Montreal

Mi'kmaw principal brings Indigenous learning into classroom at New Richmond, Que., high school

Staff at New Richmond High School, in the Gaspé region, go the extra mile to integrate Indigenous knowledge into the school curriculum, which they say doesn't go far enough to reflect the region's Mi'kmaw heritage.

Teachers making up for shortfalls in Quebec curriculum, which they say doesn't reflect students' reality

Michael Isaac, the principal at New Richmond High School, said he attends symposiums and conferences outside Quebec to learn how other provinces are integrating Indigenous knowledge into their curriculums. (Julia Page/CBC)

When Michael Isaac took over the principal's job at New Richmond High School on the Gaspé coast three years ago, he decided to go out of his way to make sure Indigenous history and culture were reflected in the classroom.

The Quebec Education Ministry's high school curriculum simply wasn't up to the task.

Roughly 60 per cent of the school's population is of Mi'kmaw heritage — as is Isaac.

"By having our Indigenous knowledge in the curriculum, it's fostering and developing identity — identity that has been stripped from us," Isaac said.

The erosion of that identity, due to government policies like residential schools and the Sixties Scoop — the adopting out of Indigenous children to non-native families — continues to this day, Isaac said.

"They do not value our language and culture. We learn nothing about who we are as a people."

Literature and science

Revisions to the province's history curriculum in recent years have been roundly criticized by minority groups and educators, leading to calls for more accurate representation of minorities and Indigenous peoples in Quebec history textbooks.

Isaac said Quebec should go much further than "the window-dressing, the drumming, the dancing" and integrate traditional knowledge into other school courses, like sciences.

"Physics, chemistry, biology — you name a subject being taught in school, we have evidence that shows that our ancestors were well-versed in those subject areas," Isaac said, pointing as an example to the craftsmanship of canoe builders.

Teachers at New Richmond High School look to other provinces for inspiration. 

Starting in September, the new curriculum in Ontario will "increase learning about Indigenous perspectives, cultures, contributions and histories," that province's government announced in March.

In her English class, New Richmond teacher Jennifer Roy introduces Indigenous authors to her students, opening up a wide range of topics to which they otherwise wouldn't be exposed.

Jennifer Roy, left, Eugene Willett and Marie-Joelle Allard will be travelling to Montreal with their students to take part in the final Turtle Island Reads event, on April 8. (Julia Page/CBC)

"As a teacher, it's part of our job to prepare our students for the world outside of this building," said Roy, who works closely with Marie-Joelle Allard, a consultant with the Eastern Shores School Board.

Roy and Allard are aware that as non-Indigenous educators, they have a lot of homework to do themselves.

"We wouldn't want them to think of us as experts. We're educating ourselves as we're trying to educate them," said Allard, who shares the learning material with other schools in the Gaspé region.

Getting community involved

Last October, Allard and Roy organized a Sisters in Spirit vigil to honour missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

Mindful they could be overstepping cultural boundaries, they invited elders from the Mi'kmaw communities of Listuguj and Gesgapegiag to take part. 

"We had kids sitting quietly in the gym for an hour and a half," said Roy. "It was shocking: that's how powerful it is."

This year, a ceremony was held in the gym to mark the arrival of spring — and the March school break — as well as the participation of Roy's class in Turtle Island Reads, a CBC initiative, in partnership with the Quebec Writers' Federation and McGill University, that celebrates Indigenous Canadian literature.

Mi'kmaw drummer William Jerome was invited to sing and drum for the students, many of whom he'd taught as an elementary school teacher in the Mi'kmaw community of Gesgapegiag, just up the road.

He was touched to see his former pupils stand up and take part in the drumming circle without hesitating.

"It shows me that they didn't forget. They're proud of where they came from as Mi'kmaw people."

William Jerome, right, an elementary school teacher in Gesgapegiag, Que., was invited to New Richmond High School in March to perform in a drumming circle with students. (Julia Page/CBC)

Ramona Larocque Jerome, who opened the ceremony with a traditional prayer, taught the Mi'kmaw language at Gesgapegiag's Wejgwapniag School for 32 years.

''Our language is who we are, our identity. Without it, part of it is missing.''

Secondary 5 student Jacob Lagouffe said he walked out of the ceremony feeling energized.

"It was really good," he said. "It was sort of spiritual for me. I felt connected with the drum. I was really into it.''

Lagouffe said his school's approach to Indigenous knowledge has allowed him to learn new things about his heritage. He hopes there will be more opportunity in school to talk about important issues, like missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

Secondary V students Mariah Allen, right, Jacob Lagouffe, centre and Britanny Bernard were assigned the graphic novel Will I See this semester, which talks about Canada's missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. (Julia Page/CBC)

"It's really good to bring it up because we need to spread awareness about this subject, and have more people know about it, to [bring] change in our society," said Lagouffe — a sentiment echoed by his principal.

For Isaac, ignoring an entire segment of the population is not only damaging for First Nations and Inuit, it is also a disservice to Quebec as a whole.

"There's a world out there, and there's a world within the province, and that world is the Indigenous world."

About the Author

Julia Page

Journalist

Julia Page is a radio and online journalist with CBC News, based in Quebec City.

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