Fort McMurray schools miss connection to Indigenous elders

27 November 2020

Appears in: Archdiocesan News

Unique circumstances are part and parcel of Indigenous learning at Catholic schools in Fort McMurray, Alta., in a year where education has already been anything but normal.

Protecting the vulnerable population of Indigenous elders has been the primary concern for educators accustomed to leaning on elders’ traditional teachings in the classroom.

From sharing experiences in residential schools to facilitating land-based learning, the aging cohort has been an invaluable resource in Indigenous education in past years. But elders have had to sit out due to safety concerns around the pandemic.

Indigenous learning has not been left behind though. Like schools nationwide, there has been an adjustment to a more virtual curriculum in light of COVID-19. It was seen in the celebration of 19th-century Metis leader Louis Riel and Métis Week, where on Nov. 16 McMurray Métis released a half-hour video aimed at educating students and fostering Indigenous pride despite not being able to come together for assemblies, elder talks and other celebrations.

“Teachers here in Fort McMurray, as a part of reconciliation, try to incorporate more Indigenous teaching and traditional knowledge into the classroom,” said Melanie Walsh, social media and event co-ordinator at McMurray Métis and part of the team that spearheaded the video project.

“To do that most accurately is to bring elders in who are traditionally knowledge keepers. Due to COVID-19 and the pandemic, that’s not safe this year so we kind of went back to the drawing board and came up with the idea to produce a video on Louis Riel.”

The video was viewed by more than 70 Grade 5 and 7 classrooms across the region, who have been doing in-person learning this fall with measures in place to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

In addition to stories about Métis history, the video showcased artifacts and introduced the Cree language to the diverse student body throughout Fort McMurray Catholic Schools.

“Some of our bigger functions (in previous years) have been Métis Fest where we bring in up to 2,000 students in the younger grades who get to participate in a bunch of events which has been very good for the youth that are Métis,” said Bill Loutitt, CEO of the McMurray Métis and a champion for Métis education in the region.

“A lot of the times we used to have to hide our (Indigenous) nationalities here in Canada. (The celebrations) play a big part in our youth as it’s very important for them to be proud of who they are in order for them to achieve.”

Of the 600 members of McMurray Métis, Loutitt is happy to report that so far no one has contracted COVID-19. Indigenous elders have remained largely in “bubbles” where they have been able to come together to some degree, under safety restrictions, to continue to build and foster community.

Due to age and challenges, utilizing, and in some cases, accessing technology, the board has not yet been able to incorporate elder talks and lessons virtually in the classroom, though that is likely to change soon as schools in partnership with the community continue to build capacity in the coming weeks and months.

“An elder brings a sense of calmness when they’re around us,” said Lou Ann Demers-Noble, principal of Elsie Yanik Catholic School and Indigenous lead for Fort McMurray Catholic Schools.

“I know even if we do go virtually, it will be OK because of the ability of their presence to de-escalate a lot of our anxieties. (Bringing them in virtually) is definitely something that we look forward to being able to start doing.”

Indigenous liaisons generally draw on their own personal relationships and community of elders to facilitate learning in the district. Most schools have displays set up in celebration of Métis culture this month.

Demers-Noble’s school and many others have utilized resources from Rupertsland Institute and the Alberta Teachers’ Association to support Indigenous learning objectives which are now mandated in the province.

In her own school, she says staff have also incorporated fun activities such as Rock Your Mocks (moccasins) Day and Drop Everything and Jig dance lessons.

A Métis Cultural Centre project in Fort McMurray is currently underway and is projected to be complete in three years. The community hopes as the region gets past COVID-19, it will be a place where the entire community, regardless of ethnicity, can come together to learn history, share in knowledge and glean from the rich experience and irreplaceable tradition of the elders.

“They offer an experience that you can’t get from just a book or from YouTube,” said Demers-Noble. “Not having our elders in the schools has definitely impacted us and we are missing them a lot.”