Saskatoon

'You have to wrap your arms around them': Sask. man recognized for work with Indigenous youth

Sean Lessard believes a cup of tea can change everything. That's why he had 250 of them.

Sean Lessard began life in Saskatchewan foster homes, is now a tenured University of Alberta professor

Sean Lessard has used hockey, volleyball, hip hop dance and even cups of tea to connect with Indigenous youth and help them stay in school. He has just won an international award for his work. (Submitted by Sean Lessard)

Sean Lessard believes a cup of tea can change everything. That's why he had 250 of them.

Lessard, a member of the Montreal Lake Cree Nation in north-central Saskatchewan, wanted to do something about the high dropout rates among Indigenous kids. So when he got his first teaching job, he had tea individually with all 250 Indigenous students in the school.

"In the classroom space, I only learn so much about them," Lessard said. "It's in those other places, like over a cup of tea, where I can find out what really matters."

Lessard continued the tradition for several years, watching with pride as increasing numbers graduated and thrived.

University of Alberta professor Sean Lessard (left) has won an international award for his work with Indigenous youth. It includes the volleyball and mentoring program pictured here in his home community of the Montreal Lake Cree Nation in north-central Saskatchewan. (Submitted by Sean Lessard)

It's all about emotional connections, he said. He's made those connections over and over with thousands of kids in Saskatoon, Regina, Edmonton and many other communities.

He's done it through hockey, volleyball, Indigenous culture, and those cups of tea.

Lessard, now a University of Alberta professor, has now won an international award for his work.

The married father of four has been named 2019 early career narrative researcher of the year by the American Educational Research Association, joining fellow recipients from the University of California, Columbia and Johns Hopkins University.

"I didn't expect it, but it's awesome. It's a nice honour to share with my community of Montreal Lake," Lessard said.

Student says cup of tea changed her life

Katlin Ward said that cup of tea with Lessard put her on a new path.

Ward, a member of the Enoch Cree Nation, was bullied in her Edmonton high school because of her weight and because of her high marks. Her father started driving her to school to avoid the harassment she suffered on the bus rides.

Just days after starting Grade 10, Ward was called to the office.

"I thought I was in trouble," Ward said with a laugh.

Lessard introduced himself and then asked her one question: Do you want to talk about your future?

They sat down for tea in the staff room.

"It was the kind you have when you visit your kokum [grandmother]," she said. "I had no self-esteem, but here someone was paying attention. It had a big impact."

Sean Lessard takes one of his four children to school. Lessard says he grew up in a loving non-Indigenous Battlefords-area home, and has since connected with his birth family on the Montreal Lake Cree Nation as well. (Submitted by Sean Lessard)

Ward graduated at the top of her class, got a degree in native studies and is now completing an education degree. She tutors struggling youth at Enoch and plans to go back there to teach high school.

Lessard inspired her and countless others, but also worked hard to find the resources they needed.

"He'll find a person who knows a person and then boom, you have a math tutor or a bursary application or whatever," Ward said.

Adoptive family, birth family connections

Lessard spent his early childhood bouncing around foster homes. He was eventually adopted by Raymond and Carol Lessard, a non-Indigenous farm couple from the Battlefords area.

He said they gave him a sense of belonging, stability and love. They encouraged him to play sports. He excelled in hockey, volleyball and long distance running.

As he grew up, the Lessards began to talk to him about his other roots.

"They'd engage me in discussions about being Cree," he said. "I was in a safe, loving place with them, but I always wondered about the rest of my story."

In his early teens, he asked about his birth family. His adopted father went to the family safe, opened it, and showed his son the adoption records.

When Lessard turned 16, his father told him to take the family truck and make the 300-kilometre drive to Montreal Lake.

Lessard arrived at the band office and told them who he was. They embraced him and took him to meet his two older sisters and his brother. He met his grandfather, respected elder Jim Settee.

Then he met his birth mother. They had tea together.

"It changed my life," he said.

Lessard returned to the Battlefords, but his connections grew as he made regular trips back to Montreal Lake.

In a personal essay written years later, he reflected on the remarkable cultural perspective his adoptive parents, Raymond and Carol Lessard, had.

"They really rooted me, in particular my dad, who always gave me the space to imagine the multiple meanings of home," he wrote.

"Opening these spaces for understanding identity were critical, and have been guiding lessons for me in my life."

Sean Lessard (left) with one of his mentors, former Montreal Lake Cree Nation Chief Roger Bird. (Submitted by Sean Lessard)

When Lessard graduated from high school, it was Carol's turn to give her son a push. She told him to get more education and to go somewhere outside the Battlefords.

His marks were too low for university, but he was accepted at Lakeland College in Lloydminster.

To pay the bills, he took a job providing respite care for Jeremy Bell, a non-verbal boy afflicted with spina bifida. Lessard said he learned a lot from Bell.

"I woke him each day to get ready for school, took him for outings and put him to bed at night," Lessard said. "It taught me to pay attention to someone besides myself, to pay attention to the silences and the non-verbal cues." 

Lessard graduated with distinction at Lakeland, but still had no plan. He worked at a roadside fruit stand on Vancouver Island before returning for a visit to Saskatchewan. He found a job as a youth worker in Saskatoon.

'Don't come back. Go do something big.'

After two years, his supervisor, Laurel Chelsom, gave him yet another push. She told him to go back to school and become a teacher.

"Don't come back. Go do something big," Chelsom said.

"Be around good people. They'll help you imagine things differently."

He again graduated with honours from the Indian Teacher Education Program at the University of Saskatchewan. That led to a teaching job in Edmonton.

That's where he met Katlin Ward — and many other students — over tea.

That was followed by volleyball and hip-hop dance and "Hockey with Sean" programs. He hosted talking circles and leadership courses. He secured funding for struggling teenagers to become paid mentors for elementary students.

"They change each other's behaviour. The older ones don't act up when they feel they're a leader," Lessard said.

He was helping Indigenous students adapt to their large Edmonton high school, but realized he could have a bigger impact connecting them to their home community and culture.

Lessard worked with Enoch Cree Nation officials to offer summer classes on the reserve for students who'd fallen behind. Dozens signed up for the "Powwow School," which included elders, historians and other experts.

They'd begin each day with a jog, wearing their red school jerseys, calling themselves the "Red Worn Runners."

"It freed them, transformed them," he said.

Many of these programs have spread across cities and First Nations across the Prairies.

Sean Lessard worked with elders in Thunder Bay on their programs for Indigenous youth. (Submitted by Sean Lessard)

During this period, Lessard took night classes and got his master's degree. He was recruited to teach at the University of Regina. All of his previous work — complete with meticulous record-keeping — was now invaluable academic research material.

Through four years at the University of Regina, a doctoral degree and now a spot as a tenured professor at the University of Alberta, he's kept working directly with youth. He still consults with high schools, training teachers in these methods.

He donates all fees from his consulting and public speaking to scholarship programs he created at Lakeland College, Montreal Lake and elsewhere.

Lessard's work began with marginalized Indigenous kids, but he said the principles are universal. He's designing programs for refugees and for gay-straight alliance clubs.

This summer, he's resurrecting the Powwow School at Enoch. He said he can't wait to join the Red Worn Runners for their morning jogs.

"He's definitely a role model, such a talent to connect with young people. I don't know how he does it all," former Montreal Lake chief Roger Bird said.

'There's no magic to it'

Lessard said he's proud of the award and dedicated it to all of the people who've mentored him. He said his greatest pride is seeing the kids he's helped now working as teachers, coaches and community leaders.

"It's what sustains me, right — keeps me going. They're helping in a good way."

Lessard says his philosophy about his work with marginalized kids is simple.

"There's no magic to it. You have to wrap your arms around them."

About the Author

Jason Warick

Reporter

Jason Warick is a reporter with CBC Saskatoon.

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