Letters to the Editor:
Learning Together the Way Forward in Sioux Lookout
As we celebrate this year’s graduates and Indigenous history month, we can all reflect upon the importance of having safe places to learn and attend school. Throughout the pandemic, and recently with the finding of the remains of the children lost at Kamloops Indian Residential School, the significance of education in the lives of both mainstream and Indigenous students has come to the surface in the most tangible of ways.
In Sioux Lookout, the Hub of the North, the Nishnawbe Gamik Friendship Centre (NGFC) supports Indigenous peoples both in town and from 32 northern communities. Friendship Centres are sites of learning — practical, cultural, spiritual. We are aware of the distinct needs of our communities and are creating solutions to address them. The majority of our work centres on housing and social services, healthcare — and schooling.
Indigenous children come from all over the surrounding area to attend school together with mainstream students. They make up about a third of the student population, but until fairly recently, there was little Indigenous content in our shared curriculum.
Over the last several years, NGFC has been working with Sioux Mountain Public School and Sacred Heart Catholic School to improve Indigenous knowledge and cultural understanding amongst the administration, faculty and students. For students, learning areas include language, outdoor activities, nutrition/food security, stories and music. This form of Indigenous educational resurgence is the mixture needed to thrive in the community today.
The music program has been a great success, complete with its own music festival. Children learn drumming, songwriting and performance, increasing healthy coping mechanisms in the form of art therapy. As well, having fun and performing together builds the bonds of friendship.
At Sioux Mountain School, Elder “Uncle Nick” Kowalow visits each week. When health restrictions allow, Uncle Nick has been taking students and staff out to the bush to provide land-based learning and teachings about respect — respect for ourselves, respect for others and respect for the land.
Elders are teachers. They pass down knowledge and experience that would otherwise be lost. This is why we need elders in schools. They are an important cultural component, and for many Indigenous kids leaving home and coming to school at a young age, they are a reassuring sign of welcome and safety.
As well, Indigenous learning organizations are a distinct and essential pillar of educating Indigenous students. They must be recognized and resourced accordingly to grow our capacity to reach our community members and enrich their engagement, success, and well-being.
Indigenous teachings in mainstream schools are not only a desire but a necessity. To maintain this success and achieve better outcomes for the entire community, we must continue to partner with the municipality, school boards and mainstream services. And to make these collaborations meaningful, Indigenous agencies must be consulted at every step to make informed decisions together.
NGFC and the Municipality of Sioux Lookout have been building a strong relationship of mutual respect and understanding, central to addressing shared concerns like education. This is part of our larger efforts in signing the Declaration of Mutual Commitment and Friendship last year, to collaborate across relevant policy and program areas. Rallying together and sharing resources, we can heal together as a community.
We commend the Municipal Truth and Reconciliation Committee for its work with Indigenous communities to find and commemorate those lost at Pelican Falls Residential School. It is challenging work, and will take time and coordinated efforts as part of ongoing reconciliation.
Working together with the school boards, we can further implement these Indigenous education programs, setting the foundation for a strong future. One where the weeds of discord have been uprooted and replaced with seeds of respect and compassion.
We share our history and we share our future. We all thrive when everyone has a safe place to learn, together.
Jennifer Thomas, Executive Director, Nishnawbe Gamik Friendship Centre