Lucerne aboriginal education students on a trip to the Piikani First Nation in Alberta in September of 2011.

District Aboriginal Education program focuses on inclusive philosophy

About 10 per cent of Arrow Lakes School District students self-identify as having aboriginal background

When I sat down with Terry Taylor to talk about School District 10’s Aboriginal Enhancement Agreement (AEA), I learned that around ten per cent of the high school population self-identified as having an aboriginal background. Without a Band in the area, that number surprised me.

Taylor believes the way the school district has chosen to teach students about First Nations people and cultures has a lot to do with it.

“In the past, students were pulled out of classes to be part of an Aboriginal Education class, so they wanted to hide their ancestry,” Taylor explained. Because of that and because there is no Band in the area, the AEA board decided that the best move was to create a program that was inclusive, that would allow kids with a native background to feel proud of their heritage in their classroom.

Elder Ganishka Silverfox-Dann agreed, saying the decision to build an inclusive program was important to First Nations parents who were consulted during the designing of the program.

“We didn’t want to take kids away. It’s been done to our people for too long,” she explained.

Over the course of three years the AEA council met with different groups of people to ensure they developed a program that would meet the needs of aboriginal students identified in the district. The council decided the best way in a district like our without a resident Band and without an aboriginal language was to develop a program that was inclusive and made for all students, said Taylor.

Now, kids are feeling more acceptance in themselves and in the community and are willing to self-identify their native heritage, said Silverfox Dann.

Offering an inclusive Aboriginal Education program has meant the district has brought storytellers, craftspeople and speakers into classrooms, and it has also meant that students have gotten out on field trips too. Kids in SD 10 have travelled to Adams River to witness the yearly sockeye salmon run, and to Vallican to visit Sinixt pit houses.

“An understanding of what culture is,” said Silverfox Dann when asked what she thinks the program gives to children, “A broader look at what life’s about.”

The experience hasn’t been lost on the kids, and Taylor told the Arrow Lakes News she has seen and heard the effect the program has had on kids.

“I’ve heard kids say ‘You know, I’ve lived here my whole life and I never knew there were people here before us,’” she said.

For the kids, the program isn’t just learning that there were people living here, but also discovering the richness of Native cultures, Taylor said.

“It depends on the teacher and the classroom, their expertise, interest and passion,” she said, “but it opens doors to having an appreciation of diversity in the community.”

If the Aboriginal Education Agreement were just focusing on the past, it might be easy to dismiss it as merely idealizing the history of first nations people, but both Taylor and Silverfox Dann were clear the group is dedicated to contemporary First Nations reality. In that spirit, the school district invites contemporary artists and speakers to participate in their program.

“We are trying to mix history, and traditional storytelling and arts with the contemporary,” Taylor said. Silverfox Dann agreed that it is an ongoing and vital process.

“If you don’t share your culture, you can’t keep it,” Silverfox Dann added, “What we have to do is honour everybody’s culture.”

The benefits of the Aboriginal Education Agreement’s emphasis on inclusion has created an environment that has ensured a very high graduation rate of self-identified aboriginal students, much higher than the provincial average. Not only does it promote respect for First Nations people, it allows everyone feel proud of where they come from, and makes participants realize that we are all part of the same world, said Silverfox Dann.

That feeling of connectedness and understanding that every part is necessary doesn’t just take place in the classroom.

“The level of collaboration of different teachers in their own classes to augment Aboriginal Education is incredible,” she said, “They really support each other and want to enhance their own skills.”

The understanding and appreciation cultivated in the classroom spreads into the wider community too, said Taylor.

“Parents were amazed,” she said, when they saw what their children had created in response to learning about the Sinixt people’s history.

Both Taylor and Silverfox Dann truly believe that learning more about the area’s history makes a big difference to the way people treat each other now, and is the way to make sense of where we came from and how we can live together and respect one another.

The Aboriginal Enhancement Agreement is aiming to enhance the entire community by teaching the children how to share and respect what makes us unique and the same: human culture.