'How do you not see your people in these Indigenous youth?': Couple working to decolonize classrooms

Erin Goodpipe and Ben Ironstand are a young Indigenous couple who are both educators in the Regina Public School system. They both come from difficult backgrounds and have strong cultural knowledge - but transferring that knowledge to their classrooms is not always easy.

Erin Goodpipe, Ben Ironstand bring Indigenous knowledge and experience from their own backgrounds to classes

'I'm happy to be teaching, happy to be in the space of the students, and I think that sets the tone. ... I don't think a lot of kids have that, especially from a First Nations male,' says teacher Ben Ironstand, pictured here with student Lynnisa Pasap. (Ntawnis Piapot, CBC )

Ben Ironstand stands before a group of Grade 11 and 12 students, showing them how to use an axe, a saw and clamps to make wooden bow staves. Over the course of the hour, students will work on beading moccasin vamps and sewing red ribbon skirts.

The Anishnaabe educator is leading a "nation building" exercise at Regina's Thom Collegiate, to teach students about Indigenous history and treaties. As time goes on, the students will have created strong "nations" within their classroom, complete with flags, songs and chants, and their own culture conveyed through art.

Little do they know at the end of the semester the art they worked so hard on will be taken from them, and their nations dismantled. It is meant to be a hands-on teaching tool.

Ben Ironstand teaches his students about nation building and how it relates to treaty education. (Ntawnis Piapot, CBC )

"Many of my students, they don't even know what reserves they are from. Some of them don't know what nation they belong to," said Ironstand. "They don't know there's a difference between Indian groups. So, just to teach those kids their identity and both the beauty and diversity of their culture, I think that's what I want: them to be proud to be Indian."

Ironstand asks the students to recall human rights they identified in a previous class. He writes them on the board as they are called out: freedom of speech, religion, work, housing.

A student responds, "the right to be equal," and Ironstand puts it at the top of the list.

Understanding Indigenous students' needs

Ironstand's wife, Erin Goodpipe, is also pursuing a career in education, because she remembers a time she was deemed "lesser than" her peers.

The 24-year-old from Standing Buffalo First Nation in Saskatchewan said she was often underestimated in school because she is Indigenous. She was encouraged to take modified classes. She said she didn't need those classes; she needed teachers to understand her home situation and to accommodate her needs.

At 15, Goodpipe had to take care of her five younger siblings because her parents were not around.

"I was juggling the responsibility of thinking of survival for myself and survival of my siblings — and then also trying to graduate from high school."

'I think if I didn't have those teachers I honestly would have taken a lot longer to graduate and I would have felt a lot more crappy about myself not graduating on time. And I think that's what many Indigenous students face is that, 'You're crappy for not graduating on time,' or that you're not meeting up to par as to these average Canadian students," says Erin Goodpipe, pictured here at Standing Rock in 2017. (Erin Goodpipe/Facebook )

She is thankful that some teachers recognized what she was dealing with at home and worked around those needs.

"They crossed that professional line and made it a personal line and became friends with me and because of that, they got to know what was going on in my life."

Making teaching personal

Goodpipe is now in her final semester of a bachelor of education degree at the University of Regina. She is completing her teaching practicum at a Regina high school.

Goodpipe said her Indigenous students are facing challenges that their peers — and even teachers — could not imagine. Because of her background, though, she can recognize signs of distress.

"It's powerful. Sometimes it brings me to tears. It's like, how do you not see your people in these Indigenous youth?"

'I was freezing cold, lying under a teepee at Standing Rock when I received a message from my sister that our mother had overdosed from fentanyl in Vancouver’s East Hastings. I remember having a moment of pure solitude as I looked at my cold breath float up towards the teepee poles. The poles seemed like they were specially placed here for this moment, my ancestors beckoning and reminding me of some great purpose much greater than myself.' Erin Goodpipe reflects on her mother's death in a Facebook post one year after her passing. (Erin Goodpipe/Facebook (Leftboot Photography) )

Goodpipe shares her life experiences — bad and good — with her students.

"Sharing my own story with them and have a good conversation with them, rather than pretending to be an expert, is actually proving to be more effective in connecting with them and getting to that place of like, 'What's going on here? How can we motivate you? I know it's tough going through whatever it is you're going through at home, because I know that. And if I can do it, I know you can do it, too.'"

In that way, the line between personal and professional can get skewed, she said.

"Me being an Indigenous woman, and coming through the hardships of that intergenerational trauma and all that stuff that's been passed down, just really bluntly sharing with them, and not making it this institutional thing where I'm standing in front of them and being like, 'This is what you need to do for the day, and I'm the expert here and you need to listen to me,'" she said.

Accommodating Indigenous practices

But Goodpipe and Ironstand find the education system is not always set up for the type of classroom atmosphere they strive for, which includes smudging and visits from elders.

"There's always time frames and that's totally in contrast to our [Indigenous] world view where we're patient and where we take the time that we need to do the things that need to get done in a right way," said Goodpipe.

"What about if I bring an elder in and they need to tell a story for a long time? What do I do? Just cut them off and say, 'No, you're done. You've learned what you need to learn today. Time to go to your next class?' No."

'I actually like that we have an Indigenous teacher teaching native studies ... Not all our experiences are the same so he can come and speak to us from experience as an Indigenous person - and that's something a lot of us Indigenous students can relate to,' says Lynnisa Pasap, a student in Ironstand's class from the White Bear First Nation. (Ntawnis Piapot, CBC )

Goodpipe said she is also met with pushback from other teachers when she smudges with her students. She sees the value in smudging for her students' well-being and mental health. In those circles, she talks frankly with her students about their struggles, as well as her own. She said this is a way to connect and debrief with students who may be facing harsh realities outside of the safety of her classroom.

But she has found some schools don't have smudging policies, including a dedicated space to do it and a general understanding amongst teachers of what it is and how it takes place.

"Students have smudged before and you get teachers coming around being like, 'What are you guys doing? What's going on here?' And kind of treating it like it's this hokey, witchcraft-like, new agey thing that we're doing, and that's not it."

Goodpipe also said students have been sent home because staff mistook the smell of smudge for marijuana.

"That's so damaging to a young person to feel like my school doesn't support me culturally. They don't understand who I am culturally and nor are they accepting of it," she said.

More than a career

Still, this couple is not about to be deterred.

Ironstand said he has received the go-ahead to do a cultural camp where he will teach his students outdoor education this spring. It is the first of its kind in Regina coming from an Indigenous perspective.

"I wanted to be able to help other kids who also fall through the cracks or who other teachers would write off or who would dismiss," he said.

And Goodpipe is determined to keep her approach to education coming from her community.

"It's my life, you know? It's not this professional place of education that I go to just to make money."

Erin Goodpipe, left, has ties to both British Columbia and Saskatchewan, while Ben Ironstand is Anishnaabe. (Erin Goodpipe/Facebook )


Ntawnis Piapot is Nehiyaw Iskwew from Piapot Cree Nation. She has a journalism degree from the University of Regina, and is a graduate from the INCA Media and Intercultural Leadership Program from the First Nations University. Ntawnis has been a reporter for CBC Saskatchewan, APTN National News, CTV Regina, VICE News, J-Source and Eagle Feather News. Email: