Thunder Bay

'We are part of a transformation' Lakehead University offers land-based learning

Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., is collaborating with Biigtigong Nishinaabeg, a First Nation 320 kms. east of the city, on a land-based, master's level course.

Pilot program between Biigtigong Nishnaabeg and the university takes students on the land to learn

The first cohort of students in the master’s level land-based learning program between Lakehead University and Biitigong Nishnaabeg. (Ron Desmoulins/CBC)
We continue our look at a collaboration between Lakehead University and Biigtigong Nishnaabeg. They've created a unique pilot program where teachers in the First Nation are enrolled in a land-based master's level program. We'll hear from the university about their role in working with the community to create the pilot. 7:25

Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., is collaborating with Biigtigong Nishinaabeg, a First Nation 320 kilometres east of the city, on a land-based, master's level course.

It sees the first cohort of students getting out of the classroom and out on the land to learn traditional skills from elders and knowledge keepers.

The first course took place in September 2019 for a lesson on wild rice harvesting on Whitefish Lake, about 60 kms. west of Thunder Bay.

"There'll be some maybe small components in a classroom but people will be out at the location," Paul Berger, Chair, Graduate Studies & Research in Education at Lakehead said.

Paul Berger is the Chair, Graduate Studies & Research in Education at Lakehead University. (Lakehead University )

"Interacting with elders and knowledge keepers and then thinking about what that means and how they might incorporate that into their kindergarten to Grade 12 classrooms."

In addition to harvesting wild rice, the course also plans to take students out this spring for a fish harvest and later in the course, go on a moose hunt. "But more than just those three courses there's the desire and the will to get land in significantly in other courses, Berger said.

"And to pay attention if that community needs and how all of the learning can end up back in the classrooms and out of the classrooms of teachers in the community."

For Berger, introducing a land-based learning program at the university is a way to challenge how people can take in knowledge.

The wild rice harvesting took place on Whitefish Lake, to the west of Thunder Bay. (Ron Desmoulins/CBC)

"Typically people have needed to come into university structures and done things kind of our way, the dominant culture, academic way to have that that stamp of you having your master's degree, you've reached this level," Berger said.

"So, we're saying, okay, actually there are other ways to learn, there are other ways, other pedagogies, other ways to teach. There's knowledge from the land, there's knowledge from people who hold knowledge around those practices. Let's try to work together to do something differently."

And for Berger this land-based master's course also give the university an opportunity to learn as well.

"I'm hopeful and my colleagues who are most involved in this are hopeful that some of the things that we learn about being involved in this program that they will seep back into our classrooms at the Faculty of Education and also at the B. Ed. level so the way we prepare teachers."

In September of 2019, the first cohort of student from Biitigong Nishnaabeg taking the master's level land based learning course at Lakehead University spent a weekend on the land harvest wild rice. (Ron Desmoulins/CBC)

Berger added, "by doing something differently and being challenged to do something differently we're really hopeful that it changes us. It's not just we're doing a different program or a program that we hope meets the needs of the community in a much stronger way than a generic program would."

"This is also an opportunity for us to grow and change and learn to do things differently for all of our student teachers and master students," Berger said.

One of the key components of getting students out of the classroom and learning on the land is how those students are actually instructed.

"In some models of learning the instructor at the front has the knowledge, and they're transmitting it to their students … but it's still a very common sort of metaphor for learning and some classrooms at the university will have one person at the front and 300 people in the room there's not a lot of interaction or sharing," Berger said.

"But in my understanding of Indigenous ways of knowing and learning, teachers are learners and learners are teachers."

Students in the land-based pilot program at Lakehead University listening to Randy Trudeau, one of the knowledge keepers during their weekend of harvesting wild rice. (Ron Desmoulins/CBC)

Berger said his instructors have already seen this with this course. "There's a huge sharing that happens and students are learning from each other and the instructors are learning from the students, Berger said.

"It's a more dynamic, and I think a more engaging and exciting way for people to learn for everyone."

One of the other differences in this land-based learning course is there's a real sensitivity to the land and sense of place and who has been using that space, Berger said.

He said in some recreation or outdoor learning courses the Indigenous presence is not acknowledged, Berger said.

Part of the wild rice harvest is laying out the rice on a tarp to dry and then sifting through it to remove any stalks, weeds or rice worms. (Ron Desmoulins/CBC)

"I think the land-based learning cohort are really focused on culture and place, and what's happened there and continuity in history."

Berger said he's really excited about some of the early successes of the first cohort of students, made up of mainly teachers at the elementary school in Biigtigong Nishnaabeg.

"We've heard some reports of teachers already incorporating things, and changing some of what they do with their students," Berger said.

"If it works really well for them, and we've learned how to do this. I think the doors will open for other communities to to work with us."

One of the students getting instructions from the elder on the construction of winnowing baskets for cleaning the wild rice. (Ron Desmoulins/CBC)

And beyond working with other First Nations, Berger has greater aspirations for this master's level course, "eventually we'll see those students who are now in Grade 5 or 6 or 7 in those transformed classrooms they will end up in the Faculty of Education one day becoming teachers, and they'll go in just a way ahead of where their teacher started."

"So I think in the best case, in my dream world, we are part of a transformation and just at the very beginning of that … but it's pretty exciting to be part of that."