High school students venture out to connect with the land in time-honoured tradition

By Austin Campbell
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Along with their teachers Ms. Beaulieu, Mr. Couch, Mr. Carr, and Mr. Schram, 23 students from Geraldton Composite High School left the school for a land-based trip into the traditional territory of Animbiigoo Zaagi Igan Anishinaabek on Wednesday.

The trip was organized by the Specialist High Skills Major program in honour of Truth & Reconciliation Week.

Lynnea Zuefle, a cultural knowledge-keeper from the Thunder Bird Friendship Centre, is guiding the trip, which aims to “[foster] a better understanding and appreciation of Indigenous culture.”

Geraldton Composite High School acting principal Andy McFarlane observed that these trips runs “deep” throughout the school’s history.

“In the past, it’s been an outdoor education canoe club… that’s been going on since 1967,” said McFarlane, referring to the GCHS Outers who created some of the canoe routes students now traverse.

This year, the students started their journey canoeing down the Namewaminikan River and will end their journey tonight at Coral Lake, staying overnight at a campsite that McFarlane noted has been a traditional campsite in their program for “over 50 years.”

“It’s been ongoing for a long, long time,” said McFarlane. “There’s a lot of history there.”

So much so, in fact, that an entire wing of the high school is lined with photos of previous excursions.

McFarlane himself made it clear that the high school is unique in that it services around 16 different communities and eight First Nations communities.

In a statement posted to school’s Facebook page, run by McFarlane, it is noted that nearly 80 per cent of students attending the school are Indigenous.

“We recognize the importance of providing opportunities for our students to reconnect with their land, culture, and the truth of our shared history,” read the post. “It is crucial to emphasize that this land-based trip offers an alternative learning experience, moving away from the mainstream ideas of education and offering a holistic approach that incorporates Indigenous teachings and knowledge.”

The list of activities students have been engaging in includes cultural traditions such as morning smudges, tobacco offerings, language learning, beading, and the making of cedar tea.

“Basically, it encourages all of our students to start learning outside of the walls of our school,” said McFarlane. “We’ve kind of taken that approach with all of our outdoor educational experiences. This one is not [the only one] by any means. It’s an ongoing class. [And] it allows students to end up with a red seal on their diploma when they graduate.”

By all reports, the students who take the trip have a life-changing experience taking in the beauty of northern Ontario while gaining valuable outdoor expertise.

“Actually, some of our tents are still canvas prospector tents that they’re using,” said McFarlane. “They’re not camping in Coleman tents [and] there’s no bricks out there.”