New in school: Indigenous cooking, Harry Potter as literature and rock 'n' roll

Manitoba post-secondary schools offer fresh approaches to enliven their classes, including a culinary skills program for Indigenous students, the Harry Potter books for literature students and rock 'n' roll, from playing songs to writing them.
Instructor Michael Fitzhenry is helping run a pilot program at Red River College that will teach aspiring chefs how to cook Indigenous meals. (John Einarson/CBC)

A maestro with the knife, Tamara Genaille chops her carrots with the deft touch of a seasoned veteran.

"This is gold," she said proudly, cradling diced carrots in her hand.

She's attending a beginner knife-skills class because the former corrections officer envisions a new career for herself. A frequenter of the powwow circuit, the Winnipeg woman, who is a member of Rolling River First Nation, wants to go from powwow to powwow with a food truck.

"I haven't quite come up with my menu yet," she told a visitor. "It's only been three weeks." However, the menu is sure to include Indian tacos, soup, bannock and pickerel among other delicacies. 

Joseph Alex, right, demonstrates the proper knife-cutting technique to Roland Sutherland at a recent class. (John Einarson/CBC)

For the first time, Red River College is offering a culinary skills program for Indigenous students such as Genaille. It adheres to the same curriculum of the college's existing culinary program, but with a focus on culture and land-based curriculum.

The one-year certificate program is called Indigenous Culinary Skills.

"It's a concept that hasn't been explored," said Joseph Alex, a 37-year-old cook who is an educational assistant with the program. "There's not a lot of Indigenous chefs out there. There's not a lot of Indigenous cooking. The cuisine itself is unheard of."

The Winnipegger said he's been challenged by other chefs who question why he isn't cooking dishes customary to his culture.

Differentiating himself

However, Alex grew up in a German-Mennonite home, and says the desire for traditional Indigenous dishes hadn't caught on with diners until recently. 

"Over the past year and a half, it's slowly come to me that I need to establish some kind of an identity as a chef," said Alex, who is a member of Osoyoos Indian Band in British Columbia.

"Everyone can cook French food, right, but how many people can say they know how to cook a good piece of bison in Indigenous ways?"

Dmitri Seymour-Merasty, 21, grew up in Winnipeg but spent time in Hollow Water First Nation. The up-and-coming chef has limited knowledge of Indigenous cuisine, and says the local food scene would only benefit from new perspectives.

Dmitri Seymour-Merasty has often been the only person of Indigenous descent at the kitchens where he's worked. (John Einarson/CBC)

"Nowadays, everybody is so out of touch with their culture. I feel like I almost know nothing about mine," said Seymour-Merasty, who is often the only person of First Nations descent at kitchens where he's worked. "I'm very excited to start learning about all of our traditional teachings."

Michael Fitzhenry, culinary instructor at Red River College, says it's a challenge to cook traditional Indigenous dishes when many of those recipes were never put to paper. The instructors are consulting with elders, residents and students to compile the recipes that were passed down through generations.

"We're going to bring that together in kind of a collaborative exploration of what that cuisine looks like," he said.

Fitzhenry says Indigenous foods have been overlooked on menus, but the interest is growing. Winnipeg's Feast Cafe Bistro is a byproduct of that, he said.

Growing demand

"If we have people who have a little more knowledge of that cuisine coming into the industry, opening more Indigenous restaurants," Fitzhenry said. "There's going to get a lot more exposure." 

Fourteen students are taking the pilot program this year, Alex says, adding he's thrilled to be part of the resurgence of Indigenous cuisine. 

"You see them right now, they're inspired," he said of the students. "I'm inspired by their aspirations and their willingness to learn — to see how happy they are to be here. It's great."

Winnipeg's Red River College is offering a one year certificate program in Indigenous culinary skills, and collecting traditional recipes to teach its first 14 students. 2:15

Here's a look at some other new or revamped classes at post-secondary institutions across Manitoba:

Harry Potter

Booth University College (Winnipeg); three-part seminar planned for March, 2019

The study of literature doesn't have to be some snobby exercise.

It can take you to a childlike place where your protagonist is a bespectacled boy-wizard with a lightning bolt scrawled on his forehead.

"I think some people have this idea that in literature classes, we only study highfalutin' literature or very highbrow literature, but that's not always true," said Michael Boyce, who is helping create a seminar on the wildly popular Harry Potter series. "There are other ways to approach literature … and the way in which it's become this cultural touchstone for people."

Booth University College in Winnipeg plans to offer a seminar class on J.K. Rowling's generation-defining book series.

The magical world hatched by J.K. Rowling is ripe for scholarly discussion, he says. It's a jumping-off point to explore fascism, fandom and film adaptations.

The seminar will also examine how the author flipped the conventional hero story on its head.

"It kind of challenges him in that he needs his friends to succeed. He can't stand alone," Boyce said. "There's sometimes tension created because he thinks he needs to be alone."

Rock band workshop

Assiniboine Community College (Brandon); Nov. 17, 2018 - 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; $99 (plus GST)

In a matter of hours, Ben Melnick wants to reinvigorate your fading dreams of rock stardom.

"I'm a bit of a mad scientist with music," said Melnick, likening himself to Jack Black's character in the movie School of Rock, the substitute teacher who turned fourth-graders into rockers. 

"I really like to get into positions where I can experiment with scenarios and see how people respond," he said.

The Brandon music instructor says he will try to convey the spirit of rock 'n' roll in a single day. He'll offer brief demonstrations on how to use standard instruments, delve into the song-writing process, and then help his students start to make music. 

"I want people to take a small journey with me and, at the end of it, I want them to have a better understanding of how hit songs were created in the past and now, and feel like they can do that, too," he said.

Assiniboine Community College in Brandon is offering a one-day workshop on learning to play rock 'n' roll. (Aleksey Dushutin/Shutterstock)

He feels that creating music is perceived as an insurmountable task, when he argues it isn't that difficult. Melnick thinks back to his childhood when his father gave him and his siblings instruments and, together, they would harmonize. 

"I want to take a little piece of my life from that early time and I want to bring it to people now and see if they can sort of embrace what I felt back then," he said.

"I want to show people just how simple it is to make a song and create music together. Think about it less and enjoy it more."

History of Rock

Canadian Mennonite University (Winnipeg); Tuesdays and Thursdays at 8:30 a.m.

You can credit Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards with helping start a new university class in Winnipeg.

Anna Nekola recalls listening to an audiobook of Richards' 2010 memoir Life during a drive a number of years back.

"What I hadn't expected, and what I was really excited about, was how well he spoke about the importance of early blues to the establishment of rock 'n' roll in his own music and rock in general," Nekola said.

That led the professor, new to Canadian Mennonite University, to scrutinize the defining music of the rock genre through the decades, and how it's shaped musicians worldwide.

The class also strives to explore rock 'n' roll through a historical, cultural and social lens.

"This is more than just people with guitars," she said. "There's a lot of richness to the music."

Nekola says the class is held Tuesdays and Thursdays, during the fall semester, at a "very non-rock 'n' roll 8:30 a.m."

Experiments in Indigenous art techniques

Brandon University (Brandon); Tuesdays at 5:30 p.m.

An Indigenous artist wants to convince her students the craft she's practised for 20 years belongs to them as well.

"In Western society, the idea is that only artists can do art, but in Indigenous knowledge, that's not the case," KC Adams said.

The new professor at Brandon University has taken her own approach to an existing class. 

For the first time, students have been taught birch bark biting — chomping on small pieces of folded birch bark to form intricate designs — and they've scoured the land to find clay and wood metal they would use for later creations.

Adams says the class is bringing Indigenous knowledge into the classroom. 

"How do you destroy a culture? How do you destroy a people? You immediately attack their art and their culture," she said. "We've had a systematic approach, trying to destroy our culture, but this class is really about bringing that knowledge back."

About the Author

Ian Froese


Ian Froese reports from the Manitoba Legislature for CBC Manitoba. He previously wrote for the Brandon Sun and the Carillon in Steinbach. Story idea? Email