Anishinaabe Immersion School Seeks To Expand Land-Based Programs As In-Person Learning Returns
Coming home from gym class, a little boy is crying in the hallway.
“I want my mom and dad.”
It’s the boy’s first day of kindergarten at Gaagagekiizhik Elementary School in Kenora, Ont., And halfway through the day he’s ready to go home.
Seeing him cry there, the principal of the school, Wendy McPherson, does not miss a beat, guiding the student for the first time into her office.
When they reappear moments later, he is holding an eagle feather. Together, the headmaster and the boy dirty the hallway, then the kindergarten class.
“There is a lot of behavior [problems]so we did a lot of one-on-one burrs, âMcPherson explained. “I will take them to my office, and we will, and it will calm them down.”
“This is what we are doing here,” she added.
It is not just any school. It is an Anishinaabe immersion school in Treaty 3, a one-of-a-kind school in the region, according to McPherson.
The school currently has approximately 84 First Nations students from the Kenora area enrolled in the JK through Seven grades as well as high school.
It opened in September 2015 after a Treaty 3 elder dreamed of a school steeped in Anishinaabe culture and language, and the Bimose Tribal Council negotiated with the provincial government for approval and the financing terms to open the private school.
The walls of the school are covered in Indigenous art and photos of famous Indigenous actors, politicians and scientists, to inspire students to dream big, Principal Wendy McPherson said.
âEducation is the key to change,â she said. “Creating change for our people now, for our elders and then for our future generations. That’s what we want to be here.”
Lillian Swain of Asubpeeschoseewagong (Grassy Narrows First Nation) teaches Anishinaabe language and culture in school.
Swain spends his days traveling throughout the school, teaching Anishinaabemowin verbs in one classroom, then harvesting sage in the next.
She said the pandemic had forced her, like many teachers around the world, to teach online on Zoom, a platform she had never even heard of.
” Zoom ? What are we supposed to do? How can we configure this? Swain remembered asking.
But she quickly got the hang of it and even used the platform to her advantage, bringing her students virtually onto the field with her.
âI took rabbits by the snare, so I was able to take the kids out and show them the process of snaring a bunnyâ¦ and when you take the guts outâ¦ then cook the bunny again,â Swain said with a laugh. remembering seeing parents sitting down with their children to learn from the videos she created.
Being able to teach children about the Anishinaabemowin and their culture meant a lot to Swain, who attended residential school as a child.
âWhen I went there, I was not allowed to speak the language. I was punished for speaking my language,â she said. “But I was lucky where we got home and our parents and grandparents still spoke to us in the language.”
Even in her own training as a teacher and in her work at other schools, Swain said she often faces obstacles when trying to bring culture into the classroom.
“I couldn’t smudge it, like it was a chore to do something as simple as that.”
This is not the case here, added Swain.
“The school is right in the middle of town … so if parents want their children to learn the language and the culture, this is where they send them.”
Principal Wendy McPherson said that with a return to in-person learning, the school is focused on expanding its land-based programs, with more time spent doing outdoor activities like tanning hides. , fishing and the making of drums.
âThen when they got back, I asked the teachers to incorporate that into their English language arts programs, their social studies programs, their science programs,â she said.
“This is how education works holistically.”
McPherson added that she hopes to see a new building constructed for the school’s move in, one that will make life on the grounds easier.
“It’s something I’m working on, and it would include more space and the ability to add an 8th grade and expand our high school program.”