Nova Scotia

Lack of Mi'kmaq education in public schools drives family to home-school

Mi'kmaw artist Melissa Labrador didn't like the lack of Mi'kmaq education in public schools, so she kept her children home and set up her own classroom.

'For me, being Mi’kmaq is more than blood — it’s living a way of life,' says Melissa Labrador

Melissa Labrador helps her children with a reading assignment in their home-school classroom. (David Burke/CBC)

Mi'kmaw artist Melissa Labrador wants what's best for her children, and for her, that means keeping them out of Nova Scotia's public school system.

Labrador is home-schooling her six-year-old twins so they can better understand their Mi'kmaq culture and heritage.

Nakuset and Tepkunaset take lessons in a small classroom across from their playroom in their parent's house on the Wildcat reserve in Queens County. The reserve, part of Acadia First Nation, is located between Kejimkujik National Park and Bridgewater.

The twins' classroom is filled with books, educational posters and musical instruments. 

"My twins are learning a lot more than they would in a public school. It's unfortunate, you know, I remember being in public school and learning about the Indians or the Micmac people of Nova Scotia and how we were savages. So that's something I want to make sure that never gets taught to my twins," said Labrador. 

The education system has evolved since then to include more fulsome information on Mi'kmaq culture and history. 

Nakuset and Tepkunaset Labrador are six-year-old twins. Nakuset, left, loves reading. (David Burke/CBC )

It's still not enough for Labrador, though. She's determined to immerse her children in Mi'kmaq culture. She teaches them the Mi'kmaq language, traditional arts, music, and medicines all interwoven with lessons on reading, writing, math and science. 

"For me, being Mi'kmaq is more than blood — it's living a way of life," she said.  

"I fear that if my daughter, for example, would to go into public school, it would become an institution for her almost and it would really kill that light I see in her because she's so unique," said Labrador. "The same thing with my son. He's very sensitive."   

This is Labrador's second year teaching her children at home.  

Labrador is a well-known Mi'kmaw artist. Labrador makes traditional birchbark containers and paints to express both her culture and her own feelings. (David Burke/CBC)

Her classes involve going into the forest and teaching her children about nature, along with field trips to local museums. Nakuset and Tepkunaset have lessons four days out of the week for a couple of hours each day.

While Labrador's teaching doesn't have a rigid time schedule, she does follow the guidelines set out by the Education Department. All home-schooling parents are required to file annual progress reports on their children's advancement.

So far, things are going well. Both Nakuset and Tepkunaset are in Grade 1, but are at a Grade 2 or 3 education level, according to Labrador. 

It can take Labrador hours to etch a design into a birchbark container. She said doing this kind of work is one way she can help keep Mi'kmaq traditions alive. (David Burke/CBC)

As an artist, Labrador has spent her life preserving Mi'kmaq culture through painting, creating traditional birchbark containers, and passing on her knowledge of traditional medicine. She sees educating her children at home as another way of helping the growth of Mi'kmaq culture.

"I'm honouring who I am, keeping my traditions going for others to share in and to teach."

The children are also taught by their father, Corbin Hart. He said it was important to them to make sure their children understand their cultural identity. 

"It's a vital part of their life and our life and everyone should look at their culture and what it provides and who it makes you. Your culture ends up making you who you are," said Hart.

The couple had another reason to home-school: their son Tepkunaset is partly deaf. He didn't start hearing properly until he was four years old and received two hearing aids. That set back Tepkunaset's education and his parents thought he would need more one-on-one help than a public school could provide.

Corbin Hart is Labrador's partner. He said it was important to both of them to make sure their children were raised immersed in Mi'kmaq traditions and culture. (David Burke/CBC)

Still, it was cultural education that formed the basis of the family's decision to home-school.

In an email, the Education Department said it's important to represent the Mi'kmaq in its curriculum. It has developed a plan to show teachers how to incorporate aspects of Mi'kmaq culture, history, and world views in all subject areas from grades primary to 12. 

But so far, only portions of that plan have been put into effect in grades primary to six. Work on the curriculum for grades 7 and 8 began this fall and will go into effect in the 2018-2019 school year. Changing the curriculum for the higher grades will follow.

The school system also offer a Grade 11 Mi'kmaq studies course which counts as a history credit.    

Labrador's paintings often feature reproductions of the petroglyphs found in Kejimkujik National Park. The petroglyphs are stone carvings made by the Mi'kmaq people thousands of years ago. (David Burke/CBC)

While the school system irons out its plans to be more inclusive, Labrador will continue to run her own Mi'kmaq studies. 

"The freedom to be just who we are as Mi'kmaq people and to include it in our everyday lessons and studies and schooling, we're just being who we are. And I think home-schooling, it really allowed us to keep that going. It's who you are and learning about who you are while you're learning about many other things as well."      

About the Author

David Burke


David Burke is a reporter in Halifax who covers everything from politics to science. His reports have been featured on The National, World Report and As it Happens, as well as the Information Morning shows in Halifax and Cape Breton.