British Columbia

New Indigenous school in Nanaimo makes space for ancestral wisdom

The Snuneymux First Nation and School District 68 in Nanaimo, B.C., have opened a brand new, multi-million dollar school.

Qwam Qwum Stuwixwulh is a partnership between the Snuneymux First Nation and the Nanaimo School District

Members of the Snuneymux First Nation, government officials, and school staff officially open the Qwam Qwum Stuwixwulh Community School on Sept. 4, 2019. (Government of British Columbia)

Some in the Snuneymuxw First Nation waited decades for the chance to walk into a brand new school on their own traditional lands. 

And on Wednesday, Qwam Qwum Stuwixwulh Community School, located near Nanaimo, B.C., welcomed its first students from preschool to Grade 7. 

The $10.8 million project is the result of a unique partnership between the Nanaimo-Ladysmith School District and the Snuneymuxw First Nation. Typically the school would be governed by a board of trustees, but in this case, it will be co-governed by both.

Kevin Brand, principal of the new school, says he saw how much the school meant at its grand opening earlier this week.

"What we saw was children, parents, grandparents walk in, some with tears in their eyes," Brand said. "They've been on on this journey as a community for many, many years."

Structurally, the school is designed like a traditional longhouse with a circular, communal seating area recessed into the floor. 

"You get a chance to look right through the building to see the nature at the back," Brand said. "It's absolutely stunning."

Qwam Qwum Stuwixwulh Community School was designed as a traditional longhouse and has a communal seating area. (Government of Canada)

Part of that design is to reflect the desire to connect learners to the knowledge and language rooted in Snuneymuxw First Nation territory.

The school, which is open to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, will offer regular curriculum, but also Hul'qumi'num — the language of Snuneymux First Nation — as its second language.

"To really understand this place, it needs to be spoken with the tongue that first understood it and has thousands of years of understanding it," Brand said.

Daily school life will incorporate time and space for the community to come in and interact with school staff, as well as specific time for gathering together, informed by protocol from elders and knowledge keepers, he added. 

"It really is creating a sense of belonging, a sense of identity, allowing those with Snuneymuxw roots to tap into who they are, but also for somebody who's a second nation student or an ally to understand what it means to be on this land in this particular time and part of a very distinct history."

Listen to the segment on All Points West:

The $10.8 million Qwam Qwum Stuwixwulh school is a partnership between the Snuneymux First Nation and School District 68. 6:55

With files from All Points West