Mi’qmaw cultural camp indigenizes Nova Scotia’s education system

·4 min read

As Nova Scotia advances legislation recognizing Mi’qmaw as its first language, the province has committed to developing a multi-year Mi’qmaw revitalization strategy.

It comes at a critical time. Children under age four learning Mi’qmaw fell from 44% in 1999 to 20% in 2013, according to provincial statistics. Mi’qmaw Kina’matnewey (MK), a collective voice for Mi’qmaw education, is working with the province to develop language resources under this initiative.

The organization held a cultural camp for educators in the Cape Breton highlands August 2-6 called Minua’tuek Ta’n I’tlo’ltimkip, or Bringing Back the Mi’qmaw Way. About 50 people attended, said MK senior advisor John Jerome Paul.

“We’re giving teachers an opportunity to talk to knowledge holders and have them present ideas of what they’re doing and how could they use that in the classroom,” Paul told the Nation.

Partnerships with the province and several agencies helped cover the significant cost of bringing in amenities like a huge tent, wigwams, portable showers and an on-site nursing station.

“It was very rewarding hearing positive feedback from participants,” said co-organizer Miranda Bernard. “The main thing was educating the educators. They didn’t have to be First Nations. We allocated 10 seats to provincial schools so they could bring that Indigenous knowledge back into the classroom.”

Mi’qmaq First Nations in Nova Scotia gained control over their education systems in 1998, resulting in tripled graduation rates and other improved outcomes. Paul was MK’s director of program services during that transitional time, developing innovative agreements with St. Francis Xavier University to create teacher-training programs.

Recognizing a dwindling number of native-language speakers, Paul realized education self-governance was necessary for cultural and linguistic survival. He also saw Mi’qmaw teacher training as essential for students to see themselves in the curriculum. This recent camp helped Mi’qmaw teachers reconnect with their culture.

“A teacher might not have the greatest knowledge of the language so can get scared dealing with knowledge keepers who know a lot,” Paul explained. “We had to demystify working in our language. A lot of people don’t know the language very well, don’t know the customs. There’s a mystery and they don’t want to touch it.”

The camp began with an opening prayer, dancers and a smudging ceremony before sweat lodges, a talking stick workshop and a session of the traditional Mi’qmaw game Waltes. Each day began with a sunrise ceremony and ended with Elders sharing legends around a campfire.

“One of the highlights was sitting around the campfire inside one of the wigwams and listening to the storytellers,” Paul suggested. “It was powerful.”

Other workshops taught how to prepare hides and make canoes, moose calls, rattles and medicine pouches. Highlights included long medicine walks and discussions about hunting and powwow protocols.

“John planned a lot of land-based learning,” explained Bernard. “We had a moose-call competition, presentations on oysters and fish. We also had women’s sweats, I think it was the Mohawk style, and another knowledge keeper used the Lakota style sweat for the men. Traditional meals were included – eel, moose, salmon, traditional Mi’qmaw bread.”

Bernard, MK’s early education consultant, is gradually Indigenizing their school system’s curriculum, which started by creating 200 lesson plans for kindergarten. Last year, similar resources were developed for primary and Grade 1 and this year she has plans to proceed with Grades 2 and 3.

“With kindergarten, we got rid of all the desks and brought in play-based learning, which is a developmentally appropriate learning model,” said Paul. “Play-based learning is working with the interests of the individual. You incorporate Indigenous knowledge into every class, not just that one class of Cree a week.”

With the lesson plans available in its online student information system, teachers have a blueprint for integrating traditional knowledge into each day’s activities. MK also uses a specialized Facebook page for teachers to share best practices and network with each other.

Now retired, Paul was the first from his community with a university degree and soon after had dozens of projects on the go at his training education centre. Reflecting on his lengthy career as a Mi’qmaw education advocate, he recalled various programs that created second chances for students who fell through the system’s cracks.

“One of my favourite projects was we had a bunch of unwed mothers who had quit school in Grade 10, one of them was my daughter,” Paul recalled. “We set up a program and graduated most of those 15 girls. From that group, my daughter became a registered nurse and two of them are now principals. Creating strengths within individuals and working with their strengths.”

Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Nation