British Columbia

'I was failing': Farming class connects Esquimalt First Nations students with the land

A new land-based learning program teaches first nations students how to build fences, plant food, and build bridges — all in the name of fostering community, says teacher.

Land-based learning brings Indigenous students together at Esquimalt High School

Emma Paul weeds a vegetable bed at the Fickle Fig Farm in Saanich, as part of Esquimalt High's Land Based Learning program. (CBC)

For Kimberly Thomas, going to school can feel like a chore.

So when the Grade 10 student got the chance to work on a farm rather than sit at her desk, it felt like a breath of fresh air.

"I don't like classrooms. I don't like sitting all the time," Thomas said, while cutting back blackberry vines at Red Damzel Farm in Saanich, B.C. "Being out here moving — it helps because I get anxious sometimes."

Thomas is part of a land-based learning class at Esquimalt High School. The program aims to teach First Nations students new skills and connect them with the land. 

Thomas admits farming can be hard work  — but it beats looking at textbooks all day

Peter Thomas learns basic farming skills at the Fickle Fig Farm. (CBC)

Land-based learning

"It's been helping because I was failing," said Thomas. "It's helping me get credits for classes I never wanted to do. I just have to attend and listen — or I'll get kicked out."

The program runs through the school semester, and activities include planting, weeding, mulching plants, fixing up fences, and even building bridges.

Teacher Rachel Trebilco said the course helps students connect with their culture.

"We're trying to combine Aboriginal ways of knowing with mainstream traditional school curriculum," she said. "We're trying to take our learning outcomes that are associated with courses like science, First Nations studies, foods, and work experience, and deliver them in a way that allows our students to work on the land and build the connections with our aboriginal communities."

"It gives them an opportunity to not only engage in their culture at home, but also to engage in their culture at school, and it's really empowering," she added.

Iain Walkley, Head Gardener at the Fickle Fig Farm, gives Peter Thomas a lesson in soil ecology at the Fickle Fig Farm. (CBC)

A stronger future

For students like Wyatt Rodger, the course has connected him with other Indigenous students in the region.

"We're all sort of connected," he said. "We know everyone's name ... and where we all come from. As a First Nations kids, we all have backgrounds in different places."

Rodger says the farm is a welcome break from pens and pencils — even if he ends up breaking a sweat.

"You get strong muscles — and strong muscles are something that girls like to look for."

With files from CBC's All Points West