Nova Scotia school fosters learning and reconciliation with forest path
'This is actually reconciliation in action, they're actually reaching out to Indigenous people'
A project at a small Cape Breton school is truth and reconciliation in action, according to a Mi'kmaw hereditary chief.
Riverside School in Albert Bridge has developed a two-kilometre interactive path in the forest next to its grounds. It's called the Knowledge Path and it is a space for outdoor learning that can be enjoyed by students and the wider community.
It's also devoted to truth and reconciliation.
"This is actually reconciliation in action, they're actually reaching out to Indigenous people, local Indigenous people," said Stephen Augustine, a hereditary chief and associate vice-president at Cape Breton University responsible for Indigenous affairs and Unama'ki College.
"They're inviting the elders to come here, share their stories with the students, and to come here and share their knowledge."
A section of the path is a part of Nova Scotia's first national healing forest. Healing forests were an idea that came about after the Truth and Reconciliation report in 2015.
The forests are meant to honour residential school victims and survivors, as well as missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
"We observed that people that came out [of residential schools] right away, they wanted to go back to the forest, to the land. They felt comfortable touching the earth and ... hugging a tree actually, and that kind of brought a lot of a feeling of comfort," said Augustine.
"Mother Earth has her arms around you, and so the idea of a healing forest came into creation."
In the centre of Riverside's healing forest is a large, circular concrete slab painted to look like a medicine wheel in red, white, black and yellow sections. It's circled by benches and the school southeast of Sydney has used the space for storytelling, including inviting Mi'kmaw elders to speak to students.
"When you leave our path, our hope is that you leave with your own knowledge, whatever stage you are at in your own learning, that you take something away with you when you go," said school principal Suzanne Brown, who approached Augustine in 2019 and asked him to help create the Knowledge Path.
The path is lined with things to help engage visitors with their surroundings. Mindful messages dot the way, reminding people to pause and reflect.
Signs and picnic tables include QR codes to scan and interact further. Some signs explain plant species like birch trees and sweet grass in both English and Mi'kmaw. Brown said eventually when you scan the QR codes on those signs, you'll be able to hear a local Mi'kmaw elder do the translation.
The students themselves have devoted a lot of their own time to the path. Many of the projects along the path were done by students, including colourful birdhouses, flower gardens and rock gardens.
"You see a pride of ownership from Grade 8 right down to primary," said school vice-principal Todd MacAulay. "They love being out here. They're always asking, 'Can we go out and work on the path today?'"
A section in the forest is dedicated to Grade 8 students. Before they leave the school, they help leave a lasting legacy on the path. This year's students helped build a large pergola with a swing.
The path is also home to a large outdoor performance space, which has come in handy during the COVID-19 pandemic. There are small gathering places for classrooms as well as a large outdoor classroom capable of accommodating 40 children.
The public is welcome to use the path any time after school hours and on weekends.
"I wish and I hope that every school in Canada could have something similar to this, " said Augustine. "Children need to go outside of the classrooms and learn from the land."