Aboriginal language and culture is becoming increasingly visible across Alberta’s Northland School Division (NSD) as the authority, serving mostly First Nations and Métis students in the northern part of the province, embarks on new community partnerships and hosts more culture camps.
“There has been an interesting shift happening over the last two to three years where we are seeing an increase in Aboriginal language and culture in our learning system because that’s what we’ve been working towards,” Delores Pruden-Barrie, NSD supervisor of Aboriginal programs, told The Journal. “We have more Aboriginal resources and books on hand. We’ve gone from having one lesson plan to unit plans to whole long range plans now for more Aboriginal content.”
Including experiential, on-the-land learning through recurring events like culture camps as part of the curriculum has been a big part of that shift, Pruden-Barrie said.
“There’s Cree immersion camps in some of our schools, wilderness camps in the winter, things like that where the students learn in a community setting instead of the classroom all the time, and they learn from community leaders and elders, so the traditional language is used and becomes a part of this too,” she said. “Language enhances their sense of identity and that in turn affects how we all interact and relate to the rest of the word. It’s the most important thing.”
In late February, NSD and Kee Tas Kee Now Tribal Council (KTC), made up of First Nations from the Atikameg, Alta. area, held a winter cultural camp where over 60 students participated in traditional activities including snowshoeing, fire-making and setting fish nets.
These camps, which NSD did not provide as recently as five years ago, offer a venue for community members and elders to get involved in their children’s education as well, Pruden-Barrie noted.
“One young male student stood up during the talking circle at the end of the KTC winter camp and said he had learned so much about leadership at the camp, how to look after sled dogs, how to set snares and cultural teachings, like the woman who came and talked about how the teepee is symbolic of a mother and child in the womb. He said those are the things he needs. And this is only one student,” Pruden-Barrie said.
Additionally, NSD is engaged in community projects such as the Bigstone Cree Nation Stewardship Project and band activities in Peerless Lake.
“Components of the Bigstone project are actually being taught in the classrooms. Two students made suggestions about what direction the community should go in terms of new technology, social media, etcetera,” Pruden-Barrie said.
Supporting more of these types of activities in the curriculum has strengthened Aboriginal languages in the division’s 23 schools, Donna Barrett, NSD superintendent, added.
“Years ago, the Aboriginal languages were taught in their classes and that was it, the rest of the day would go back to normal. Now, teachers understand that language and culture have to infiltrate the whole day, that experiential learning is a priority and that it’s a part of the students.”
Division drafts action plan, begins audit
NSD set up a First Nation, Métis and Inuit (FNMI) advisory committee in December, comprised of principals and elders to provide direction in the drafting of a new action plan for increased infusion of Aboriginal content into curricula.
The action plan stems from a troubled NSD history. Former Alberta Education Minister Dave Hancock fired the entire 23-member board of trustees in 2010 due to concerns about high staff turnover and low rates of student success. An inquiry board was then appointed to make a list of 48 recommendations, many of which called for the bolstering of Aboriginal culture and language in the schools.
This action plan further tackles the top five priority recommendations identified out of the 48 by the Northland community engagement team in March 2011.
“Right now, we have the committee and we have a tentative action plan drafted,” Pruden-Barrie said. “They reviewed the plan at the last meeting and decided now is the time to do a FNMI program audit or review in all the schools so then we can keep moving this forward.”
Last Thursday, NSD sent out the review, which is in the form of a questionnaire, to principals.
“The purpose of this is just to measure what we’re doing well right now and where we need to go from here. It involves questions like what Aboriginal materials are being presently used in science, math, health, etcetera, how can we strengthen use of Aboriginal language,” Barrett explained.
Pruden-Barrie plans to start compiling results from the review by April.