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Anishinaabe immersion school looks to expand land-based programming as in-person learning returns

Back in the classroom, the Kiizhik Anishinaabe immersion school looks to continue steeping its students in the language and culture.

Zoom classes created challenges, opportunities for land-based teaching

Lillian Swain of Asubpeeschoseewagong (Grassy Narrows First Nation) is the Anishinaabe language and culture teacher at the Kiizhik School in Kenora, Ont. (Logan Turner / CBC)

Coming in from gym class, a little boy cries in the hall.

"I want my mom and dad."

It's the boy's first day of kindergarten at the Gaagagekiizhik elementary school in Kenora, Ont., and halfway through the day, he's ready to go home.

Seeing him crying there, the school's principal Wendy McPherson doesn't miss a beat, guiding the first-time student into her office.

Wendy McPherson, the principal of the Kiizhik school in Kenora, Ont., says her teachers are placing a renewed focus on literacy, numeracy and land-based learning as they return to in-person learning. (Logan Turner / CBC)

When they re-appear just moments later, he's holding an eagle feather. Together, the principal and the boy smudge the hallway, then the kindergarten classroom.

"There's a lot of behavioural [problems], so we've done a lot of one-to-one smudging," McPherson explained. "I'll take them into my office, and we'll do that, and it calms them down.

"It's what we do here," she added.

This isn't just any school. It's an Anishinaabe immersion school in Treaty Three, a one-of-a-kind school in the area, according to McPherson.

The school currently has about 84 students from First Nations in the Kenora area, enrolled in Grades JK to Seven, as well as in the high school. 

It opened its doors in September 2015 after an elder in Treaty Three dreamt of a school steeped in Anishinaabe culture and language, and the Bimose Tribal Council negotiated with the provincial government to get approval and funding arrangements to open the private school.

The walls of the school are covered with Indigenous art and photos of famous Indigenous actors, politicians and scientists, to inspire students to dream big, principal Wendy McPherson said.

The wall of one classroom in the Kiizhik School is filled with the images and biographies of famous Indigenous scientists, doctors and educators. (Logan Turner / CBC)

"Education is key for change," she said. "Creating change for our people now, for our elders and then for our future generations to come. That's what we want to be here."

Lillian Swain of Asubpeeschoseewagong (Grassy Narrows First Nation) is an Anishinaabe language and culture teacher in the school.

Swain spends her days moving throughout the school, teaching verbs in Anishinaabemowin in one classroom, and then harvesting sage in the next.

She said the pandemic forced her, like many teachers around the world, to teach online over Zoom, a platform she had never even heard of.

"Zoom? What are we supposed to do? How do we set this up?" Swain remembered asking.

Anishinaabe regalia, items like hand drums, and art cover the walls of the Kiizhik School in Kenora, Ont. (Logan Turner / CBC)

But she quickly got the hang of it, and even used the platform to her advantage, bringing her students virtually onto the land with her.

"I snared rabbits, so I was able to take the kids out and show them the process of how to snare up rabbit … and when you take the guts out … and then again cooking the rabbit," Swain said, laughing as she remembered seeing parents sitting with their kids to learn from the videos that she created.

Being able to teach children about Anishinaabemowin and their culture means a lot to Swain, who attended residential school as a child.

"When I went there, I wasn't allowed to speak the language. I was punished for speaking my language," she said. "But I was lucky enough where we came home and our parents and our grandparents still spoke to us in the language."

Nagweyaab Jourdain of Couchiching First Nation is a student at the Kiizhik school in Kenora, Ont., and is harvesting sage leaves as part of a class lesson. (Logan Turner / CBC)

Even in her own teacher training and in her work in other schools, Swain said she often ran into obstacles when she tried to bring culture into the classroom.

"I couldn't do a smudge, like it was a hassle to even do a simple thing like that."

That is not the case here, Swain added.

"The school is right in the middle of the town … and so if parents want their children to learn the language and the culture, this is where they send them."

Principal Wendy McPherson said with a return to in-person learning, the school is focusing on expanding their land-based programming, with more time spent doing activities outside like hide tanning, fishing and drum making.

"Then when they come back, I've asked the teachers to infuse that into their English language arts programming, their social studies programming, their science programming," she said.

"That's how education works in a holistic way."

McPherson added she hopes to see a new building constructed for the school to move into, one that makes it easier to be on the land.

"This is something that I'm working on, and that would include more space and the ability to add a Grade 8 and to expand our high school program."

Listen to the full story on CBC's Superior Morning here:

Take a trip into an Anishinaabe immersion school in Treaty Three to hear how they fared with the pandemic .. and what they're looking forward to this year. 8:16