Rod Willier is hoping to make a difference in the community as Medicine Hat Catholic Board of Education’s new Indigenous support worker.
Willier brings a wealth of experience to the role, both learned and lived.
“I grew up in Northern Alberta, 80 per cent of my life was on Sucker Creek First Nation Reserve,” said Willier. “I got my diploma in social work from Medicine Hat College, graduating with presidential honours. One of my two dream jobs was working for a school division doing what I got hired for, which is a blessing.”
Married with five children, Willier’s wife was the primary reason he started getting more in touch with his heritage.
“Back up north, it was more hush-hush. They are still in that shunned stage where you don’t present yourself as Indigenous,” he said. “When I came down here, it was more open. The community is, I’d say, more proud of the Indigenous heritage and where it all comes from.”
After doing an Indigenous studies course at MHC (Anthropology 213), Willier started looking more into his heritage and taking a different view of it.
“I went to powwows growing up. I hunted and trapped, did all the other things that most kids did on the reserve, but it wasn’t until I came down here and started looking deeper into my heritage and found out lots of things that happened,” he said. “I went to a Catholic school and knew more about Japan, WWII, and American history than I did about our own.”
He jumped at the support worker job when it was offered because it correlated with what he wanted to do. Since the beginning of September, Willier has visited several schools, going into classrooms to give presentations. “For elementary kids I’m giving them a presentation on residential schools, a very brief description of what happened and keeping it age appropriate. Giving them the backstory of Orange Shirt Day and why it’s such a big thing and a bit of the history on how it started.”
Using a book called Stolen Words by Melanie Florence, he’s had lots of good feedback from the kids. One of the activities he does with the kids is having them imagine coming to school tomorrow and not being able to speak English but another language, such as Japanese, that very few people in Medicine Hat would know. The other exercise he uses is explaining to them when family members – brothers, sisters, and cousins – went to the same school, they weren’t allowed to talk with each other because it would keep their language and culture alive.
One concept difficult for the younger students to grasp is that Indigenous kids stayed at residential schools for years on end and didn’t get to come home.
“So far, I’ve had really good feedback from the teachers and kids and getting them to understand. Moving forward, going to the week of Sept. 26-30, I’ll be doing full-school presentations to the kids, which gets a little more in-depth but still keeping the same age appropriateness. Senior high kids are easier to talk to because if they think you are lying, they’ll just Google it.”
SAMANTHA JOHNSON, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Medicine Hat News