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First Nations schools are taking students back to the land

Making drum out of moose hide can’t be done during third period between math and science.

Students at Allison M. Bernard Memorial High School on the Eskasoni reserve in northeastern Nova Scotia are taught that the first step in drum-making is to kill a moose. The animal is skinned, the hide is tanned, and the meat is cooked so nothing is wasted.

Then the drum is assembled as the final step in a multiday process that pays respect to the animal whose spirit will live on in the instrument.

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So, when an elder in the community invites students to come with him and make a drum, teachers accept that those kids will not be in class for the better part of a week. They understand that such absences are a necessary part of learning for a First Nations child.

The educators in Eskasoni, where the immersion classes are in Mi’kmaq, credit the “land-based” curriculum they introduced more than three decades ago for the fact that their schools are successful while those on many other reserves are failing.

“We’ve seen that, in the western education system, we don’t always thrive. A lot of times it has really crushed the child,” Liz Cremo, the director of education for the Eskasoni School Board, said recently at a conference on education in Gatineau, Que., that was organized by the Assembly of First Nations (AFN).

“I find,” said Ms. Cremo, “that, when we learn from the elders who, naturally, as grandparents, hold our children up and honour their spirit and respect them and love them and build those relationships, the kids thrive.”

First Nations have been saying for decades that they want control over their children’s education. They argue for the right to steep their curriculums in the values of their culture, and perhaps offer classes in their community’s native tongue. In most places, teachers try to do those things while following the same models of learning that are practised in provincially run schools.

But on Eskasoni, and on a small but growing number of other reserves, Indigenous educators are taking the children out of the classroom, immersing them in nature and their own traditions, bringing in the knowledge of elders, and instilling the pride and confidence that creates better students.

And it is paying off.

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The graduation rate in Eskasoni in 1980 was 35 per cent – similar to many First Nations today – when the Mi’kmaq started to deliver their own community-based, culturally enriched education. That has since climbed to 89 per cent, from a high school where the vast majority of staff come from the community and speak Mi’kmaq.

Kevin O’Connor said he realized 20 years ago, as a young teacher starting his career in the Yukon, that a different approach to learning was needed for many First Nations students. He and his colleagues looked at Indigenous schools around the world and decided to adopt the land-based model.

“It comes down to engagement,” said Dr. O’Connor, an associate professor of education at Mount Royal University in Calgary who was an education policy adviser for the federal department of Indigenous Affairs. “If we’re going to teach [students] about literacy, if we’re going to teach them about numeracy, if they don’t want to be there, if they don’t see the relevance, we’re not going to get anywhere.”

Taking students out into the woods with an elder and a science teacher to talk about fauna or stars for a few days puts those children into an environment where their responses are heightened and the learning resonates, said Dr. O’Connor. The important thing, he said, is that subjects are not taught in silos. Math and science and language and all are taught together as part of the outdoor experience.

Students who have gone through those types of integrated programs score significantly better, on average, on provincial tests than other students and have become more actively involved citizens of their communities as adults, said Dr. O’Connor.

“This is stuff that really resonates,” he said. “We’re just seeing massive improvements.”

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Carmen Rodriguez de France, who teaches Indigenous education at the University of Victoria, said neither the traditional western model of education nor the Indigenous land-based model should be used as a stand-alone way of learning.

All children, including those from First Nations, said Dr. Rodriguez de France, need to be prepared for participation in the Canadian economy and Canadian society.

On the other hand, she said, Indigenous people around the world have always learned by participating in their communities, watching elders, and listening to stories. Students who learn how to build a canoe and paddle it, said Dr. Rodriguez de France, are also learning math and science skills during that exercise.

“So there’s a lot of room for incorporating Indigenous ways of knowing and being into the curriculum,” she said, “and I think that schools and educations systems all across Canada are slowly catching up to what Indigenous people have always done.”

Rick Hill is the senior project co-ordinator at the Deyohahá:ge, the Indigenous Knowledge Centre at Six Nations Polytechnic on the Six Nations reserve in Southwestern Ontario. His daughter attends a Mohawk immersion school in their community that is based on the Waldorf model and emphasizes land-based learning.

There is an economic reality that First Nations children have to deal with, said Mr. Hill. But 200 years of forcing them to adapt entirely to western culture through western-style school has left them impoverished, he said.

“We remain paupers in our own land because, I believe, we are applying the wrong standard of success,” Mr. Hill said. “What it means to be a successful Indigenous person is totally different to being economically wealthy.”

First Nations children who are taught in a land-based curriculum learn to be content with what they have rather than striving for the consumer goods that are valued in western society, he said.

“Our hope it that, as these kids get older, they will appreciate the gift that nature gives to them,” said Mr. Hill. “Then you can say you are living the intent that our ancestors had for us, the intent that creation has for us.”

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