By Christopher Dart

“Everybody has good memories of spelling bees, you know?”

That’s what Pauline Favel says when you ask her why she started the Saskatchewan First Nations Spelling Bee.

Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll realize there is more to it.

As a veteran special education teacher and a member of the Poundmaker Cree Nation, she’s dedicated her career to getting First Nations kids to excel, particularly those with learning difficulties.

A bee years in the making

Pauline came up with the idea of running a spelling bee as a way to promote literacy six years ago. Initially, she just wanted to do one for her school, and then for their tribal education council. 

The catalyst for a bigger bee came from a conversation she had with a colleague and the principal from Chief Little Pine School.

SCENE FROM THE FILM: William and his family are excited to reach the finals.

“I was talking to a principal at a neighbouring school, and I was like ‘You know what? I’d like to see if we can get our kids to nationals,’” says Favel. “Being First Nations, working at a First Nations school, our vision, was to provide an opportunity for a venue to encourage as many First Nations students as we can from Saskatchewan to participate.”

Bee-coming official

Favel got in touch with Julie Spence from the Spelling Bee of Canada. Spence was more than willing to help shepherd Favel through the process of becoming an official regional bee. In addition to the regular trophies and cash prizes, Favel wanted to make sure the Saskatchewan bee fundraised enough money that it could send its winners and their families to the National Bee in Toronto.

“Many of our kids are living with extended family,” she says. “Many of them are living with single parents. So we have to think beyond just the regional bee.  If we’re sanctioned by Spelling Bee of Canada, we need to go a step further and find the financial means, for [winners] to get to Toronto. I think that’s what makes it kind of unique because I don’t know if the other regional bees across Canada do that.”

“Helping them to shine”

“We just created this from zero and were guided by the Spelling Bee of Canada as a partner. We don’t get federal funding for this. We don’t get provincial funding. There was nothing else here, and we just created something. We are doing this, and we want to do it for our youth.”

 Favel sees the spelling bee as empowering First Nations youth and giving them a chance to excel on a national stage.

“[The bee is] helping them to shine, helping them to build that confidence,” she says. “In many First Nations schools, there are sports. In athletics, we get our kids to provincials. But have we taken our kids to provincial, national levels in a literacy competition?  No, we haven’t. We’re giving that experience to a different group of kids.”

A bigger, better bee

Favel intends to keep growing the bee. For the second First Nations Provincial Spelling Bee — which took place in March — the competition was opened up to off-reserve First Nations students, as well. Her next goal is to establish a First Nations bee in other provinces. Eventually, she’d like to see the creation a national, all-First Nations Spelling Bee.

“I had a call about two weeks after our spelling bee from a non-First Nations teacher, working in northern Alberta, at a school that was largely First Nations,” says Favel. “He said, ‘I read about the spelling bee, and he said I’m interested in hosting a spelling bee, a regional bee.’  And I said ‘Oh there is one in Edmonton if you want to contact them.’ He said ‘No, I read the part where you are hoping to go to a national [First Nations] bee. We’d like to be one of the regional leagues." In June of 2017, Favel got a call from Calgary to set up another.

“We don’t get any financial gain, but there is a personal gain in the pride that we found, in doing something that’s inspiring and making a difference. We’re educators. I’d like to think we all got into this to make a difference.”  

And ultimately it's the hard work and dedication of the students and their families that make the bee successful.