers to teach core competencies. Ideas have been implemented from Jennifer Katz book, Ensouling Our Schools – A Universally designed framework for mental health, well-being, and reconciliation.
Staff got together to plan an outdoor learning space once the portables were removed from our site. A large circle of twelve large rocks that were big enough to seat 30 students were installed to facilitate outdoor learning. Some teachers wanted twelve rocks to teach time. Many agreed one needed to be placed to indicate true north and all of the compass directions. Some of us were excited with the possibilities for use as a talking / listening circle, as practiced in many of our classrooms, as well as integration of other Indigenous teachings. The Musqueam have gifted the VSB with the word, Nə́ caʔmat ct, which means “We Are One”, as part of our move towards reconciliation. I personally love thinking about it that way and calling it that as a way of honouring that our school is on Musqueam ancestral lands and demonstrating our openness to learning.
The intermediate curriculum benfited with the success of The Human Rights Internet Grant (www.hri.ca) for $1900.00 to implement new curriculum with Grade 4/5 students with a human rights lens on our Indigenous people. Students learned about the United Nations Declaration of Rights and Freedoms which was adopted by Canada in 1959 and the implications of these rights for our Indigenous people. It allowed us to show honour and respect by inviting Indigenous speakers to share Indigenous teachings with our students. Intermediate students had inspirational drumming and storytelling sessions with Alec Dan and teachings about indigenous plants by Martin Sparrow in the Pacific Spirit Park. This Human Rights Internet Grant also enabled UHill Elementary students to share their outdoor learning with students from Norma Rose Point during the Wild About Vancouver Celebration in April. It also allowed us to invite Indigenous speakers to share their teachings with the entire school including: Debra Sparrow to talk about the replica of one of the MOA (Museum of Anthropology) weavings by her and her sister Robyn Sparrow that we recently purchased and display in our foyer; Shyama Priya to share her Powwow dancing, including participatory opportunities for our students; Martin Sparrow doing the Indigenous Acknowledgement and sharing his teachings at the 2nd Annual University Hill Elementary Multi-cultural Fair; Martin Sparrow sharing bannock and salmon pate at our Earth Day BBQ. Joyce Perrault was also willing and able to request some of her teaching time allotment to come and share her book with our Grade 3 students and her process of writing it with our aspiring UHill Elementary authors.
Vincente Regis, a new PAC member, came forward with an idea for a school community Arts Festival at a PAC Meeting this Spring. He spoke passionately about the Arts Festivals he had implemented in Brazil as an educator. With enthusiastic support from PAC, we started meeting shortly after the PAC meeting to begin the planning for the first UHill Elementary Arts Festival. He very much wanted it to unfold before the end of the school year while momentum was high. When we decided on the date when we weren’t building the playground, and when I could access staging and tables for the event, Vincente immediately understood the significance of the Arts Festival taking place on Indigenous Peoples Day and the opportunity to honour the Indigenous voice and the contribution to Indigenous people in all aspects of the arts. He promptly began planning to incorporate an Indigenous song from Brazil with our students. I went to work to find an Indigenous artist willing and available to open with the Indigenous acknowledgement and put a spotlight on the Indigenous contribution in the arts.
The British Columbia Literacy Council of the International Literacy Association (BCLCILA) is currently going through a period of revitalization and relocation to Vancouver, British Columbia. Due to the BCLCILA / International Literacy Association membership of two UHill Elementary staff members and the support of BCLCILA, we were able to invite Joyce Perrault to not only facilitate an after-school session with educators in May, but also participate in the school community event on Indigenous Peoples Day, June 21, 2019 from 3:30 – 6:30 pm. She graciously accepted even though her morning started with her participation in the VSB ceremony to honour the raising of the 13-metre pole carved by James Harry of the Squamish Nation, and his father Xwalack-tun, a master carver with 50 years’ experience, as well as the male and female welcome poles by Musqueam carvers, William Dan and his family and his siblings Chrystal and Chris Sparrow. Big day!
Laura Tait, respected Indigenous educator, and current Assistant Superintendent at Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools (SD 68) has been cited to have said “If you want to know about Indigenous culture, make an Indigenous friend.” That has been the basis of trying to provide opportunities for developing community with our Indigenous neighbours. I have now participated with Joyce as she has engaged in learning conversations with students, educators, and parents. Her pride in her Ojibwe / Metis heritage has remained constant. Her voice has grown along with the number of people wanting to hear her story …”And my heart soars.” And more importantly, so does hers. Our path to reconciliation needs to include more of these spaces for the development of Indigenous voice and friendships.