Educators embracing change

An increasing number of education leaders in Manitoba are inviting elders and traditional knowledge keepers into K-12 buildings in small acts of reconciliation playing out across the public school system in the annual lead-up to Sept. 30 and throughout the year.

More than 13 years ago, Seven Oaks School Division asked Anishinaabe elder Mary Courchene if she would accept the formal title of elder-in-residence to recognize her contributions. The career teacher, who grew up on Sagkeeng First Nation, did not have to think twice.

“I owed this to my children, for the love of my children and all the young brown faces I used to see in the classroom — they were my colour of brown,” Courchene said, of what motivated her to enter the field of education in the 1970s.

Courchene said teaching others about Indigenous ways of knowing, being and overall history, is her calling. The great-grandmother, now in her 80s, still runs frequent professional development sessions, visits classrooms of all levels, and repeatedly shares her story about being forced to attend Fort Alexander Indian Residential School as a child.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada called for the introduction of age-appropriate curriculum on residential schools, treaties and Indigenous peoples’ historical and contemporary contributions. In Winnipeg, public school educators have answered that request by inviting survivors and knowledge keepers into their facilities.

Demand for the teachings of First Nations, Métis and Inuit elders has skyrocketed. An overwhelming number of requests prompted Seven Oaks and the Manitoba Teachers’ Society to partner and publish a lesson plan featuring recorded videos of Courchene.

In 2015, the Winnipeg School Division appointed Myra Laramee, a member of Fisher River Cree Nation who has worked in city schools for nearly 50 years, as the elder-in-residence in Manitoba’s most populated district.

The late Métis elder Jules Lavallee began a similar role in the Louis Riel School Division the following year. Members of LRSD’s Indigenous Council of Grandmothers and Grandfathers, created in 2019, now act as elders-in-residence.

St. James-Assiniboia recently considered creating a residency, but leaders decided to focus on building relationships with numerous elders to access a diverse range of knowledge. Pembina Trails and River East Transcona divisions also draw on respective pools of knowledge keepers.

April Waters, who oversees Indigenous academic and community support in SJASD, touted the province’s initiative to bring elders and knowledge keepers into schools. A 2021-22 pilot, involving 33 buildings across 11 divisions, is being expanded so all divisions receive some provincial funding to support visits this year.

Waters said both the TRC and widespread coverage about unmarked graves on the grounds of former residential schools have made teachers recognize Indigenous education is part of their professional responsibility.

“For a long time, (my job involved) a lot of kicking-in doors — for lack of a nicer way of putting it, and trying to convince teachers that this is important,” Waters said. “Over the last 10 years, that conversation has really shifted in schools.”

The Métis educator said teachers, the overwhelming majority of which are non-Indigenous, are now asking themselves how-to authentically Indigenize their classrooms. During job interviews, teacher candidates are asked about how they approach Indigenous education, she said.

Inviting elders to have discussions is one way to do just that, Waters said, noting elder Wilfred Buck shared his knowledge of astronomy with students studying science at Bruce Middle School when she was vice-principal last year.

It is one thing to pull out a dusty copy of Treaty 1 to discuss colonization, but hosting an elder who has received treaty annuity payments brings treaty education to another level, said Frank Deer, associate dean of Indigenous education at the University of Manitoba.

“Without that voice, without that representation and perhaps, without that symbolism, you might be missing something important,” the professor said, adding he is aware of growing opposition to the presence of Indigenous knowledge in public schools.

Deer said a meaningful commitment to authentic lessons requires investment, including fair compensation for knowledge keepers. There has been confusion about how elders should be regarded, in a human resources sense, he added.

Seven Oaks superintendent Brian O’Leary said Courchene and Dan Thomas, who was hired as a second elder-in-residence to be a male role model and run land-based programming, are on “partial-teaching contracts.”

The original aim of a divisional elder-in-residence, a model Seven Oaks adopted from post-secondary leaders, was to embrace Indigenous cultural traditions, improve education on residential schools, and ensure young Indigenous teachers had “a mentor and guidepost,” O’Leary said.

Courchene said her biggest regret is not promoting her peoples’ language and Indigeneity — owing to the shame she was taught to feel at residential school and the racism she experienced throughout her early life — to her seven children when they were young.

The elder now spends “as much time as possible” at Riverbend Community School, where one of her great-grandchildren is studying in the Ojibwa bilingual program. While mobility challenges have forced her to slow down, Courchene said she plans to educate others indefinitely.

“My job as an elder is to share my experiences so people will know the truth, not only the truth but the fact that we are many nations on this beautiful planet in our territory, which is Turtle Island and that we’ve known as Canada.”

Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press