Thunder Bay

Lac des Milles Lacs Education Centre helps 'reclaim' Indigenous language, knowledge

A new education centre in Thunder Bay, Ont., is providing the first trilingual kindergarten program in the province, starting this fall.

The centre will offer JK/SK kindergarten immersion classes in Ojibway, Cree starting September

The former Hyde Park school is home to the new Lac des Mille Lacs Education Centre in Thunder Bay. The centre will offer the province's first trilingual Ojibway and Cree immersion classes for kindergarten students. (Christina Jung / CBC)

A new education centre in Thunder Bay, Ont., is providing the first trilingual kindergarten program in the province, starting this fall.

Located in the former Hyde Park School, the Lac des Mille Lacs Education Centre will offer young students Ojibway and Cree immersion classes through a teaching model that's focused on land-base learning and hands-on teaching.

"This school will be different," education director, Andy Graham told CBC News during the grand opening of the centre on Wednesday. "So what we've done is we've looked at a model where we're using neuro-linguistic approaches, so the language is connected back to activities and tangible things that the students can connect with the language." 

The centre, which was acquired last year, currently provides high school and daycare services, with the new junior and senior kindergarten classes scheduled to start in September.

The building was leased from the Lakehead Public School Board in October 2018 and the first programming started in December and February. On Wednesday, the education centre held their official grand opening. (Christina Jung / CBC)

Graham said the centre has already brought in a number of "land-based teachers in both the elementary and secondary level" to prepare for the new semester, and he plans to expand the immersion program by adding a new school grade to the centre each year.

"We see a need in Thunder Bay ... and in order to make sure the languages are preserved, we need to make sure that the time and the instructional structures are correct," Graham explained. "That's why we're starting with JK, SK ... [because] when you're in grade 6, it's very difficult to learn a second language."

The programs offered at the centre will be inclusive and welcomes all students and families in northwestern Ontario.

"This school is not specifically for Lac des Mille Lacs students, it's not specifically for Indigenous students, it's for every student in Thunder Bay ... this school is open for everyone," he said, adding that the chief and council of Lac des Mille Lacs First Nation wanted to make sure the programs provided at the centre was a "celebration of all cultures."

Centre helps 'reclaim our education, reclaim our language'

As a parent and member of the First Nation, Celeste Pedri-Spade said she's "extremely proud" to see the vision of chief and council at Lac des Mille Lacs "come to fruition."

"We don't have our language, we have baby words, but that was a result of residential schools in our family and other forms of colonization," parent and community spokesperson Pedri-Spade said. "Being able to now reclaim — reclaim our education, reclaim our language — is an important part of our growth and our healing as a community and coming together."

The education centre will offer Ojibway, Cree and English immersion classes for kindergarten students. Education director Graham said this the first trilingual program in the province and if the model works, it can be used in any cities across the country. (Christina Jung / CBC)

She said she was always taught by her elders to share the traditional Indigenous way of learning and having a land-base approach to education is something she never had as a student going through the school system.

"It's, I think, fundamental that we start that at a young age, that the learning happens on the land. That's how we know our ancestors learned," she added. "My grandmother ... was raised in a way where she understood the land as her relative and not just as a resource, and we need to be educating not just Indigenous students in that mindset, but all children."

Pedri-Spade also believes the programs offered at the centre is a step toward achieving our goal of reconciliation.

"While we are celebrating Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous languages ... it's not just reserved for Indigenous peoples. This is for the entire community, and I think that the spirit of reconciliation is about redefining the relationship between settler people and Indigenous peoples," Pedri-Spade said, adding that she believes education will help students develop a healthy relationship at a young age.