St. John's High School students paving way to reconciliation by teaching teachers about Indigenous culture

A group of students plan to teach their teachers by organizing a sweat ceremony for them before they graduate from Winnipeg's St. John's High School in June.

North End Winnipeg high school is focused on building relationships between teachers and Indigenous students

St. John's High School students Liam Keep and Ernestine Mousseau presenting the proposal for the school's 'Paving the Way to Reconciliation' project at the United Way earlier this year. (Submitted by Stephanie Midford)

A group of Winnipeg students is planning to teach their teachers before they graduate from St. John's High School this year.

Members of the school's Aboriginal Youth Leadership Program came up with the idea for a sweat ceremony for their teachers. It's part of the North End school's efforts to build relationships between its students — more than half of whom are Indigenous — and teachers.

"Most of our teachers learn about it from a textbook, not really being involved in learning about the culture," said Liam Keep, one of the students who has helped to organize the sweat.

"A book is always past tense, you're not actually there, so when you read it from a book it's almost like it doesn't really exist — it's like a fantasy, kind of. But when teachers are actually there, [they'll] realize we still participate in these ceremonies."

The school's Aboriginal Youth Leadership Program received a $1,400 grant from the United Way to organize the April sweat ceremony after delivering a presentation to the agency on their proposal earlier this year.

Keep came up with the idea for the project, called "Paving the Way to Reconciliation," with his classmate and friend Ernestine Mousseau.

The Grade 12 students said they don't always feel connected to their teachers and thought the ceremony could be a way to bridge that gap.

"It's kind of hard to understand someone when you don't know much about who they are and where they come from," said Mousseau.

Building relationships

Stephanie Midford is the school's Aboriginal graduation coach. Part of her job, she said, is to build that relationship between students and teachers. She often hears from students that they think their teachers don't care. 

"Just understanding what students are going through" is important, she said. "Maybe there is something happening in their life, the loss of a loved one."

Stephanie Midford is the Aboriginal graduation coach at St. John's High School. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

She hopes students and teachers will have conversations about those those issues, "to understand where that student is coming from and then help support the teacher to realize OK, they're not just skipping, they're not doing this on purpose."

The other part of Midford's job is helping Indigenous students get their high school diplomas.

She said many have barriers at home that impact their school life. "Aspects are mental health, addictions in families, attendance, students are having to take care of their younger sibling if their family has to go to work — someone has to be at home if there is no daycare provided."

Midford said these are things she sees every day in the halls of St. John's. She keeps an open door for students who need to talk with her, or who need help talking with their teachers about what's going on in their lives. She also connects with their families to involve them in the education process.

She's in her second year in the role, and said she's already seen improvements around attendance, and engagement in studies and extracurricular activities.

Success stories

Raeden Bricklin is a prime example. At the beginning of the year, the 19-year-old's plan was to get his mature student diploma this year. With help from Midford, he will be graduating with a regular high school diploma alongside his peers in June.

"I worked extra hard, stayed home, up all night doing homework, reading my books. The work paid off in the end," he said.

Raeden Bricklin, 19, worked with the Aboriginal graduation coach at St. John's High School to get on track to graduate in June. 'The work paid off in the end,' he says. (Jaison Empson/ CBC)

Bricklin said he didn't put effort into his first two years of high school. He said it was only after he got arrested that he started trying in class.

"I was on probation, so I just went to school and I actually liked coming to school and learning, educating myself, and my culture too," he said.

He's also part of the Aboriginal Youth Leadership Team and was involved in the United Way presentation with Keep and Mousseau. Since getting involved with the team, he's gone to three sweats and learned to build a teepee — experiences he said are important to him.

Bricklin wasn't convicted after his arrest, and said he's happy his mistakes as a teen won't follow him into his future as he applies for university.

He plans on studying kinesiology and getting an education degree to become a physical education teacher.

Perhaps most importantly, Midford said he's a role model for his younger brother, who is in his first year of high school.

"He wants to lead the way," she said. "He's very determined, he's had such great mentors, like his coaches, his teachers — they're all pushing him and providing opportunities for him to be successful and he sees that."

CBC Manitoba's "CBC Asks: What is reconciliation worth to you?" town hall discussion will be held at St. John's High School on Thursday, March 22 at 6:30 p.m. CT. The event is sold out but you can still participate via Twitter, using the hashtag #Beyond94, or watch the event live on CBC Manitoba's website or on CBC Manitoba's Facebook page.

About the Author

Jillian Taylor

CBC Reporter

Jillian Taylor has been with CBC Manitoba since 2012 and has been reporting for a decade. She was born and raised in Manitoba and is a member of the Fisher River Cree Nation. In 2014, she was awarded the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association's travel bursary, which took her to Australia to work with Indigenous journalists. Find her on Twitter: @JillianLTaylor