Nfld. & Labrador

Meet the people trying to de-colonize Innu education in Labrador

New efforts to bring Innu culture to the classroom are underway in Labrador's Innu communities of Sheshatshiu and Natuashish.

'It's bringing the Innu culture back into education'

Krista Montague is a teacher in Sheshatshiu. (Angela Antle/CBC)

Shekau Piwas is helping young Innu students cross a huge divide.

She's a classroom assistant in Natuashish​, helping Innu students learn and master a curriculum that is largely in English.

"I'll probably inspire them. I hope to make a good role model," Piwas said.

Innu — also known as Innu-aimun — is the first language of many of the nearly 700 students in the Innu School Board, but their books are in English and their teachers often speak only English, she said.

It's bringing the Innu culture back into education.- Krista Montague

This summer, Piwas was one of five classroom assistants from Natuashish​ to attend classes at Nipissing University in North Bay, Ont.

Her goal is to get an Aboriginal teaching certificate. She said it's important for Innu students to be taught by teachers who speak their own language and know their culture.

'All kids learn differently'

A huge step in inspiring Innu students and bringing more of their culture to the classroom begins this year: a new Innu Studies course will be offered to high school students in Sheshatshiu​ and Natuashish​.

Krista Montague, a teacher in Sheshatshiu​, calls it a breakthrough.

The course has three parts: an in-class portion where students will learn about Canada's Indian Act, a portion where people from the community will come into class and share traditional expertise, and a portion that will focus on being and learning "on the land."

"It's bringing the Innu culture back into education," Montague said.

Students will gain credits for building tents, berry-picking, crafts and other traditional activities.

Montague points out that it's about more than getting students out of the classroom: the course also represents a huge shift in how success is measured.

Many of the students at the Sheshatshiu Innu School speak Innu as their first language, but have to navigate an English curriculum. (Angela Antle/CBC)

"When you're talking about de-colonizing education, you're talking about assessments. All kids learn differently," she said.

"A lot of our students who do struggle with the reading and the writing aspect of the curriculum, this will be their place to shine. And I think that's going to be an eye-opener and people are going to realize the standardized pencil and paper assessments does not work for everyone."

Montague said she hopes the new curriculum will improve attendance by giving students an opportunity to be the teacher.

Learning on the land

The Innu School board is also educating non-Indigenous teachers about the Innu way of life by taking them hunting — sometimes for two weeks at a time, said Katie Rich, Natuashish's community director of education.

"Some of these teachers do not know anything about the Innu. What better way to learn first-hand from the families themselves to do the hunting and setting up tents and just being in their element on the land?"

Some of the teachers have told her their experience among the Innu was life-changing, she said.

Kanani Davis is director of education for the Innu School Board. (Angela Antle/CBC)

The efforts of the Innu School Board has seen a bump in the number of high school graduates, said Kanani Davis, the director of education for the Innu School Board.

"I'm very proud of the schools in Sheshatshiu​ and Natuashish​," she said.

With Files from Bailey White, Matt McCann and Angela Antle.

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