“Biindigen. Mii gwi Anishinabek wewana nkenmaaminak dependajig maa kiing. We acknowledge in a good way, the original people of the land here. We value the cultures, histories and relationships with the Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island (North America).”
That’s the generic Land acknowledgment on the Near North District School Board website. A feel-good, but pan-Indigenous statement, which at least starts out in Anishinabemowin. It doesn’t reflect that the school board largely operates in Anishinabek territory and within the Robinson Huron Treaty area.
Also lacking is a commitment to reconciliation. Many in the country have been working toward reconciliation across many sectors since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released its report and Calls to Action in 2015. The trauma of Indigenous Peoples has been at the forefront since the remains of children were confirmed in late May of 2021 at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. Since that time, the number has climbed to thousands and still counting. Places of education haven’t historically been safe spaces for Indigenous Peoples, and in 2022, they should, by now, be safe spaces. And they’re not really — yet.
One of the ways toward reconciliation, according to Henvey Inlet First Nation (HIFN) Gimaa (Chief) Wayne McQuabbie, is understanding Indigenous history, culture and language. He said, “If they would understand us, they would hold more respect for us as First Peoples.”
Gimaa McQuabbie indicated his community has an improved relationship with the school board since they had wanted to change school board districts about six years ago. HIFN is the northernmost community along Highway 69 in the school board district. Elementary-aged students are bused to Britt Public School, 20 minutes away, for their education. High school-aged youth go south to Parry Sound High School, a longer drive than going to Sudbury.
In the meantime, Shawanaga First Nation Gimaa Adam Pawis admits there’s room for improvement to meet the needs of their students who attend NNDSB schools.
“Our relationship with the school board is a functional one, but it’s not a beneficial one. The school board doesn’t meet the needs of our students or our neighbouring students,” he said.
Due to the lack of relevant Indigenous-related curriculum or language, about 23 years ago, Shawanaga First Nation created its own school for kindergarten to Grade 5, Kinomaugewgamik Elementary School. “We keep our kids in the middle of the circle, in the centre of our community,” he said. During an era of Indigenous cultural revitalization, the children maintain connection to the Land and culture through added pieces of curriculum, like harvesting and cultural activities. They’ve also opened the doors to students from Magnetawan First Nation (MFN) for about two years now. For MFN, it’s a longer drive than nearby Britt Public School.
Which is why it’s more important now than ever to implement the education recommendations from the Calls to Action. But to date, Gimaa Pawis said to his knowledge, the Near North District School Board has not reached out to talk about reconciliation. Even after the racist incident at Parry Sound High School when a noose was found at the entrance to the Shapatuan (elongated teepee). It was the second vandalization to the traditional structure, but there was very little in the way of action from the school board.
Another area that lacking substance is First Nation representation on the school board. Chief Pawis said he’s aware there’s one representative and understands the work it takes to advocate for change, and it would be helpful to have more Anishinabek representation.
A rough estimate of around $2 million dollars goes into the coffers of the Near North District School Board from all of the First Nations in the area. That’s a lot of skin in the game, and Gimaa Pawis said the education is mediocre. He said there’s been a lot of cutbacks over the years, especially to extracurricular activities and sports.
Requests were made to interview NNDSB Director of Education Craig Myles or Chair Jay Aspin, along with FN Trustee Nichole King about NNDSB Reconciliation and FN communities. However, Metroland Media was referred to Director of Education Superintendent Melanie Gray, who also holds the Indigenous Education portfolio. It was agreed that an interview would be granted after the representative returned from vacation and after media questions were sent. However, the interview request was denied before questions were emailed. The communications department relayed a message, “ … they share a concern that they may not have the information you seek at this time, as consultation is required with FNAC (First Nation Advisory Council) in September. Plans have yet to be approved by this legislated committee.”
Chief Pawis dreams of seeing a private school come to fruition in the area. “We live in the Georgian Bay biosphere. (We can be doing great things in the STEM field (International)). I would like to see a school match the education given at Rosseau College along with land-based learning.”
“The school board is broken and needs to be fixed, not just for us, but also for our treaty partners and international guests,” he added.
Anishinaabe Kwe Jennifer Ashawasegai-Pereira is a freelance Local Journalism Initiative reporter who lives and operates from her home in Henvey Inlet First Nation, Robinson Huron Treaty territory.