When Annette McKay first began her Bachelor of Education in her northern Ontario town of Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation, she knew almost nothing of drumming, sweat lodges, smudging ceremonies, talking circles and other aspects of aboriginal cultures.
Because of the many devastations wrought by residential schools, she had never been exposed to these activities.
At the start of the program, McKay and her colleagues began to learn about talking circles, in which participants sit in a circle and speak one-by-one, holding a feather or other implement.
“(Program co-ordinator) Marg (Raynor) had us do these circles and she’d have people come in and talk to us about that,” said McKay, who is now vice-principal at Aglace Chapman Education Centre in Big Trout Lake, Ont.
“Over the years, it just opened my eyes to hear those people come in and explain the culture,” she said. “I wasn’t the only one like that. There were a whole bunch of us who grew up thinking that that wasn’t a part of our culture.”
McKay is among the first five graduates of the Bachelor of Education primary/junior (aboriginal) program, which Brock University’s Faculty of Education and the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council launched in 2007 in northern Ontario’s Sioux Lookout.
The program creates what has been coined a “two worlds” learning model in which the culture and language of the Anishnawbek First Nations people is interwoven with mainstream Canadian approaches to education.
“The program aims to revitalize aboriginal languages, cultures, traditions, values and beliefs in a contemporary educational setting in an attempt to encourage aboriginal children to complete their education,” a statement said at the time of the program’s launch.
Julian Kitchen, acting director of Brock University’s Tecumseh Centre for Aboriginal Research and Education, explains that the university courses and content are “culturally responsive” to aboriginal communities in a number of ways.
For example, at one classroom site in Sioux Lookout is a teepee that houses talking circles and is considered a safe place for students and instructors to share with one another.
During the indigenous creative arts course, students made traditional birch bark baskets, enhancing their cultural understandings as they gathered materials and made the baskets.
And, in the Nishnawbe language courses, students gave presentations in their language.
“There’s more of a focus on spirituality than would be in a regular program,” Kitchen said.
Course content may also differ, he noted. For instance, a literature course would focus on themes of trauma, recovery, residential schools and other relevant issues rather than on Margaret Laurence or Margaret Atwood.
“Students are more likely to be successful in an environment where the educational approach matches their cultural needs and ways,” Kitchen said.
“The program maintains the same academic rigour as the mainstream teacher education program, but this program is designed through the lens of Nishnawbe Aski worldviews and cultures.”
Students - many of whom are in their late 20s to 40s - come from 24 communities in the Sioux Lookout District, with a number of them already working as teachers but looking to upgrade their skills.
Because students are scattered over a wide area and juggle multiple responsibilities, classes are sometimes concentrated into three-week, day-long sessions or are offered online. The students come to Brock’s main campus to take summer courses in the third year of the program.
McKay said she appreciated being able to continue her teaching job in Kitchenuhmaykoosib, which she began in 1999. Her town is a 12-hour drive from Sioux Lookout.
“I liked it that we could stay at home, work at home, and be able to go out. For the first two-and-a-half years, we left four times a year for three weeks,” she said. During that time period, McKay and her colleagues took classes online and, for the remainder of the course, were taught through web conferencing.
Despite the large distances and logistics, students are getting a lot from their education, Kitchen said.
“Once they go back into their communities to teach, one of their big responsibilities is to try to help their students learn the language and maintain their culture, so they felt that the program was generally helpful in doing that,” he said.
The program aims to produce 50 teachers within a 12-year period. The first group of students graduated in June 2012.