Threatened Indigenous education program 'reconciliation in action,' supporters say

An Ottawa program that immerses students in Indigenous culture is facing a funding shortfall — and unless things change, it will only be able to continue for one more school year.

Wabano Centre program running out of money

Ethan Barclay, 16, said he enjoyed his experience at the Wabano Centre because he felt more immersed in the teachings. He said there is a sense of detachment when learning about residential schools in a regular classroom. (Robyn Miller/CBC)

Ethan Barclay pinches small morsels of tobacco, sweetgrass, cedar and sage into a tiny tan leather satchel he's making to wear around his neck. 

The 16-year-old is taking part in a medicine pouch workshop at the Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health in Ottawa with his classmates from Lester B. Pearson Catholic High School.

"I think that it's really important for students to kind of learn more about Indigenous culture. I mean we're living on their land, so it's the least we could do," Barclay told CBC.

The workshop, however, is in danger: it's part of the Indigenous Education Program, which is running out of money fast.

'This is reconciliation in action'

3 years ago
Allison Fisher, executive director of the Wabano Centre, and high school teacher Valerie Van Sickle spoke to CBC News about what the program means. 1:08

Program part of call to action

The Ottawa Community Foundation, which helps connect residents with a variety of causes, started the program two years ago after receiving an anonymous donation.

But that money, combined with a community grant, will run out during the 2019/2020 school year.

"This project is important because it is about children, and children are our future," said Allison Fisher, the Wabano Centre's executive director.

"And I think if we don't continue to support this particular project, it will be a sad day."

This is reconciliation in action. This is reconciliation where the kids are learning culture.- Valerie Van Sickle, high school teacher

Since the program started, Fisher said about 800 Ottawa high school and elementary students have visited the Wabano Centre to immerse themselves in Indigenous culture through tours, workshops and information sessions on residential schools.

Valerie Van Sickle teaches at St. Pius High School and said her experience with the program has been wonderful. 

"This is reconciliation in action. This is reconciliation where the kids are learning culture. They're deepening their understanding, and that is an important part of the calls to action," Van Sickle said.

Allison Fisher is the executive director of the Wabano Centre and said the Indigenous Education Program has huge importance because children are the future and need to know about the past. (Robyn Miller/CBC)

Those calls to action came out of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, formed as a means of reckoning with the devastating legacy of forced assimilation and abuse left by the residential school system.

In June 2015, the commission released a report based on hearings where thousands of residential school survivors told their stories.

From that came 94 individual instructions to guide governments, communities and faith groups down the road to reconciliation.

Immersion helps with learning

Most of the funding for the Indigenous Education Program is used to transport students to the Wabano Centre, which teachers say is vitally important. 

Barclay completely agrees, saying he walks by the Wabano Centre often but had no idea what it was or what programs it offered Ottawa's Indigenous community.

Teacher Valerie Van Sickle said the Indigenous Education Program is the tangible piece of history for her students and helps them put the pieces of the puzzle together. (Robyn Miller/CBC)

"I think it just makes us a little bit more immersed. I think in our classroom there's still a certain feeling of detachment you know, not really being there," he said. "I think it definitely helps learning and knowing what is going on."

Staff at both the Wabano Centre and Ottawa Community Foundation are now hoping the program becomes a mandated part of the curriculum by school boards, but that will require funding. 

It's not clear where the money will come from, but the goal is to keep the interactive initiative operating for many years to come.