On her first day of Grade 3, Winter Wright put on a mask — and a brave face.
She did so every day for the first month of the new school year, which the seven-year-old described as “a little scary,” until her parents decided the stress of attending class during the pandemic was too much for their daughter.
“She was very uncomfortable,” recalled her father, David Wright. “We don’t want her to be going to school worrying about breathing. We want her to be learning and clearly, the COVID stuff was more of the focus for her.”
COVID-19 was the tipping point for the family to turn to homeschooling. It was a difficult decision, Wright said, but it was made easier once they learned about a new homeschool support program for Métis families in Manitoba.
Amid the pandemic life and learning disruptions, more families than in the past have registered with the province’s homeschooling office, which has, to date, recorded 7,608 students — more than double last year’s count. Without provincial funding or education resources at their disposal, many of these rookie homeschoolers are figuring out how to turn their living rooms into classrooms on their own.
Wanting to offer guidance, the Manitoba Metis Federation has staffed its Louis Riel Institute with homeschool teachers this year to help eligible families with K-8 students draw up blueprints for the 2020-21 academic year.
The federation is investing upwards of $1 million to hire teachers, create a customized learning management system and give school supplies to students. So far, more than 150 students have been approved for the program.
“We saw a call to arms to support our community,” said homeschool teacher Scott Brownlee, who, alongside six colleagues, has been tasked with supporting entire families through one-on-one Zoom meetings and assignments posted to an online classroom.
His students range in age from six to 13 and their parents differ in what they want their children’s’ education to look like. Some are doing hands-on hunting and fishing lessons, while others are studying nature and geocaching, Brownlee said, adding he’s helping to tailor schedules and offering additional curricular resources.
The program came from a desire to protect families and provide Métis-specific education, said Sharon Parenteau, who oversees the federation’s authority responsible for Métis education.
“We have a lot of intergenerational relationships in our community — that’s a very cultural thing for the Métis. We spend time with our grannies and our aunties, and there’s households that have multi-generations,” said Parenteau, general manager of Louis Riel Institute. “If the young people are getting together, then how are we protecting the old people?”
Parenteau has asked teachers to incorporate as much Métis-specific content into their lessons as possible.
That’s the major reason Wright said he’s keen to have his daughter participate — so she can learn about her Métis identity at school, as well as during powwows and sundance ceremonies with her kookum (grandmother).
A self-declared history buff, Wright wants his eldest to learn more about Métis leaders, including Gabriel Dumont, Cuthbert Grant and Louis Riel, whom he named his son after and calls his personal hero. “I want my daughter to be connected to that… to understand what my grandma, my great-aunt had to go through... and for my daughter to realize the significance and the richness of the culture and to still be celebrating the culture, despite the adversity,” he said.
Winter also plans to write songs and learn about beading, traditional medicines and the Michif language.
Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press