British Columbia

Gathering spaces for Indigenous students strengthen connections and sense of belonging, advocates say

Jeremy Ratt, host of the CBC podcast Pieces, credits having a gathering space in school with helping launch his personal journey to learn more about his Indigenous roots.

Host of CBC’s Pieces podcast says such a space helped launch his journey of self-discovery

Jeremy Ratt, 20, host of the CBC podcast Pieces about exploring his Métis roots, says having a Gathering Room in his middle school was greatly beneficial because it gave him physical space to spend time with other Indigenous students and explore Indigenous culture. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Jeremy Ratt, 20, remembers how good it felt when he first entered the Gathering Room at his Kelowna, B.C., middle school and found himself in a space with other Indigenous students, as well as staff who could provide culturally relevant academic and emotional support.

Experts say that spaces like the one Ratt — the 20-year-old host of the CBC podcast Pieces — found solace in are important for the wellbeing of Indigenous students, as is having Indigenous history and representation in curriculums. 

Ratt's five-part podcast follows his journey of self-discovery as he seeks to understand his roots as a mixed Indigenous and white man and all of the distinct "pieces" that form who he is today.

Someone he says played a pivotal role in starting that journey was Jackie Westgate, an Indigenous student advocate at Dr. Knox Middle School in Kelowna. 

Westgate, who is Mi'kmaq, said the school's Gathering Room helped many Indigenous students who passed through the school.


Students are welcome to smudge there, or just relax or study. Westgate says staff will also help students who don't know much about their background learn more about where they came from. 

"When kids come in, we expose them to all sorts of different ways that they can connect with their heritage and feel good about learning in a way that works for them," she said.

"It is the room of welcoming and the room of belonging."

The Gathering Space at Dr. Knox Middle School in Kelowna, B.C. is overseen by Indigenous student advocate, Jackie Westgate, who worked with CBC podcast host Jeremy Ratt when he was a student. (Submitted by Jackie Westgate)

Shannon Leddy, an assistant professor in Indigenous Education in the Curriculum and Pedagogy department at the University of British Columbia, echoes the validity of gathering spaces.

Leddy, who is Métis, focuses on decolonizing education in her work.

She says it's important students have somewhere to go to be themselves and experience a sense of acceptance — "a place where someone is going to understand the kinds of micro-aggressions and erasures that Indigenous students face daily within curriculum and pedagogy," she said.

No 'tokenistic art activities'

But efforts are underway to change that curriculum, too, by offering more First Nations content in the classroom.

Fiona LaPorte, who has Anishnaabe, Blackfoot and Métis roots, teaches at ¿uuqinak'uuh (Grandview) Elementary School in Vancouver and says and her curriculum is almost entirely made up of Indigenous teachings.

Having spaces in schools where Indigenous students can learn about and participate in their cultures and connect with other Indigenous students and staff is important to the wellbeing of Indigenous students, experts say. (Ntawnis Piapot, CBC )

She has a medicine wheel carpet in her classroom and all of the imagery on her walls is Indigenous focused.

"I don't do tokenistic art activities in my classroom. I teach about cultures of different nations, especially nations whom I've worked very closely with — and, of course, my own background," she told host Stephen Quinn on CBC's The Early Edition.

LaPorte acknowledges that while non-Indigenous teachers should be teaching this as well, it's especially important that it comes from an Indigenous perspective.

"There's a value in having somebody who's actually walked in those moccasins to teach about that," she said.

She says she gets asked a lot from non-Indigenous educators how to be allies.

"It's really about making connections and relationships with folks that have those experiences, or have those cultural tools or knowledge and bringing them in as guests and, of course, appropriately honouring them in ways that show your respect for their time," said LaPorte.

Jackie Westgate is Mi'kmaq and works as an Indigenous student advocate at Dr. Knox Middle School in Kelowna. (Submitted by Jackie Westgate)

Connecting through culture

Nadine McSpadden, from the Secwepemc Nation, is a helping teacher for Aboriginal learning in Surrey, B.C. 

In that role, she provides resources and workshops for teachers in the district to encourage them to weave Indigenous teachings into their curriculums.

"This is what I talk to teachers about all the time — the importance of having authentic resources in the classroom," she said.

McSpadden said it's important for Indigenous kids to see themselves represented in the curriculum and throughout their schools for the sake of their Indigenous identity.

"When we showcase Indigenous culture in the classroom in a way that makes our kids feel like, 'Wow, we are definitely something of value,' then they're more willing to connect," she said.

Pieces is a five-part CBC podcast that explores what it means to be Indigenous. Join 19-year-old Jeremy Ratt on a journey of self-discovery as he seeks to understand his roots and all of the distinct "pieces" that form who he is today.

You can subscribe now wherever you get your podcasts. 

With files from Jeremy Ratt and The Early Edition