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Culture shift

Through the testimonies of many Indigenous Canadians during the Truth and Reconciliation process, a vast record has been accumulated, detailing how the residential school system has caused generations of damage to Indigenous culture and families.

Kelvin High School is among the many WSD schools involved in ongoing efforts to rebuild Indigenous culture in the aftermath of the residential school system. By providing cultural opportunities and exploring the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action, school administration hopes to combat the sense of isolation some Indigenous students may feel.

“Indigenous kids want to learn more about their culture,” said Vice-Principal Cree Crowchild. “If you don’t know who you are, it’s hard to be successful.”

Mr. Crowchild has made a point of interviewing all of the incoming Grade 9 students at Kelvin, as well as tracking survey data. Approximately 100 Kelvin students self-identify as Indigenous; the numbers have shown growth despite some students being guarded about their cultural identity.

“We had one student who said they sometimes tell people they’re Spanish (instead of Indigenous),” Mr. Crowchild said. “Another student said ‘I wish my skin was lighter. I want blue eyes, I want to be like other people.’ So there is a loss of identity there. For me those comments come from a generational mindset, and I’m interested in how we can change that through Truth & Reconciliation.”

There are other challenges beyond culture. A random sample of Indigenous students found them trailing behind the rest of the student population for earned credits, attendance and enrolment in Pre-Calculus.

Kelvin staff is continually looking at ways to change those statistics.

The school held its first-ever Indigenous Parents Night in November, which saw nine families attend.

“For me, that’s a big step. Within our culture, residential Schools have negatively influenced parent participation,” Mr. Crowchild said. “School isn’t seen as a place of safety—it was often a place of fear and hatred, depending on their individual experiences. There’s a systemic mistrust…but I told those nine families that they just broke the cycle. You’ve shown your kids that school is important to you and that you are willing to forego things that have happened in the past to your culture to be here.”

Kelvin is also piloting an Indigenous Student Coach position this year, with teacher Michelle Gougeon allotting a portion of her schedule to the role. She follows up with students regularly to see how their school year is progressing, and offers support if needed.

“Some students are very successful academically, while others are struggling and need additional support,” said Ms. Gougeon, who also supports the Aboriginal Youth Leadership Program along with Kelvin Social Worker Rob Marriot.  

“Sometimes it’s just a matter of connecting them with scholarship or job opportunities.”

Through Kelvin’s Indigenous Youth Group, students are connected to opportunities for cultural teachings, such as a recent series of workshops with Lodge Keeper Vern Dano. Students will be taking part in a sweat lodge with Mr. Dano later this school year.

Kelvin also recently held a weekend tipi-raising on the school grounds, offering the entire community a way to culturally connect on a Saturday.

“What’s great was that we had kids coming with their parents to help put the tipi up,” Ms. Gougeon said. “Parents will talk about their own ancestry, how they’ve lost cultural connections or reconnected…it’s neat to hear their stories. We’re taking some good steps here in creating an Indigenous community.”

Last school year, Kelvin began the practice of offering students and staff the opportunity to smudge before the start of the school day.

 “It’s important because when you smudge, it helps to get bad feelings and thoughts out of your head. I also go to the smudges because it’s a nice little community,” said Grade 9 student Jack Prouty.

“A lot of Indigenous people and kids are raised without their culture because it was stripped away from their parents or grandparents. If they can reconnect with their culture at school, that’s great.”

Through the school’s Journeys program, Kelvin staff has participated in sweat lodges and other cultural activities, such as travelling to Narcisse to pick sage for use in school smudges.

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Staff are also reviewing the TRC website and lesson plans that can be used their classrooms regardless of the subject matter.  In lunch hour sessions, staff read contemporary Indigenous articles together, discussing the different lenses they can be viewed through and how to apply the knowledge gained to their daily classroom discussions with students.

“It’s important that staff are involved in all of this, because when we’re talking about Truth and Reconciliation, it’s about building relationships and rebuilding relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people,” said Kelvin Social Worker Rob Marriot.

Mr. Marriot has posted some of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action outside his office door for students and staff to see.

“Teachers have brought their classrooms there to look at the Calls to Action, so they can work on assignments and have discussions,” he said.

 “Murray Sinclair has said that education got us into this and education will be the way to get us out of it and move forward in reconciliation. Schools are an important place for ideas and learning. We need to be in a safe space where we can have those difficult discussions and get to know each other.”

This past June, for the first time in Kelvin’s 105-year-history, the school gave special acknowledgement to its graduating Indigenous students. Seventeen students received graduation stoles to mark the occasion. Among those graduates was Kelvin student Sila Rogan, became first Inuit Loran Scholarship recipient.

“Indigenous students are becoming positive statistics, rather than negative,” Mr. Crowchild said. “We are getting better.”


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