Saskatchewan·Opinion

Indigenous cultural support in Regina Public Schools leaves a lot to be desired

At the age of six, my family moved to Regina from Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation, more than 350 kilometres away, for better education, opportunities and safety. What we did not anticipate was the lack of Indigenous representation and cultural support from the Regina Public School system, writes Celeste Bird.

'If access to our cultural ways is being discussed, it's moving much too slow,' says high school student

'If Indigenous youth do not receive support to move forward from our tragic shared history, how do we change our future and break the cycles of poverty and despair? The only catalyst for momentous change is education,' writes Regina high school student Celeste Bird. (Penny Smoke/CBC)

Growing up I have always had a foot in two very different worlds.

At the age of six, my family moved to Regina from Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation, more than 350 kilometres away, for better education, opportunities and safety.

What we did not anticipate was the lack of Indigenous representation and cultural support from the Regina Public School system. For all the talk of reconciliation, in my opinion, there is a lot to be desired.

Celeste Bird moved from Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation, near Shell Lake, Sask., to Regina as a child. (Google Maps)

As I matured, it became clear to me that moving away from Ahtahkakoop has had a huge effect on my identity as a Cree woman. I never had the opportunity to learn my Cree language, receive knowledge and access to traditional ceremonies, attend powwows or create my own regalia. All elements of Indigenous culture meant to empower and teach me to rebuild a sense of being, all programs implemented in Regina schools with larger Indigenous student bodies are absent from my school. Apart from a few posters encouraging Indigenous student attendance and aboriginal advocate offices, I can't think of much else available to me.

On Nov. 15, 2019, CBC Saskatchewan partnered with Sheldon-Williams Collegiate in Regina to bring a lunchtime soup-and-bannock session to students, including Celeste Bird (left), during which they were able to have an open conversation with knowledge keeper Brenda Dubois (right). (Keiza Williams/CBC)

And with Regina Public Schools closing its boundaries, I had very few options. Finding cultural experiences outside in the city is difficult, as well, although I found my place as a part of a local youth group working to support the North Central community, where I live.

To me, traditional ways can provide comfort and coping mechanisms for living in a country that was built to destroy everything that as an Indigenous person I find pride in. Traditional knowledge is shared through experience, watching what our kukoms and moshums do growing up. I believe fewer Indigenous youth would struggle academically and drop out of school if they felt supported in a way familiar to them, in a comfortable environment.

I am not naive: my community back home is in crisis with extreme violence, a crystal meth epidemic and alarming rates of HIV and Hepatitis C.  When I return home for funerals of loved ones and time with family, I can see clearly that my parents made the right choice. Reserve schools continue to be drastically underfunded compared with those off-reserve. Teachers across the province struggle to meet the needs of our diverse students. 

But if Indigenous youth do not receive support to move forward from our tragic shared history, how do we change our future and break the cycles of poverty and despair? The only catalyst for momentous change is education.

Ben Ironstand teaches his students about nation building and how it relates to treaty education. He works at Regina's Thom Collegiate. (Ntawnis Piapot, CBC )

I often wonder where all the money has gone that has been put into Indigenous education. If access to our cultural ways is being discussed, it's moving much too slow. One day, it's going to be too late.

In 20 years, it is estimated that Canada will have a population of 2.5 million Indigenous people. If drastic changes aren't made to provide cultural support, languages will be forgotten with the elders. Few youth will ever know how to bead or dry meat; few will benefit from the teachings of the land.

The president of the Saskatchewan Teachers Federation has said it's 'critical' that immediate action be taken to provide Indigenous language instruction in schools across the province. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

People in positions of power need to recognize the connection between a sense of identity and the mental well-being of Indigenous children and youth.

The most frustrating part of all this is that the programming aimed to improve the quality of education for Indigenous students from a traditional perspective already exists, in other cities and many on-reserve schools.

I hope that soon Regina follows Saskatoon's lead and offers Cree immersion schools. I understand that classes such as Cree, or any traditional teachings, may not have enough interest at all high schools. Campus Regina Public, is available for all students in the Regina Public School system. A Cree language and traditional knowledge class would be a good first step in the right direction.

I know this all comes down to funding. It's all about the money and work it takes to actively implement these programs. To that response I say: When will the future of Indigenous people be worth investing in?

I'm not a politician, I'm not a member of the Regina Public Schools board, but I know if you're not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.


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About the Author

Celeste Bird is from Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation in Treaty 6 territory. She has lived in North Central Regina for most of her life.