A New Age of Joy & Optimism for Indigenous Peoples in Canada

I love the picture of this little guy on the front page of The Vancouver Sun.  The sparkle in his eyes and the look on his face remind me so much of my son at that age.  With life comes the opportunity for grand adventure!  Joy is suppose to be part of every child’s life.  I hope that all things good unfold for this little man.  The title of the Vancouver Sun picture: “A New Age is At Hand”.  Colonialism did not work for the Indigenous people of Canada.  But there is hope and there is unprecedented optimism for the future.

A fierce pride in Canada’s accomplishments throughout its almost, 151 years of nationhood, is strong.  The is a realization that north of the 49th parallel existed for thousands of years prior to confederation.   The learning from the Indigenous people was invaluable.  Finally it is part of the national conversation.  Within the field of Education in British Columbia, there is a quest to embrace our history, even when it includes the shame of colonial structures and prejudice that allowed children to be separated from their parents and basic human rights to be ignored.

Summer solstice,  the longest day of the year, was chosen to be THE day to celebrate, recognize and honour the heritage, cultures and valuable contributions by the First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples of Canada.  The Northwest Territories has celebrated this day as a statutory holiday since 2001 and The Yukon followed suit in 2017.  The day started with one of the teachers engaging me in a conversation of the use of “Indigenous” rather than “Aboriginal’ and the implications.  I had my phone out, googling, so we could determine why Metro Vancouver Celebrations were mostly using the word “Aboriginal” and “Indigenous” was being used on the national stage.   What was most respectful?  How do we explain the difference?  What I thought was indicative of this “new age” was  that it mattered.

One of our Grade 3 teachers, Janet Logie, is a committed student of history and volunteer at the Hastings Mills Museum at the Old Mill Park by Jericho Beach.  As a kid, my sister and my cousins, would regularly swing into the museum to check it out when we were at the park.  It still smells the same but the context has changed.  Amazingly intricate baskets and artifacts that were purchased as parts of private collections have been curated and recognized as significant parts of the history of Vancouver.  Recently there was a special event to publicly thank the Indigenous First Responders during the Great Vancouver Fire of 1886 who saved many lives.  Marissa Nahanee, of the Squamish Nation, performed the Paddle Song beside the replica of the historic “Tent City Hall” and volunteers served Indigenous herbal teas by Raven Hummingbird Teas in the museum. Our MP, Joyce Murray, brought formality, acknowledgment and thanks of the government.  It was a great event.  Our children are growing up with an appreciation of the contributions by the Indigenous community in our shared history when they go out to play.

The focus on the herbs grown and used by the Indigenous people has been a focus for Grade 2 teacher, Joan Phoenix.  Our PAC (Parent Advisory Committee) supported her financially in designing and planting a butterfly garden that would attract the butterflies once the primary children had observed the life cycle indoors and freed them into their natural habitat.  One of her parent volunteers, Sara Baren, teaches Urban Forestry at UBC.  She enlisted the help of Emily Tu, newly accepted to do a MA in Landscape Architecture, to work on the project.

They were instrumental in helping Ms. Phoenix to plant indigenous plants that would serve this purpose.  The Grade twos used books and iPads to research the traditional uses of the plants by the Musqueam and that are now widely available in grocery stores.

Our Grade 5 teacher, Melody Ludski, is currently doing her graduate work while teaching full time.  She has extensive background knowledge on Indigenous ways on knowing, as well as incredible sensitivity to the protocols required because we work, learn and play on the unceded lands of the Musqueam people.  To celebrate National Indigenous Day, Ms. Ludski booked accomplished Pow Wow dancer Shyama Priya, who has Cree roots on her mothers side.  She was taught by Coast Salish pow wow dancer, Curtis Joe.  She took the time to share the story of creating her regalia and engaged kids and teachers in dancing that reflected amazing skill and athleticism.  I was fortunate to go to a few pow wows with my friend, Latash Nahanee, many years ago and join in the dancing during the grand procession.  The only word for the heartbeat of the drum and the communal participation – Joy!  You could see it on Shyama Priya’s face and those of the children.

The Garden Committee, headed up by Grade 1 teacher, Kate Foreman, for many years has been planning an outdoor learning space.  Two portables were removed from our school site this year and the perfect opportunity presented itself.  Many teachers were very inspired by the idea of a circle with twelve large rocks for seating an entire class.  The size of the rocks and the placement to reflect true north, south, east and west were carefully planned and facilitated.  As a history major, I loved the possibility of reflecting Indigenous Culture as an early instigator of a democratic system.  Everyone has a voice in the talking circle and respect for divergent opinions is a basic tenet.   The Vancouver Board of Education was gifted a Musqueam word by Shane Point:  Nə́c̓aʔmat ct  It means ‘we are one’.  Our Nə́c̓aʔmat ct Circle will be a talking circle for problem solving, a listening circle to teach empathy, a way to incorporate medicine wheel teachings and understanding of the circle or life and the seasons and relationships with ourselves, others and Mother Earth.

The work of Laura Tait has been inspirational in helping our staff “to push the paddle deeper” in our School Growth Plan.  We will be developing and progressing through our own adapted version on the rubric based on her Aboriginal Understandings Learning Progression from SD68 Aboriginal Education.  I am so excited that another inspirational colleague, Joyce Perrault, will be helping us to navigate the path.  With her drum and her newly published book, All Creation Represented, we will be exploring the Medicine Wheel from an Ojibwe perspective  while sitting in our Nə́c̓aʔmat ct Circle.  The book states that it’s a child’s guide to the Medicine Wheel but with all I’m learning, the next hardcover, coffee table edition will be marketed to adults.  The book provides insight into relationships with ourselves, each other and Mother Earth.  I am feeling joyful and optimistic too.   We are heading out on a promising journey with optimism and joy and determination that the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples  will be respected in this chapter of Canadian history.

Note:  The phonetic pronunciation of nə́c̓aʔmat ct  is knot-sa-mots.

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Circle of Courage Reframed

Artwork by The Douglas Fir Pod (Learning Community)

Norma Rose Point School is a Kindergarten to Grade 8 School that opened 3 years ago on the original site of University Hill Secondary on the University Endowment Lands of the University of British Columbia.  The School in located on Musqueam ancestral lands and named after reknowned Musqueam Elder and educational leader, Norma “Rose” Point.  Students are organized into nine learning communities of two to five classes of students.  Students and staff are encouraged to ask questions, work collaboratively and share their learning with peers.

The articulation of the First People’s Principles by FNESC, the surrounding land, the significance of the signing of the Aboriginal Enhancement Agreement with the Vancouver School Board and the new curriculum in B.C. has opened our minds to learning about and embracing Indigenous ways of knowing.  Indigenous cultures demonstrated one of the earliest expressions of democratic structures of governance by problem solving and making decisions in circles that gave equal voice and power to all people in the group.  That is what we strive to do at Rose Point School.

Martin Brokenleg has been inspirational in Indigenous, as well as educational spheres.   His Circle of Courage  was initially framed as a model of positive youth development in the book Reclaiming Youth at Risk, co-authored by Larry Brendtro, Martin Brokenleg, and Steve Van Bockern.

As explained in the link, “The model integrates Native American philosophies of child-rearing, the heritage of early pioneers in education and youth work, and contemporary resilience research. Brokenleg et al. identify belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity as basic growth needs of all children to thrive.” (Brokenleg et al.)  It has served as the basis for framing the Code of Conduct at Norma Rose Point Elementary School.   

Students are challenged to think of their unique qualities and “voice” they bring to the group, as well as their responsibility to maintain the safety and nurturing aspect of the community.  Indigenous symbols that are meaningful in Coast Salish Culture are used to represent the big ideas presented in the Norma Rose Point (aka NRP) Circle of Courage.  Belonging is central to the definition of Community and symbolized by bear.  Kindness is used to put the focus on generousness of giving of self rather than goods and is symbolized by the whale.  Independence is symbolized by the dragonfly and represents our ability to take responsibility for our learning and actions.  The beaver represents taking responsibility for attaining goals to maintain health, curiosity and lifelong learning.

I came to Norma Rose Point as Vice Principal in January.  Of course this role includes many discussions about the whole gamut of choices made by students.  The beauty of the NRP Circle of Courage is it changes the conversation.  Students are able to reflect on who they are and the choices they are making and their commitment to the community. Discussion of restorative justice frames the process.  The goal is to help students apply the Circle of Courage to their lives in and out of school throughout their lives.

ADDENDUM NOTE:  For a powerful description of the First People’s Principles of Learning, check out Laura Tait.  Her explanantion with pictures and stories of her family is inspirational.

Challenging “Alternative Truths”

“Honesty is the best policy” is an adage that has been kicked to the curb openly of late.  The “alternative truth” is the actually emerging as “a thing”.   I was brought up with several “alternative truths,” but even as a young child I identified them as nothing more than lies.  I also knew that championing the truth was futile in some cases.  It was better not to ask questions.  However the question “why” didn’t disappear.  The people that I most trusted and respected were the people who told me the truth.

The ability of the “alternative truth” to survive, depends largely on the power of the person or institution serving it up as the truth, and how desperately they strive to sustain it.  However the quest for truth  is an long established practice.  The imagery of light is also used to explore the notion of truth, throughout many religions and social justice groups.  If something can bear scrutiny, we can hopefully re-emerge better – more just, more empathetic, more inclusive, more willing to identify similarities and more willing to value differences.

The study of history and political science in university taught me how to adopt a position, create an argument and then switch sides.  The facts and arguments you chose to expound or omit, allowed you to take both sides.  Yet, sometimes the facts were significant enough to define the truth or reality of that time in history.  There is no alternative truth.  Sometimes there are just fears and insecurities that allow people in power to manipulate with Machiavellian intent.  Our minds easily shift to south of the border, pre-World War II Germany or apartheid in South Africa.  Our minds don’t as easily shift to our reality as Canadians.  The Chinese Head Tax, the internment of the Japanese and treatment of our Indigenous people are all examples of that same Machiavellian policy that grew out of fears and insecurities.  Yet, if we never explore our history, we can never understand our current realities or a path to move forward based on understanding rather than ignorance.


I had an amazing week of professional learning this week thanks to Brad Baker and his team of inspired educators from the North Vancouver School District.  My friend, Latash (Maurice) Nahanee, was the first person to ever help me begin to understand the legacy of residential schools and other forms of institutionalized racism.  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada brought the conversation into mainstream.  People such as Martin Brokenleg, DeeDee DeRose and Don Fiddler  have done an amazing job of helping us to understand why Aboriginal Education is necessary for us to understand our own history and the importance of changing our relationship with Aboriginal families.

On Wednesday night, Brad Baker presented at a PDK dinner meeting for instructional leaders.  He explored some of the ways how we can move beyond tokenism and engage in meaningful Aboriginal education for all of our students throughout the year.  This can be a basic as including an acknowledgement that we live, work and learn on Aboriginal lands.  Yes, this does mean that we need to find out who were the Aboriginal people that first lived on the lands we now inhabit.  Although I grew up in Vancouver and studied history, I learned relatively recently that I grew up on the ancestral lands of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh.

On Friday at the Professional Learning Rep Assembly for BCPVPA (British Columbia Principal and Vice Principal’s Association), I participated in the Blanket Activity for a second time.  This activity is very powerful and includes excerpts from government documents and statements from Aboriginal people.  Participants begin standing on blankets that represent Turtle Island in Ontario.  Blankets are manipulated or removed as the story unfolds, as are the people on them.

I participated in this activity for the first time as part of district professional development.  I read passages both times, that reflected Aboriginal voice.  This made both experiences very personal.  However the first time I participated, I was removed from the group relatively early when land was encroached upon and my blanket was removed.  From outside the circle, it became more of a cerebral experience.  On Friday, I was never removed from the circle.  I watched as others were lost to disease, residential schools, placed on reserves or lost status because they left the reserve.  The experience remained very personal and the feeling of waiting for “my turn” ever present.  I can’t imagine anyone participating in this activity and not empathizing with the fate of these participants in our collective history.

Brad Baker emphasizes when he speaks that goal of Aboriginal Education is not to inspire guilt but understanding.  Laura Tait’s video about The Principles of Learning is on my repeated watch list to focus my attention on looking at the world through an Indigenous lens. The inclusion on these principles in the new BC curriculum provides a meaningful way to engage students in learning that has taken place over thousands of years.  There is no “alternative truth” to what happened in our history.  Let’s participate in Jan Hare’s MOOC at UBC – Reconciliation Through Indigenous Education , keep talking and and learning, and step away from judgments and thinking that obscure a respectful path forward.  Most of all, to quote Brad Baker – “Go Forward with Courage!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

“We are story…”

Richard Wagamese calls it. It’s up to us to create “the best story we can create while we are here”. The celebration of relationships with the earth, family, community and spirits as well as the embedding of history and survival techniques in story is what sustained our First Nations people for thousands of years pre- contact. The importance of embedding story in curriculum has been explored extensively by Kieran Egan at Simon Fraser University and has become a mainstream truth. What is new, is the rediscovery of the fact that embedding memory and history in story to make it meaningful is part of the legacy handed down to our current society by First People’s cultures. Learning about and acknowledging and integrating these foundational truths from First Peoples cultures is how we can truly reconcile our relationship with Indigenous people that has been seriously compromised in the process of colonization and the subsequent quest for economic advantage.

The First Peoples Principles of Learning were written by fnesc (First Nations Education Steering Committee) and the British Columbia Ministry of Education .  Laura Tait did an amazing talkat The Changing Results for Young Readers Conference in 2013.  It’s well worth listening to her 15 minute presentation, complete with pictures and stories from her family and Tsimshian community to bring life to the words. image

For me, the concept that bounced out was the acknowledgement of more than one way of looking at the world. Imagine the wars based on religious intolerance that could have been averted if we had been able to grasp this concept. I think of all of the time it took me to grasp the concept of “sister- cousin” from my Indo-Canadian students.  And for me it should have been easy.  I grew up with a cousin who was more like a sister and even lived in the same house for a chunk of time.  When I finally “got it”, I had to tell Babita, the student who persevered and patiently explaining the relationship of “sister-cousin”.    She had persisted with the idea despite my insistent references to the definition of the word cousin. Her eyes were filled with the delight, or was it relief, of a teacher when a student finally understands the seemingly easy concept that has eluded them.  It didn’t just take my willingness to try to understand but her patience and perseverance in hanging in there with me on the journey of discovery.  We hold on to these little successes along the way.  To end where we began, with the words of Richard Wagamese:  “We change the world one story at a time.”  Babita changed mine.

Continue reading ““We are story…””