Ten years ago, as a vice principal at Tecumseh, I first decided to do the Indigenous acknowledgment at our school assemblies. Day 1, I called my friend, Latash, to ask two questions.
#1 – The correct pronunciation of Tsleil-Waututh, as I was fairly certain that I was butchering it badly. Growing up in Vancouver, I was unaware whose ancestral lands I was living on.
#2 – I asked how he would explain “unceded” to elementary school students. He told me it was very political and perhaps I should work on pronouncing Tsleil-Waututh first, and teaching my students that we were in fact learning on the ancestral lands of Indigenous peoples.
Today, I frequently feel a frustration with the next steps. It seems we travel the road to equity and justice at a glacial pace. Yet, elementary school children now, recite the Indigenous acknowledgement by heart. They are well aware of whose ancestral lands they are working, learning and playing on. Even the kindergarten students pronounce Tsleil-Waututh correctly. Conversations about unceded lands are readily engage in by students because they represent a significant historical reality. Most of all, there is an openness to concede that people living on these lands for thousands of years, know things. Indigenous people have lots to teach us.
Many classes participate in sharing circles, and if they are lucky it has been introduced by an Indigenous support worker who has shared the Indigenous history of the circle, the personal cultural connection to it, and perhaps Medicine Wheel teachings. My first experience with an Indigenous talking circle was in Ottawa in the 90’s. Latash had developed an Indigenous Exchange program between Indigenous youth in Coquitlam and Indigenous youth affiliated with a Neighbourhood House in Ottawa. He invited me to participate as the teacher sponsor. It was an amazing learning opportunity for me and all of the Indigenous youth involved. I encountered history and stories and perspectives that I had been oblivious to growing up in Vancouver. We solved problems encountered along the way. Participation in a talking circle – Indigenous style – was a different beast than I have experienced. It was not the performance circle I was familiar with, where you share what you know and are subsequently judged on the merits of your contribution. The focus was on actively listening to someone’s story and understanding what the speaker was striving to communicate. Respect, empathy, curiosity and the value of the speaker’s perspective were the reference points.
A right to voice an opinion is a basic tenet of democracy that was part of Indigenous cultures thousands of years ago. If we can learn and teach children to enter the talking circle with respect for all of the people in the circle and a curiosity about stories of others, we have a structure to cultivate change. Formulating questions drives the learning. The discussion of “unceded lands” is not to be avoided due to political sensitivity, but pursued because it represents the truth of someone’s story. The pitfalls of appearing “white passing” isn’t initially clear until you hear about a vital part of someone’s identity being denied. The indignation of being denied access to precious cedar baskets for sacred ceremonies isn’t palpable until you learn that they were voluntarily turned over a museum for safe keeping and then appropriated. It provides a lens to consider our history and how that meshes with our view of ourselves as Canadians with a social justice consciousness.
The frequent refrain during conversations and discussions about race, is “do the work.” We have much work to untangle truth in the history of Canada in relation to Indigenous people. Fortunately we have a recent burgeoning of fiction and non-fiction work that provide an Indigenous lens, thanks to authors such as Richard Wagamese, Wab Kinew, Bob Joseph, Jesse Thistle, Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas and Maggie DeVries. We also have the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and Freedoms, the Indigenous Charter and the Canadian Charter to steer us on the path to creating greater fairness and justice in our Canadian context. As educators, we are poised to make structural change by achieving a tipping point of caring. A caring for the people telling the story. A caring for creating equity and justice in our school community, our province, our country. A caring by our students, our staff, ourselves. The Indigenous acknowledgement in an entry point but a powerful entry point.
On that note, I would like to acknowledge that we work, learn and play of the unceded and ancestral lands of the Coast Salish People, the Musqueam, the Squamish, and the Tsleil-Waututh.
Indigenous Authors to help you “Do The Work”:
Maggie DeVries (2003, 2008). Missing Sarah
Bob Joseph (2018). 21 Things You May Not Know About The Indian Act – Helping Canadians Make Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples a Reality
Wab Kinew (2018). Go Show The World – A Celebration of Indigenous Heroes – a picturebook
(2015, 2017). The Reason You Walk
Jesse Thistle (2019). From the Ashes
Richard Wagamese (2018). Starlight
(2014). Medicine Walk
(2012). Indian Horse
Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas (2008). Flight of the Hummingbird
I grew up living, learning and playing in Vancouver, British Columbia, on the ancestral and unceded lands of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations. I saw Indigenous people but I did not hear their voices. In school we learned about a culture that was part of our past. Not our present. Definitely not our future. Yesterday on National Indigenous Peoples Day, the first day of summer on June 21, 2019, that had changed. And to quote an expert on joy, Chief Dan George, ”And my heart soars”.
In the Summer 2019 edition of the Montecristo magazine, Robert Davidson talks about when he erected a totem in Masset in 1969. It was the first one that had been raised since the 1880’s. “…it opened the door for the elders to pass the incredible knowledge that was muted…Before the totem pole was raised we had no idea of their knowledge. I had no idea that art was so important.” I think Vancouver educators are hopeful that the poles raised at the VSB this week to advance reconciliation with Indigenous people and celebrated on National Indigenous Peoples Day with 1000 plus people to bear witness to the event, will be part of many positive and productive learning conversations. I am deeply grateful that Akemi Eddy took her Grade 1 students to see the carvers in process and brought back wood shavings. Angie Goetz was able to support students in transforming the shavings into their own beautiful art. Akemi also took three of our students with Indigenous heritage down to the VSB ceremony with our ever-supportive PAC parent, Kathleen Leung- Delorme. These students were able to bear witness to the smudge at the beginning of the day in the presence of Judy Wilson-Raybould and Joyce Perrault.
I was fortunate to meet Joyce Perrault when I was the vice-principal at Norma Rose Point K-8 school in Vancouver. It was one of the many schools that she was working as an Indigenous Education Enhancement Worker. Not only was she able to establish a strong rapport with students in the relatively short weekly assignment at the school, but she was a sweet and gentle soul with a plethora of ideas to empower Indigenous students in finding their own voices, and to support non-Indigenous students in applying Indigenous teachings to explore their own pathways. The hallway displays were inspired, interactive and collaborative ventures created with the Indigenous students she was working with. She had put together a flipbook of the Medicine Wheel Teachings from her Anishinaabe/ Ojibwe heritage that she had implemented with students over the years. She was looking for a publisher. I had no doubt it would be published. She thought the publisher would use her text and drawings. I thought that the publisher would use the text and assign an artist to market it as a hardcopy version that could be used in libraries and on coffee tables, as well as a soft cover for use by individual kids.
The publisher smart enough to pick up the book was Peppermint Toast Publishing. It is a small publisher in New Westminster that publishes one book per year. They made a wise choice. Joyce Perrault’s first book, All Creation Represented: A Child’s Guide to the Medicine Wheel, was published in 2017 with Terra Mar’s amazing illustrations. The Vancouver School Board alone has purchased 250 copies. Her second publication is in process to support educators in teaching Indigenous ways of knowing through Medicine Wheel teachings.
This year, as principal of University Hill Elementary School, I did not have the number of Indigenous students, to warrant the assignment of an Indigenous Education Enhancement worker. However in Vancouver, it is mandatory for all public schools to have an Indigenous goal to support the quest to decolonize education. At University Hill Elementary, our Indigenous goal is: To increase knowledge, acceptance, empathy, awareness and appreciation of Indigenous histories, traditions, cultures and contributions among all students in an authentic way.
Our teachers took on this goal with enthusiasm. When I arrived at the school, Melody Ludski, had already taken the lead in having a spindal whorl commissioned by Musqueam carver, Richard Campbell. He came to unveil his amazing carving with his daughter shortly after the Truth and Reconciliation walk in 2017. I was talking about how impressed I had been with the fluency of the young woman speaking Musqueam on the stage at the end of the Truth and Reconciliation Walk, only to discover that she was Richard Campbell’s daughter. And she was standing in front of me. Bonus! We had amazing teaching that day and our students were able to hear the welcome in the Musqueam language from Richard’s daughter, Vanessa Campbell . Richard Campbell also shared the process of his carving, from the inspiration in the selection of wood to the finished product. He also shared that he was a survivor of the residential school system. Students, educators and parents in the audience witnessed first-hand the pain of the experience and the incredible support in the father-daughter relationship.
Many of our teachers have been engaged in personal, professional development around Indigenous teachings via VSB supported inquiry studies, school based professional development, book clubs and university coursework. Our students have been the winners. Delta authored materials published by Strong Nation Publishing have been implemented by primary teachers to teach core competencies. Ideas have been implemented from Jennifer Katz book, Ensouling Our Schools – A Universally designed framework for mental health, well-being, and reconciliation.
Staff got together to plan an outdoor learning space once the portables were removed from our site. A large circle of twelve large rocks that were big enough to seat 30 students were installed to facilitate outdoor learning. Some teachers wanted twelve rocks to teach time. Many agreed one needed to be placed to indicate true north and all of the compass directions. Some of us were excited with the possibilities for use as a talking / listening circle, as practiced in many of our classrooms, as well as integration of other Indigenous teachings. The Musqueam have gifted the VSB with the word, Nə́ caʔmat ct, which means “We Are One”, as part of our move towards reconciliation. I personally love thinking about it that way and calling it that as a way of honouring that our school is on Musqueam ancestral lands and demonstrating our openness to learning.
The intermediate curriculum benfited with the success of The Human Rights Internet Grant (www.hri.ca) for $1900.00 to implement new curriculum with Grade 4/5 students with a human rights lens on our Indigenous people. Students learned about the United Nations Declaration of Rights and Freedoms which was adopted by Canada in 1959 and the implications of these rights for our Indigenous people. It allowed us to show honour and respect by inviting Indigenous speakers to share Indigenous teachings with our students. Intermediate students had inspirational drumming and storytelling sessions with Alec Dan and teachings about indigenous plants by Martin Sparrow in the Pacific Spirit Park. This Human Rights Internet Grant also enabled UHill Elementary students to share their outdoor learning with students from Norma Rose Point during the Wild About Vancouver Celebration in April. It also allowed us to invite Indigenous speakers to share their teachings with the entire school including: Debra Sparrow to talk about the replica of one of the MOA (Museum of Anthropology) weavings by her and her sister Robyn Sparrow that we recently purchased and display in our foyer; Shyama Priya to share her Powwow dancing, including participatory opportunities for our students; Martin Sparrow doing the Indigenous Acknowledgement and sharing his teachings at the 2nd Annual University Hill Elementary Multi-cultural Fair; Martin Sparrow sharing bannock and salmon pate at our Earth Day BBQ. Joyce Perrault was also willing and able to request some of her teaching time allotment to come and share her book with our Grade 3 students and her process of writing it with our aspiring UHill Elementary authors.
Vincente Regis, a new PAC member, came forward with an idea for a school community Arts Festival at a PAC Meeting this Spring. He spoke passionately about the Arts Festivals he had implemented in Brazil as an educator. With enthusiastic support from PAC, we started meeting shortly after the PAC meeting to begin the planning for the first UHill Elementary Arts Festival. He very much wanted it to unfold before the end of the school year while momentum was high. When we decided on the date when we weren’t building the playground, and when I could access staging and tables for the event, Vincente immediately understood the significance of the Arts Festival taking place on Indigenous Peoples Day and the opportunity to honour the Indigenous voice and the contribution to Indigenous people in all aspects of the arts. He promptly began planning to incorporate an Indigenous song from Brazil with our students. I went to work to find an Indigenous artist willing and available to open with the Indigenous acknowledgement and put a spotlight on the Indigenous contribution in the arts.
The British Columbia Literacy Council of the International Literacy Association (BCLCILA) is currently going through a period of revitalization and relocation to Vancouver, British Columbia. Due to the BCLCILA / International Literacy Association membership of two UHill Elementary staff members and the support of BCLCILA, we were able to invite Joyce Perrault to not only facilitate an after-school session with educators in May, but also participate in the school community event on Indigenous Peoples Day, June 21, 2019 from 3:30 – 6:30 pm. She graciously accepted even though her morning started with her participation in the VSB ceremony to honour the raising of the 13-metre pole carved by James Harry of the Squamish Nation, and his father Xwalack-tun, a master carver with 50 years’ experience, as well as the male and female welcome poles by Musqueam carvers, William Dan and his family and his siblings Chrystal and Chris Sparrow. Big day!
Laura Tait, respected Indigenous educator, and current Assistant Superintendent at Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools (SD 68) has been cited to have said “If you want to know about Indigenous culture, make an Indigenous friend.” That has been the basis of trying to provide opportunities for developing community with our Indigenous neighbours. I have now participated with Joyce as she has engaged in learning conversations with students, educators, and parents. Her pride in her Ojibwe / Metis heritage has remained constant. Her voice has grown along with the number of people wanting to hear her story …”And my heart soars.” And more importantly, so does hers. Our path to reconciliation needs to include more of these spaces for the development of Indigenous voice and friendships.
I love the picture of this little guy on the front page of The Vancouver Sun. The sparkle in his eyes and the look on his face remind me so much of my son at that age. With life comes the opportunity for grand adventure! Joy is suppose to be part of every child’s life. I hope that all things good unfold for this little man. The title of the Vancouver Sun picture: “A New Age is At Hand”. Colonialism did not work for the Indigenous people of Canada. But there is hope and there is unprecedented optimism for the future.
A fierce pride in Canada’s accomplishments throughout its almost, 151 years of nationhood, is strong. The is a realization that north of the 49th parallel existed for thousands of years prior to confederation. The learning from the Indigenous people was invaluable. Finally it is part of the national conversation. Within the field of Education in British Columbia, there is a quest to embrace our history, even when it includes the shame of colonial structures and prejudice that allowed children to be separated from their parents and basic human rights to be ignored.
Summer solstice, the longest day of the year, was chosen to be THE day to celebrate, recognize and honour the heritage, cultures and valuable contributions by the First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples of Canada. The Northwest Territories has celebrated this day as a statutory holiday since 2001 and The Yukon followed suit in 2017. The day started with one of the teachers engaging me in a conversation of the use of “Indigenous” rather than “Aboriginal’ and the implications. I had my phone out, googling, so we could determine why Metro Vancouver Celebrations were mostly using the word “Aboriginal” and “Indigenous” was being used on the national stage. What was most respectful? How do we explain the difference? What I thought was indicative of this “new age” was that it mattered.
One of our Grade 3 teachers, Janet Logie, is a committed student of history and volunteer at the Hastings Mills Museum at the Old Mill Park by Jericho Beach. As a kid, my sister and my cousins, would regularly swing into the museum to check it out when we were at the park. It still smells the same but the context has changed. Amazingly intricate baskets and artifacts that were purchased as parts of private collections have been curated and recognized as significant parts of the history of Vancouver. Recently there was a special event to publicly thank the Indigenous First Responders during the Great Vancouver Fire of 1886 who saved many lives. Marissa Nahanee, of the Squamish Nation, performed the Paddle Song beside the replica of the historic “Tent City Hall” and volunteers served Indigenous herbal teas by Raven Hummingbird Teas in the museum. Our MP, Joyce Murray, brought formality, acknowledgment and thanks of the government. It was a great event. Our children are growing up with an appreciation of the contributions by the Indigenous community in our shared history when they go out to play.
The focus on the herbs grown and used by the Indigenous people has been a focus for Grade 2 teacher, Joan Phoenix. Our PAC (Parent Advisory Committee) supported her financially in designing and planting a butterfly garden that would attract the butterflies once the primary children had observed the life cycle indoors and freed them into their natural habitat. One of her parent volunteers, Sara Baren, teaches Urban Forestry at UBC. She enlisted the help of Emily Tu, newly accepted to do a MA in Landscape Architecture, to work on the project.
They were instrumental in helping Ms. Phoenix to plant indigenous plants that would serve this purpose. The Grade twos used books and iPads to research the traditional uses of the plants by the Musqueam and that are now widely available in grocery stores.
Our Grade 5 teacher, Melody Ludski, is currently doing her graduate work while teaching full time. She has extensive background knowledge on Indigenous ways on knowing, as well as incredible sensitivity to the protocols required because we work, learn and play on the unceded lands of the Musqueam people. To celebrate National Indigenous Day, Ms. Ludski booked accomplished Pow Wow dancer Shyama Priya, who has Cree roots on her mothers side. She was taught by Coast Salish pow wow dancer, Curtis Joe. She took the time to share the story of creating her regalia and engaged kids and teachers in dancing that reflected amazing skill and athleticism. I was fortunate to go to a few pow wows with my friend, Latash Nahanee, many years ago and join in the dancing during the grand procession. The only word for the heartbeat of the drum and the communal participation – Joy! You could see it on Shyama Priya’s face and those of the children.
The Garden Committee, headed up by Grade 1 teacher, Kate Foreman, for many years has been planning an outdoor learning space. Two portables were removed from our school site this year and the perfect opportunity presented itself. Many teachers were very inspired by the idea of a circle with twelve large rocks for seating an entire class. The size of the rocks and the placement to reflect true north, south, east and west were carefully planned and facilitated. As a history major, I loved the possibility of reflecting Indigenous Culture as an early instigator of a democratic system. Everyone has a voice in the talking circle and respect for divergent opinions is a basic tenet. The Vancouver Board of Education was gifted a Musqueam word by Shane Point: Nə́c̓aʔmat ct It means ‘we are one’. Our Nə́c̓aʔmat ct Circle will be a talking circle for problem solving, a listening circle to teach empathy, a way to incorporate medicine wheel teachings and understanding of the circle or life and the seasons and relationships with ourselves, others and Mother Earth.
The work of Laura Tait has been inspirational in helping our staff “to push the paddle deeper” in our School Growth Plan. We will be developing and progressing through our own adapted version on the rubric based on her Aboriginal Understandings Learning Progression from SD68 Aboriginal Education. I am so excited that another inspirational colleague, Joyce Perrault, will be helping us to navigate the path. With her drum and her newly published book, All Creation Represented, we will be exploring the Medicine Wheel from an Ojibwe perspective while sitting in our Nə́c̓aʔmat ct Circle. The book states that it’s a child’s guide to the Medicine Wheel but with all I’m learning, the next hardcover, coffee table edition will be marketed to adults. The book provides insight into relationships with ourselves, each other and Mother Earth. I am feeling joyful and optimistic too. We are heading out on a promising journey with optimism and joy and determination that the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples will be respected in this chapter of Canadian history.
Note: The phonetic pronunciation of nə́c̓aʔmat ct is knot-sa-mots.