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Successes in Atlantic Canada’s Indigenous communities takes many forms. This week, we look at how band-run schools on reserves are leading to higher graduation rates and how Indigenous-owned businesses are becoming an integral part of the economic landscape across the Atlantic provinces.
Culturally-specific learning a key to success
POTLOTEK, N.S. – Nothing about Matthew O’Toole’s big smile, easygoing nature and positive attitude hints at a time when the now 21-year-old felt “lost” in school, as if he “didn’t fit in.”
Ready to drop out in Grade 9, the Potlotek First Nation man had been living with his father in Port Hawkesbury, struggling to get through classes at Tamarac Education Centre and Strait Area Education and Recreation Centre (SAERC), his then high school.
Seeing her son needed a change, O’Toole’s mother Loretta suggested he move back to Potlotek and he registered at Allan Lafford High School – an on-reserve school run by the band. That move gave him a new perspective on education.
“I loved it. Honestly, I think it was my favourite school I went to. All the teachers were so nice and they helped me out a lot. I didn’t feel nervous and stuff when I’d ask a question. There wasn’t so many people (in class) so you kind of got more one-on-one time with the teacher,” said O’Toole sitting in the principal’s office (which is also a classroom).
“(At other schools) I felt the teachers didn’t really have faith in me. (It seemed) they felt like, 'Oh this guy is a lost cause. There’s no help for him.' When I came here I could tell (the teachers) wanted me to do good.”
On-reserve graduation rate for Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq students: 2002 – 30 per cent; 2019 – 90 per cent
Before transferring to Allan Lafford, O’Toole had only connected with one public school teacher. Watching him and school principal Roland McCarthy joke and talk, it’s evident that wasn’t the case here.
McCarthy, from North Sydney, has been with the school since it opened in 2011 and said he’s seen O’Toole transform from someone who wasn’t engaged to someone who’s a good role model to others.
“You’re not a young punk anymore,” he joked and they both laughed.
McCarthy continued with obvious pride, “Matt is very good natured. Very calm… In Grade 12 there were many younger students who looked up to him.”
In New Brunswick, 51.9% of Indigenous people aged 25 to 64 had registered in post-secondary education in 2016 compared to 57.8% non-Indigenous.
Mixing academics with culturally-specific learning, such as Mi’kmaq language, is something McCarthy and O’Toole believe helps students connect with educators and courses.
“We don’t offer cookie-cutter classes … (On-reserve schools) I think they’re really setting an example for other non-Indigenous communities,” said McCarthy.
“At our school, we have always eaten lunch together. Part of the… way the school was designed was for staff and students to interact like that… Anything we do we do together. And I think that’s really helped with the reciprocity of respect. That’s the atmosphere (here).”
This atmosphere, plus smaller classes and attention to Mi’kmaq culture, gave O’Toole the motivation to finish high school and the confidence to apply to Nova Scotia Community College.
Katie Rich has been director of education for the Mushua Innu Natuashish School in Labrador since it was founded in 2002, after the province relocated the community of Davis Inlet. Run by the Mushua band, Rich (a member of the Innu band) was kindergarten teacher at the former provincially-run school. Like O’Toole and McCarthy, she sees more student success since the band took over.
P.E.I.'s Lennox Island First Nation’s John J Sark Memorial Elementary School receives $5.3 million from the federal government to support a renovation and expansion project in 2018.
“We have seen larger numbers of graduates each year as opposed to when it was run by the province. It’s the Innu that are making the decisions concerning the school and that’s very important,” she said.
“I think the decisions they are making are good for the Innu students and our community. They want to incorporate the Innu ways and Innu values (in classes)… We have to as Innu so these can be carried on to the next generation.”
Classes in the Primary to Grade 12 school are Innu-English immersion and there are 20 Innu teachers and 30 English teachers, who have relocated to the remote fly in/ fly out community.
Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey (MK). Official name of the Mi’kmaq Education Authority (N.S.). Founded in 1997.
Rich said, because of the cultural focus at Mushua school, when families go hunting inland for a couple of months every year, teachers go with them. Working on two-week rotations, the teachers hold classes at the outposts so students can continue their studies - something the provincially run school didn’t allow for.
“I think it’s also good for the teachers,” she said. “They learn about Innu culture, on the land. It is good for them and the students.
Another success Rich sees at the band run school is athletics. Two current students are part of Newfoundland and Labrador's provincial volleyball team and two others were chosen to play with “elite” hockey teams in Ontario.
“My ultimate goal, and it might take a few years, but my goal is for our school to be the best school in Atlantic Canada,” she said.
Allan Lafford High School
Where: Potlotek First Nation, Cape Breton N.S.
• Year founded: 2011
• Grades: 9-12
• Number of students: 20 (half of high school aged band members)
• Principal: Roland McCarthy
• Biggest graduating class to date: 2016 – eight students
• Graduating 2019: Five students
• Offering: Land-based learning, audio visual classes, community radio station, textile tech (including hide tanning, beadwork)
Mushuau Innu School
Where: Mushuau Innu First Nation, Natuashish (Sango Bay, Labrador)
• Year founded: 2002
• Grades: Primary (Kindergarten) – 12
• Number of students: 318 (all school-age band members)
• Principal: Jesse Smith
• Offering: Land-based learning, Innu-English full immersion, teachers for outpost camps
Lennox Island experiencing heightened interest in its Mi’kmaq language, culture
Time and money needed
to bring it full-circle
LENNOX ISLAND, P.E.I. - Prominently displayed in a glass case in the Lennox Island Cultural Centre are several examples of porcupine quill art, made by members of the First Nations community.
Jamie Thomas, cultural co-ordinator for Lennox Island, a Mi’kmaq community in Western P.E.I., explains that the Mi’Kmaq of Atlantic Canada were traditionally called the Porcupine People. And that’s despite the fact porcupine are not native to parts of the region, including P.E.I.
Three years ago three members of the Lennox Island First Nation, representative of three generations, were introduced to quill art in a project named MALI, Mi’Kmaq Artisans of Lennox Island.
“It was a very fine artwork that hadn’t been explored a lot in this province up until that point; a bit of a forgotten art,” notes Thomas. In addition to all the intricate details of quill art, participants learned how to dye quills they harvested from New Brunswick roadkill.
“Once we did the MALI project, we realized there was probably a lot more hidden potential,” the cultural co-ordinator continued. It led to a Communities at Risk project.
“We kind of spun it to ‘communities at risk of losing our culture,’ and really focused on the revitalization of that,” Thomas recalls.
“That’s what we’ve really been working on: the revitalization of everything, our culture, our traditional ways, our language. Everything.”
Thomas sees the cultural enrichment helping to fuel interest in reacquiring the native language.
Children attending the Kindergarten to Grade 6 John J. Sark Elementary School in the community receive an hour-and-a-half of Mi’Kmaq language training every week.
“They love it, but we just don’t have enough time. Ideally, if we were to have Mi’kmaq immersion, that would be wonderful,” she acknowledges.
Neil Forbes, Lennox Island’s director of education, describes Mi’Kmaq immersion, like what’s offered in several First Nations schools in Cape Breton, as the gold standard.
“Here, it’s really a numbers thing, Forbes explains. “We have a way smaller population and we don’t have the speakers.”
Forbes oversees education for all 80 students from Lennox Island. That number includes the students attending the elementary school in the community, those who are bused to intermediate and high school off-reserve, as well as those attending post-secondary programs. The elementary to senior high programs all follow provincial curriculum.
There’s a pilot course in Mi’kmaq language and culture offered to Lennox Island students attending Hernewood Intermediate School and an Indigenous course, offered on a three-year rotation, which is available to any Westisle Composite High School students.
Forbes says Lennox Island students are doing fine under the provincial curriculum. He recalls a study from about six years ago that showed the graduation rate for Lennox Island students was significantly higher than the national First Nations graduation rate. “A big part of that is we’re not isolated,” he said. Isolation for Lennox Island ended in 1973 when a causeway to mainland P.E.I. opened.
Forbes believes the gold standard of Mi’kmaq immersion is possible for Lennox Island, with both time and federal funding.
For now, he says everything seems geared towards the status quo. “It’s all meant for the community to just limp by; it’s not meant for the community to thrive and succeed,” he suggested.
“You think in your language. That defines your world view, that defines your cultural priorities, and social norms,” said Forbes. “If you’re not getting immersion in your language, then there’s a big gap there.”
In the nearly 10 years he’s been education director, Forbes has seen interest in Mi’kmaq language and culture grow exponentially. He credits the Lennox Island Band council for its support and the direct involvement by such people as Jamie Thomas and Doris Googoo.
Road signs in the community are in English and Mi’kmaq. There are stickers on inanimate objects identifying them in English and Mi’kmaq, with English pronunciation of the Mi’kmaq name provided.
He says the community has started to see what language can do for them, how they can get to know themselves, their community, and how they can express themselves differently.
The heightened interest in language and culture has helped change the direction of the Lennox Island Cultural Centre. It’s gone from being a multi-purpose building to one where culture and eco-tourism are intertwined.
Works by MALI course graduates are displayed there and the artisans are called upon to lead workshops for visitors.
“Our job is to educate,” said Thomas. “We’re educating our own people, in a sense, but we’re also educating people who maybe have a misunderstanding, or have questions that they don’t necessarily feel comfortable asking.”
on the rise
Indigenous businesses in Atlantic Canada are growing fast and for many Indigienous women it’s helping them stay on reserve, raise their family and have a career.
Kaylyn Bernard from We’koqma’q First Nation says she’s “blessed” to own her own business. The 24-year-old was able to launch Patuo’kn Illustrations and Design, a design and illustration company she owns with her sister Kassidy, while taking care of her one-year-old son.
Her partner is also busy with his job, but can’t control his own schedule like Kaylyn can, so she is the primary caregiver.
“It’s been a blessing,” said Kaylyn who has studied at Nova Scotia Community College. “Being a mom with a young son, you can continue your work, in balance with your (parenting duties.)”
Starting a business was also a way for the sisters to stay in their home communit, and near their close-knit family. It’s also a way for them do work in their native language - Mi’kmaq.
One of Patuo’kn’s clients is Mi'kmaw Kina'matnewey, who hired them to create a series of illustrations to go with books they use in classrooms. They have also done illustrations for a songbook with Mi’kmaq lyrics for another client.
“Opening this business allows us to work with our language frequently, and to help preserve the language for future generations,” said 22-year-old Kassidy who has studied at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.
“That work is so awesome to do,” said Kassidy. “We have to provide resources to Mi’kmaq children to learn the Mi’kmaq language and give them visuals to understand.”
A report released by the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council in June reports that there are 850 Indigenous businesses in Atlantic Canada and revenue from this sector has grown rapidly – 137 per cent since 2012.
The report also highlights barriers for Indigenous entrepreneurs and securing start-up capital is one of them. One proposal is looking into a lending program specifically for Indigenous women.
Rachel Francis, owner of Simply for Life in New Glasgow, said she would never have been able to take over the franchise without the help she got from Ulnooweg and the Northern Opportunities Business Limited. Both organizations, dedicated to helping people find financing, helped her secure loans, grants and write her business plan.
“I took over the business very quickly,” said 40-year-old Francis who has previous owned and operated a gym in Pictou Landing where she is from.
“I contacted (Simply for Life) head office, they met with me and I signed the papers. But I didn’t have money saved to open a business. If I didn’t get loans, I wouldn’t have been able to get the $100,000 I needed for renovations (and other start-up costs.)”
Atlantic Provinces Economic Council report on Indigenous businesses in Atlantic Canada:
• Employ: 11,700 people (paid) – 60 per cent are Indigenous, 40 per cent non-Indigenous
• Wages paid: $296 million. $178 million Indigenous workers, $118 non-Indigenous workers
• Indigenous women-owned businesses report higher increased sales over past three years then Indigenous men-owned businesses and have higher projected future sales growth over past three years.