Fish camp gives francophone educators a sense of traditional teachings, and knowledge to pass on to kids

A group of educators learn to filet a fish from Irene Sangris, in Dettah, N.W.T. (Marc Winkler/CBC - image credit)
A group of educators learn to filet a fish from Irene Sangris, in Dettah, N.W.T. (Marc Winkler/CBC - image credit)

Surrounded by a group of educators, Irene Sangris demonstrated how to cut up a fish.

"Anybody know why we cut the tail off?" she asked the group.

"Respect?" someone suggested.

"Yes," Sangris replied. "If you respect something that feeds you, it will come back to you again, while you're hungry. They'll always help you."

This winter, Francophone and Dene educators have been getting together at a camp just outside Dettah, N.W.T. — about 20 minutes from Yellowknife by ice road.

Their goal is to eventually develop a guide to help French-language daycare workers better understand Dene culture, so they can pass that knowledge on to the little people in their classrooms.

The program is put on by College Nordique.

This past weekend, educators got a history lesson on Indigenous-Crown relations, colonization, and residential schools.

They also got some hands-on experience cutting up whitefish, coney and trout.

Marc Winkler/CBC
Marc Winkler/CBC

"We wanted to provide the educators with a sense of how we would teach," said Lila Fraser Erasmus, who runs Bows and Arrows consulting in Yellowknife. She taught the part of the class on Crown-Indigenous relations.

The Dene way of teaching, Fraser Erasmus said, is by modelling one skill — in this case, filleting a fish — and teaching lessons that can be used in other areas of life, like patience and respect.

Fraser Erasmus said it's important to teach others about the Dene way of life, including non-Indigenous people who are teaching children in the territory.

She said children need to to be learning about Dene peoples' worldview.

"We are an earth-based people … we are very connected to the land, to the earth, to creator, and so a lot of what we do will be based upon the teachings of Mother Earth. So how do we respect each other? How do we work together? How do we understand each other?" she said, adding Dene don't see themselves in any hierarchical or superior role to the land.

"We really need to help or to support our non-Indigenous allies to understand that."

Marc Winkler/CBC
Marc Winkler/CBC

On that front, Fraser Erasmus said it's not always easy.

"It's really difficult, and I always associate trying to teach our culture to non-Indigenous peoples, by trying to teach someone how to play baseball, without ever taking them to feel a baseball bat, a baseball or taking them to a ball diamond," she explained.

But, she said taking people out onto the land, and teaching practical lessons, like this fish camp, is a good start.

"We wanted to provide the educators with a sense of how we would teach," she said.

Fraser Erasmus said representation in the classroom is vital and something she felt was lacking when she grew up. It also serves as a reminder that Dene people have a view that differs from western views.

"If our elders could design our health, our education and our justice systems, that would look very different. These systems out here are intended to promote or to instill colonial values into everyone. So we want to be able to bring resources to the classroom," Fraser Erasmus said.

"We want to be able to have Dene books in the classroom … we have tons of stories written down. And so just being able to provide the teachers with access to those resources, and for the students to be able to look around the classroom and see even little bits of themselves, if they're Dene, that would be beautiful."

Marc Winkler/CBC
Marc Winkler/CBC

Victoire Babe Abiba moved to the N.W.T. last month from Cameroon. She now works as a caregiver at Yellowknife's French language daycare, Garderie Plein Soleil.

"I was very surprised about the story of the First Nation," she said, "because [it] resembles our story, the African story about colonization."

She said it's a similar feeling of persecution and traumatization that African people went through. Babe Abidia said she appreciates how Dene children learn about the culture and language at school rather than just at home.

"This is different with us Africans because our mother language, we speak it in the house at home with our children. But here it is different, they are learning it in school," she said. "This is very important to keep the story for the young generation."