Canoe crafted by students for display at Alberni District Secondary School

·3 min read

Port Alberni, BC - In a growing effort to foster a stronger sense belonging, the Alberni District Secondary School (ADSS) in Port Alberni has tasked Grade 8 students with crafting a 2-D canoe for display.

Under the guidance Geena Haiyupis, ADSS Nuu-chah-nulth education worker, and Moira Barney, ADSS Nuu-chah-nulth teacher, it is being built with plywood and styled as a traditional dugout canoe.

By celebrating Nuu-chah-nulth culture through more visual representation in the school’s hallways, Haiyupis said the display aims to serve as a daily reminder for students to be “proud of who they are.”

“It fits with a lot of our planning for success for our students,” said ADSS principal, Rob Souther. “If you don’t see yourself in the place or in the world that you live in, it’s more difficult to be a part of that world. We want to embed [Nuu-chah-nulth culture] throughout our building so that there’s a sense of ownership and belonging that’s attached to it for all of our students, and specifically for our Nuu-chah-nulth students.”

Painted with an eagle, to symbolize focus and intelligence, a wolf, to embody a sense of belonging and protection, along with a thunderbird woman, who serves to protect the land and its children, the designs created by Haiyupis are intended to represent three different forms of leadership.

The idea was born last year, however COVID-19 brought it to a halt. The project was resurrected in December and students have been rotating in pairs to work on it since.

“I feel honoured to work on something like this,” said Grade 8 student, Chance Fred. “It makes me feel connected to my ancestors.”

Once the canoe is in its final stages, students will be asked for their input to create “the 10 commandments of paddling through education together,” said Haiyupis. Modeled after the Tribal Journeys’ “10 commandments of paddling together,” their words will be displayed alongside the canoe.

It is anticipated to be complete by the end of the month.

“[The students] really enjoy the hands-on [work], and the fact that they get to participate and contribute in a bona fide art instillation,” said Barney. “They have such pride in what they’re doing.”

Grade 8 student, Aidan Nelson, said that the art project has instilled him with calmness.

“I will remember [that] this canoe will be here for generations,” he said. “For other kids to come see.”

Over past couple of years, Haiyupis said that the Indigenous graduation rate at ADSS has reached “unprecedented levels.”

“At one point, we were way below the provincial average in terms of graduation rates for Indigenous students,” added Souther. “In the last two years, we’ve caught the provincial average and we’ve actually exceeded the provincial average.”

During the 2018 and 2019 school year, the five-year completion rate for Indigenous students within School District 70 was 51 per cent, compared to 82 per cent for non-Indigenous students.

While last year’s provincial numbers still aren’t available, only one Indigenous student did not graduate from ADSS, said Souther.

“This year, we’re aiming to hit [a] 100 per cent graduation rate,” said Haiyupis.

With support from two Nuu-chah-nulth education workers, the school has placed an emphasis on its Nuu-chah-nulth language program. For years, ADSS only taught language classes to Grades 8, 9 and 10. However, this year the class has been extended to Grade 11 for the first time due to growing interest.

“We can only assume that we’re retaining kids because there’s more of a sense of belonging,” said Haiyupis. “It’s something that should be celebrated.”

Melissa Renwick, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Ha-Shilth-Sa