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Meet BC's 'Changemakers' of Aboriginal Learning

Seven winners of education awards showcase their innovative initiatives on the national stage.

By Katie Hyslop 9 May 2012 | TheTyee.ca

Katie Hyslop writes about youth issues and education for The Tyee Solutions Society.

This article was produced by Tyee Solutions Society in collaboration with Tides Canada Initiatives (TCI). TCI neither influences nor endorses the particular content of TSS' reporting. Other publications wishing to publish this story or other Tyee Solutions Society-produced articles, please see this website for contacts and information.

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Members of the award-winning TASK (Trades Awareness, Skills and Knowledge) program in Saanich. Photo courtesy of Stu Rhodes.

After decades of underfunding and neglect, the federal government is finally taking action to improve Aboriginal education. Starting last year they partnered with the Assembly of First Nations on a First Nations Joint Action Plan, and conducted a national panel review on Aboriginal education.

This spring they committed an additional $275 million to on-reserve education -- though some prominent Aboriginal advocates say that's just a drop in the bucket.

Inequality won't disappear overnight. But organizations like Ashoka Canada refuse to wait for government to make change. A self-described "social entrepreneur" network, Ashoka promotes social change by crowd-sourcing the best solutions to national problems. They recently turned the spotlight on Aboriginal education with the "Inspiring Approaches to First Nations, Métis and Inuit Learning" Changemakers competition.

"We were looking for ways to work with Aboriginal peoples in Canada. We ask the question: what are you doing that's new and innovative to address this particular challenge?" Elisha Muskat, Ashoka Canada's executive director told The Tyee.

The response was huge: 266 different organizations submitted their ideas for not only improving Aboriginal graduation rates, but creating an environment that inspires youth to learn.

Over 60 per cent of entrants self-identified as Aboriginal, and Muskat says the non-Aboriginal entries were backed by Aboriginal collaborations. But innovation in Aboriginal education can be a tricky area for non-Aboriginal people. At least one Aboriginal award-winner spoke of issues of colonialism and ownership she experienced from the involvement of some non-Aboriginal participants.

"Many of the self-proclaimed leaders in Aboriginal education were non-Indigenous and were seemingly unwilling or unable to locate themselves or demonstrate an awareness of their own settler status," Gina Starblanket, whose project won an award, told The Tyee via email.

"Because of this, many of the conversations that emerged at the summit were embedded in a deeply colonial saviour paradigm that I found to be problematic on personal and political planes."

Starblanket's Balancing Strategies project employs traditional storytelling and similar methods to help Aboriginal students plan careers at the University of Victoria.

Fifteen other entrants won Changemakers' awards ranging in size from $500 to $5,000. The winners were honoured at a national summit in Gatineau, Quebec, from April 16 to 18. Seven of those winners were from British Columbia.

Here The Tyee offers a summary look at each of the B.C. winners, a glimpse of projects that promote changes to Aboriginal education for the better, today.

First Nations Expo, Southgate Middle School, Campbell River

What is it? An Aboriginal history and culture class taught by Danita Lewis for all Grade 7 students at Southgate Middle School. A six-week program, students take the class for an hour-and-a-half every day.

"When we do our learning in here, they do a lot of hands-on projects," Lewis says. "So we'll have a day of learning about dream catchers, and I'll have a guest speaker come in, like a Cree person, and give their perspective about dream catchers, and then (the students) get to make one."

What award did they win? The Martin Aboriginal Education Initiative Award for top entries pertaining to elementary and secondary education, worth $1,000.

What's next? "I would like to see other school districts doing something like this, because it's very popular with the students, they really enjoy it," Lewis says, adding she'd like to see it in other schools within her own district, too.

"They're learning a lot about cultural diversity and First Nations."

TASK (Trades Awareness, Skills and Knowledge), Saanich school district, Saanich

What is it? A trades awareness program for at-risk Aboriginal people ages 15 to 51 that offers five months of training in residential trades.* Graduates receive credits towards high school graduation, certificates such as first aid, Workplace Hazardous Materials Information Systems and forklift operation, as well as help transitioning into employment. TASK is a partnership between the Saanich school board, Camosun College, the Pauquachin First Nation, Coast Salish Emploment Training Society/Bladerumners, Slegg Lumber, and Victoria Native Friendship Centre.*

What award did they win? A Counselling Foundation of Canada & Canadian Education & Research Institute for Counselling award worth $1,000. The money will be used for scholarships for TASK graduates transitioning into employment.

What's next? Evaluation and hopefully expansion of the project. Vancouver Island University and the Gulf Islands and Cowichan Valley school districts have already expressed interest in running similar programs.*

"We're hoping for our instructor to have all the curriculum and all the pieces in order to inspire other districts, other organizations to take a combination project like this and do it in their area," says Wendy Walker, a Saanich school district career counsellor.

Aboriginal ECERS, Tsleil-Waututh Child and Family Development Centre, North Vancouver

What is it? A proposed Aboriginal addendum to the internationally recognized and respected Early Childhood Environmental and Infant Toddler Environmental Rating Scales (ECERS/ITERS), tools for testing the quality of childcare programming.

The addendum will use elements from the federal government's Aboriginal Head Start on-reserve child care initiative, which highlights important concepts for a healthy Aboriginal early childhood education environment.

"We found that the ECERS covers the education, health and nutrition component rather well, but as far as family support, family involvement and cultural language, it touched on those and we felt that those were areas that could be expanded," says Marc Lalonde, manager for the centre.

*Story updated at 10:50 a.m. on may 11, 2012.

What award did they win? The Margaret and Wallace McCain Family Foundation and Lawson Foundation award worth $5,000. The money will be used to pay off debt the centre has accrued over the years: "I know it's not very sexy, but child care is a marginalized business at best," Lalonde told The Tyee.

What's next? Developing the addendum will take three to five years, followed by a national launch which Lalonde hopes will inspire other Aboriginal child care centres to use the addendum.

Balancing Strategies, University of Victoria, Victoria

What is it? A career-planning service for Aboriginal students at the University of Victoria. Unlike other services geared towards middle-class non-Aboriginal students, Balancing Strategies uses traditional communication and creativity outlets such as storytelling, art making and traditional teachings to identify students' employment skills.

"It emerges from a gap in programming that has been identified by our community partners," says Gina Starblanket, project co-ordinator for UVic's Aboriginal Service Plan, "who have voiced concern that while their students are accessing and completing post-secondary, many of their graduates are still facing barriers transitioning back to community work or onto career paths."

What award did it win? The Counselling Foundation of Canada & Canadian Education & Research Institute for Counselling award worth $1,000. Starblanket says this will help Balancing Strategies "gain adequate financial capacity to develop, resource and launch the program."

What's next? Starblanket hopes this funding will lead to an eventual pilot project, followed by an outside assessment and possibly an amended program that runs on a continual basis at the university.

Aboriginal eMentoring, University of British Columbia, across B.C.

What is it? An online platform that connects University of British Columbia health sciences students with Aboriginal youth ages eight to 18 in order to provide positive mentors in post-secondary education. The University partnered with the Surrey school district, and the Sto:lo and Ktunaxa First Nations to reach Aboriginal kids in rural and urban B.C.

What award did it win? The Donner Canadian Foundation Community Award and the The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation Award for post-secondary education, for a total of $7,500. The money will go towards expanding the program, which has base funding from the Canadian Institute of Health Research until 2014.

What's next? Expanding the mentoring beyond the current communities and the faculty of health sciences at UBC. "We understand that education, and liberal arts and science programs, and law, and college prep programs and trades programs really could benefit (students)," says Sandra Jarvis-Selinger, an assistant professor in the department of surgery and associate director of the eHealth Strategy Office at UBC.

Jarvis-Selinger hopes to attract more mentors by eventually providing university credits for participation, and more Aboriginal youth by partnering with other school boards. The Okanagan school district has already come on board with the program starting this September.

Clleq'melt: Groups for Aboriginal children and youth in Schools and Community, Kamloops school district, Kamloops

What is it? In-school groups where Aboriginal girls meet with elders, learn about their culture and heritage, and build on their coping skills to help them throughout school and adolescence. A partnership between the community, the Kamloops school district and Thompson Rivers University (TRU), there are 18 groups for girls ages eight to 18.

"We wanted to increase girls' coping skills, protective skills, and bringing in all of who they are, talking about why they're proud to be indigenous girls and to share their questions, their language, their teaching," says Natalie Clark, chair of the faculty of human, social and educational development at TRU, who also facilitates a Clleq'melt group in the nearby town of Chase.

What award did it win? A Vancouver Foundation Award worth $5,000. The money will go towards creating similar groups for Aboriginal boys.

What's next? A boys' group. Clark says there are already male elders and First Nations counsellors ready and willing to participate, and extensive research into the success of the girls' groups has shown this kind of mentorship works.

"We know from research that our groups have increased critical thinking skills," says Clark. "We're helping the girls transition from elementary to high school and then on to university. So because we've been doing it seven years, young women (for) whom maybe graduation was a hope, now I'm seeing at Thompson Rivers University."

Urban Butterflies, Pacific Association of First Nations Women, Vancouver

What is it? A day camp for Aboriginal girls ages nine to 14 who are in foster care. Taking place once a week, 16 girls learn to deal with the emotions and reality of being separated from their families. The Aboriginal camp counsellors have also been through the foster or adoption systems, acting as positive role models who also had to grow up away from their families.

What award did it win? A Vancouver Foundation Award worth $5,000, which will go directly towards Urban Butterflies programming.

What's next? Now in its seventh year, the aim is to keep the Urban Butterflies program going strong for years to come. "If you continue to do a good job promoting it and children come, the funding will automatically come. Produce something that's of good quality and any funders that are involved take pride in what you're producing, and that you're having impact on those kids in a positive way," says Joy Chalmers, co-ordinator for the Pacific Association of First Nations Women.

[Tags: Education.]  [Tyee]

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