Mi'kmaw cultural camp has teachers trading in books for bonfires

·3 min read
John Jerome Paul is an elder from Eskasoni, N.S., who is taking part in a Cape Breton camp for teachers known as Bringing Back the Mi'kmaw Way.  (Erin Pottie/CBC - image credit)
John Jerome Paul is an elder from Eskasoni, N.S., who is taking part in a Cape Breton camp for teachers known as Bringing Back the Mi'kmaw Way. (Erin Pottie/CBC - image credit)

School teachers and other educators are in Cape Breton, N.S., this week learning from Mi'kmaw elders and knowledge keepers.

Rather than books, they're tending to bonfire, and class concerts have been traded in for powwows with traditional dancing and drumming at the camp, known as Minua'tuek Ta'n I'tlo'ltimkip, or Bringing Back the Mi'kmaw Way.

The overnight lessons are part of a cultural camp taking place in a wooded area about 14 kilometres away from the Cabot Trail on Hunters Mountain.

Stephenie Bernard teaches science and technology at the nearby We'koqma'q Mikmaw School, which has 250 students.

Bernard will use what she learns at the camp to help shape school curriculum around the province.

"Some of the cultural teachings, they're not available in books or online, or not really valued in the mainstream," Bernard said.

"A lot of the stuff I'm learning this week is something I heard for the first time, so there's lots of things … to bring back to my students."

Erin Pottie/CBC
Erin Pottie/CBC

Bernard said that her pupils enjoy learning about their culture and taking part in outdoor field trips. Having students who are engaged helps build confidence in their abilities, she said.

"They love being outside so when you start adding outside activities, it's just the vibe increases and they enjoy that," she said.

"Just their demeanour and how their confidence level improves; it's just a better morale."

This is the first year for the cultural camp, hosted by Mi'kmaw Kina'matnewey (MK), a collective voice for Mi'kmaw education.

In the spring, MK and their partners invited educators to take part in the camp so they can better teach Indigenous students.

John Jerome Paul is an elder from Eskasoni, N.S., and an MK senior advisor. He said roughly 40 educators are taking part in the camp, and 70 per cent are Indigenous, along with several others who teach in Indigenous communities.

"What can we do to enhance the experience of our kids in the school system? And one of the unique ways is to Indigenize the academy," said Paul.

"If we can provide that in a setting, that will find greater success for that student to do well in school."

Jarrett Francis is principal at a Mi'kmaw school in Listuguj, Que., that has nearly 300 students.

Franics said was taught little about his Mi'kmaw heritage as a child growing up in the 1970s. It wasn't until he reached university in his twenties that he began exploring the history of his own people.

Erin Pottie/CBC
Erin Pottie/CBC

Francis said that many educators today find it difficult blending old with new.

"It's challenging where we're trying to figure out a way to come up with innovative and modern ways of integrating our culture and history and knowledge into today's curriculum," he said.

"We've been taught a different way of education for many, many years."

Over the next few days, Francis is looking forward to learning to explore the woods to search for medicinal plants. The more that teachers know and can share, Francis said, the more students will benefit.

"We want to be proud of being Mi'kmaw and to share that knowledge with our own and with other people as well, right? And just to show how important and grateful [we are] to be Mi'kmaw today."

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