Indigenous students in school division where girl was shamed for ribbon skirt make inroads

The family of a 10-year-old Saskatchewan girl who inspired a movement of ribbon-skirt wearing says they've seen positive changes at the school where the incident that kicked off the campaign took place.

Good Spirit School Division focusing on reconciliation, cultural programming

Isabella Kulak of Saskatchewan became the centre of a movement after she was shamed at school for wearing a ribbon skirt, which has ties to traditional Indigenous heritage and culture. 'Lots of people take pictures with her,' says her mother, Lana Kulak. (Judy Pelly/Facebook)

The family of a 10-year-old Saskatchewan girl who inspired a movement of ribbon-skirt wearing say they've seen positive changes promoting reconciliation with the Indigenous community at the school where the incident that kicked off the campaign took place.

Isabella Kulak, a member of Cote First Nation, wore her ribbon skirt to a formal day in December at Kamsack Comprehensive School, in southeastern Saskatchewan, and was shamed for it by an educational assistant. After she told her family about the incident, her great-aunt, Judy Pelly, made a Facebook post and sparked a wave of support.

Women and men wearing their ribbon skirts and shirts walked her to school in January, and people from around the globe began to post ribbon skirt photos in her name.

Isabella received letters and photos from schools across Canada, 20 ribbon skirts and many ribbons to make her own skirt, which has ties to traditional Indigenous heritage and culture.

"Even when she's just out and about, there's people calling her, 'Are you the famous Isabella?' And 'I can't wait when I run into you next time, my grandson wants to take a picture with you.' Lots of people take pictures with her," said Lana Kulak, Isabella's mother.

Eunice Ketchemonia-Cote, right, who makes ribbon skirts, her daughter Heather Ketchemonia, centre, and mother Stella Ketchemonia stand in front of Kamsack Comprehensive Institute with Isabella at a march in January in support of the 10-year-old. (Submitted by Eunice Ketchemonia-Cote)

Isabella has been made an honorary member of the Saskatchewan RCMP's Indigenous women's advisory committee and been given numerous awards for becoming a symbol of resilience. She has also dedicated herself to her studies, earning an award for excellence in math and the Einstein Award for excellence in science.

She said she would like to be a doctor one day.

Her parents beam with pride as they list all of her accomplishments over the past six months, but they're also happy with what the school division has accomplished, too.

Isabella sits among some of the ribbon skirts donated to her from people across Canada. After she was shamed for wearing a ribbon skirt, she received letters and photos from schools across Canada, 20 ribbon skirts and many ribbons to make her own skirt. (Travis Pelly/Facebook)

After the incident in December, Quintin Robertson, director of education and CEO for Good Spirit School Division, apologized to the family and promised to do better.

Since then, the school division has been following through, focusing on Indigenous education and reconciliation.

Chris Kulak, Isabella's father, said he has been approached to get involved with the curriculum at the school. Although he isn't a teacher, he was asked to help with its land-based learning program.

"They're approaching people in the community and trying to draw on the talent and the cultural makeup of the community for staff ... rather than reaching outside the community," he said. "That's what I've seen as a real change. I think it's going to change the education experience for kids no matter what their cultural background is."

WATCH | Isabella made honourary member of RCMP's only Indigenous Women's Advisory Committee:

Aiming to 'do better for Indigenous kids'

The school division was already making efforts at reconciliation and cultural programming even before the incident with Isabella.

"We've been chugging along since January and hoping to continue to do better for Indigenous kids," Robertson said.

"We really thank Bella for being brave and standing up for what was right. And we hope we can do better every day."

Jesse Armstrong was hired by the school division in September 2020 as an Indigenous student success co-ordinator, and a second person has been hired who will start next school year. Both will work closely with Indigenous student coaches. The division also has Indigenous community workers at three of its schools, two in Kamsack.

Jesse Armstrong, an Indigenous student success co-ordinator, brought in artist Kevin Pee-ace for a virtual art project with a Grade 10 Indigenous studies class at Yorkton Regional High School in Saskatchewan. (Submitted by Jesse Armstrong)

"I'm working closely with schools to make sure that we're creating environments where all students feel safe, but with the focus absolutely on Indigenous students, on their safety and also on their success in many different ways — not just their academic success, but feeling like they want to be in school ... feeling like they belong in our schools," Armstrong said.

The school division continues to work collaboratively with Indigenous communities, including Cote First Nation, where a service agreement is in the works to help bus students to Kamsack.

Robertson said the First Nation will provide the drivers and the division will supply the buses.

"We really tried to take the stance of nothing about them without them," he said.

"We're starting to have open dialogue," said Chief George Cote of Cote First Nation.

Cote said the Kamsack school already has visits from elders and community members, which gives all students an opportunity to learn about Treaty 4 territory and how the area was established.

"Racism was one of the things that we wanted to address. I think we are making progress, a lot of work to be done," he said.

Robertson said the next step would be to sign service agreements with Key and Keeseekoose First Nations, noting it is important to listen to what the communities need when it comes to educating their kids.

Students worked with Pee-ace at Dr. Brass School in Yorkton, Sask., to create paintings, just one of many activities that celebrates Indigenous heritage. (Submitted by Jesse Armstrong)

The division will be moving forward with a pilot project next year that will make Indigenous studies mandatory for Grade 10 students in four of its schools.

Robertson said the project was already in the works before the school was thrust into the spotlight. But the incident really pushed it to make sure it goes ahead and is a "strong course," he said.

It will focus on treaty education, residential schools and reconciliation, and will be developed with help from Elder Stella Pelly.

Helping teachers, all students connect with culture

Armstrong, a former native studies teacher, said she will be planning some sample lessons and professional development with teachers to get them ready to teach about Indigenous people.

"I think for many years, many Canadians didn't really understand much about Indigenous people and much about the true history of Canada," she said.

Armstrong says while beading orange shirts with students in Churchbridge, Sask., she taught them about residential schools and explained what events and policies in Canada led to the recent preliminary discovery of what are believed to be unmarked burials sites of children at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C. (Submitted by Jesse Armstrong)

Armstrong recently did a beading activity with students in Churchbridge to teach them about residential schools, spurred by the recent preliminary discovery of what are believed to be unmarked burials sites of 215 children at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.

She has also helped students connect with elders and brought in a storyteller from the community to connect virtually with students.

Her team is part of a cultural project with the Ministry of Education that involves creating literary boxes with books from Indigenous authors, such as I Sang You Down from the Stars by Tasha Spillett-Sumner, along with an Indigenous doll bundled in a moss bag and a doll-sized ribbon skirt. She said the boxes will have information about the ribbon skirt.

A doll in a ribbon skirt sewn by Andrea Sparvier of Summer Solstice Designs will be included in a literacy box for students in some Saskatchewan schools. (Submitted by Jesse Armstrong)

Armstrong said she hopes it helps Indigenous students to see themselves represented and non-Indigenous students connect with the culture in a different way.

Many schools across the province have Indigenous student success co-ordinators, coaches or similar roles. In Regina, they are called Indigenous student advocates.

Ceane Dusyk, who works at Regina's Scott Collegiate, handles a variety of roles, including counselling, introducing elders to students, talking to teachers for students if they are uncomfortable and helping them secure funding for post-secondary education.

He said the original goal was to increase graduation rates for Indigenous students, but over time he has become a safe contact for students to help them with anything.

"We are there to help develop and ensure that a relationship is there in the school, so that even schools that have a lower population of Indigenous kids, they have somebody that they can go to," Dusyk said.

He said there weren't many teachers he could identify with when he was in high school, but now he can be that person for others.

"I really get to be a part of the community and the school and help foster that change and that direction. So that's definitely something that I'm proud of being a part of," Dusyk said.

Education key to reconciliation

The school division's work is being applauded by Judy Pelly, a knowledge keeper and Isabella's great-aunt.

"The school division moved in a positive direction to do something about it and [Robertson] gave his promise that it would be done," she said.

Pelly, a residential school survivor, said many people are uneducated about the historical trauma and injustices Indigenous people in Canada have faced since colonization.

"In recent weeks that's really come to light, that dark history," she said.

This doll in a moss bag is part of a literacy project where books by Indigenous authors are used with 'invitations to play.' The moss bag was created by Andrea Sparvier of Summer Solstice Designs, and the mini starblanket was sewn by Nora Cadotte. (Submitted by Jesse Armstrong)

Pelly said learning about colonization and injustices against Indigenous people can help provide a picture of why they are overrepresented in the health-care system, in the criminal justice system and in child apprehension cases.

Armstrong said she has seen transformative change take place in the school division and that teachers have been open to all of her ideas.

"When people say, 'Education will take us out of this,' I truly believe that with education and with furthering everyone's education on Indigenous people and culture, we will move toward reconciliation," she said.

Students at Kamsack Comprehensive Institute put up a teepee for National Indigenous Peoples Day, which is held each year on June 21. (Submitted by Jesse Armstrong)


Samanda Brace

Current Affairs Associate Producer

Samanda Brace (she/her) is a Current Affairs Associate Producer where she gathers stories mainly for CBC radio's The Morning Edition. She has been with CBC Saskatchewan since 2014.