'They're a family here': Saskatoon high school program grooming Indigenous leaders

The creators of a high school course in Saskatoon are hoping to develop a new wave of Indigenous leaders.

MAGPIE program covers history, art and other topics from Indigenous perspectives

Jarron Gadwa is one of the students in the new MAGPIE program at Saskatoon's Nutana Collegiate. He hopes to learn more about his culture and identity. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

The creators of a high school course in Saskatoon are hoping to develop a new wave of Indigenous leaders.

But first, they want students to reconnect with their identity.

"The way the system is structured, it only has a little bit of room for Indigenous youth and for our kids," said one of the teachers, Candace Gadwa.

"Creating a program like this, it's just for them. They feel welcomed. They feel a part of something. They're a family here."

Students from across the city are coming to Nutana Collegiate every afternoon this semester. The new program is called MAGPIE (Manifest Academic Growth and Promote Indigenous Excellence). 

Many see magpies as scavengers or a nuisance bird. That's how some First Nations youth are treated and how they begin to see themselves, said course advisor Don Speidel.

But the magpie is considered a sacred messenger and guardian in many First Nations cultures. That's how teachers want the students to see themselves.

Sharon Settee is a student in Nutana Collegiate's MAGPIE program and also serves as a mentor to some of the younger students. (Jason Warick/CBC)

Gadwa said it's only the first week, but she's already seeing a lot of progress.

"These kids are amazing. The environment, there's a real warmth here," she said.

They'll cover history, art, governance and other subject from an Indigenous perspective. The program grew out of the Saskatoon Public School's Indigenous Ensemble performing arts program. That was an extra curricular, after school program. MAGPIE is now a full credit high school course.

Several older students have been brought in to serve as mentors.

"With Aboriginal people that don't know their culture that well and they don't know who to turn to, they can come to this program, find their identity and be comfortable," said student-mentor Sharon Settee.

Student Jarron Gadwa practices smudging and daily traditional prayer. He's also a dancer. Despite all that, he said he is still excited to learn more in the program.

"To think there's a class you can take that revolves around my culture, I think that's sort of amazing," he said.

Gadwa, Speidel and other organizers emphasize this is about more than political leaders. They hope students will branch out into health care, sports or even take over the MAGPIE program some day.

"We need leaders in every aspect of life," Gadwa said. "That's what we're creating here."