Thunder Bay

Teaching the teachers with land-based learning

It started with a simple question by a working group looking at the curriculum in Biitigong Nishnaabeg, a northwestern Ontario First Nation located about 320 kilometres east of Thunder Bay - what did they want the children of Biigtigong to learn.

A pilot program at Lakehead University is taking students out of the classroom and out on the land

The first cohort of students in the Lakehead University and Biitigong Nishnaabeg pilot program spent a weekend learning about wild rice harvesting. (Ron Desmoulins/CBC)

It started with a simple question by a working group looking at the curriculum in Biitigong Nishnaabeg, a northwestern Ontario First Nation located about 320 kilometres east of Thunder Bay — what did they want the children of Biigtigong to learn?

Lisa Michano-Courchene is the Education Director in the community, previously known as the Ojibways of the Pic River First Nation.

She says they started developing their own curriculum about five years ago and wanted to take it beyond reading, writing and arithmetic skills.

Lisa Michano-Courchene is the Director of Education in Biitigong Nishnaabeg. (Lisa Michano-Courchene)

"That really is a big focus in our curriculum, is for them to get to know that the knowledge that their relatives and their ancestors have, and did have in the past, is just as valuable as the Western knowledge out there being presented in books."

Michano-Courchene said there was a desire to put a greater emphasis on the history, language, knowledge and skills of Anishnaabe people.

"We just keep adding more and more, and the realization came to me that we're moving toward more land-based activities and connecting the students to their land, to their language to form that identity and to form that foundation that is really required for anyone to be successful in whatever they choose to do."

And in moving more and more toward land-based activities, Michano-Courchene realized that they needed to also train the teachers at their school.

That's when she contacted Lakehead University with her vision of professional development for the teachers at the elementary school in the community.

Rhonda LeClair, one of the knowledge keepers for wild rice harvesting, watches as canoes are hauled to the locations where the students will start knocking the rice grains into the bottom of the canoes. (Ron Desmoulins/CBC)

"Through our various conversations, we decided that we were going to pilot a project where all of our teaching staff were going to be involved in a master's level program focusing on land-based concepts and ideas, and to be able to transfer them into their teaching methods."

The wild rice harvest took place on Whitefish Lake about 60 kilometres west of Thunder Bay, Ont. (Ron Desmoulins/CBC)

Michano-Courchene said it is extremely important for students to see that traditional knowledge, history, and skills in the classroom.

"In order to be successful in anywhere in life along the way, students really need to know where they come from," she said. "What is their background, what do they bring to this world as Anishnaabe people, or as an Anishnaabe person."

Two of the students parching the wild rice on an open fire. (Ron Desmoulins/CBC)

The first cohort in the land-based learning program, at the master's level, is mainly teachers from Biitigong Nishnaabeg.

The students spent a weekend, this past September, on Whitefish Lake, about 60 kilometres west of Thunder Bay, learning how to harvest wild rice.

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)

It was the first of three activities where students will go out on the land. Michano-Courchene is also taking the course, alongside her teachers, and she said it's still early in the pilot program, but with every course they accomplish there's always something new that they've learned, and they'll apply to practice.

"Half of my teachers are non-Indigenous, and to see their growth and to see their development when it comes to learning about the importance and the connection of the land to Indigenous people has been tremendous."

The elder showing one of the students what the wild rice should look like after the parching step is done. (Ron Desmoulins/CBC)

Michano-Courchene added while the land-based learning course is a good start, there is still room to improve how the children in Biitigong are educated.

"We need to continue working on is the use of our language, and the idea that the teachers presently in our system, they don't act as experts when it comes to traditional knowledge and skills," Michano-Courchene said.

"We really are a facilitator, and our experts, I guess, are the community members and the elders that come in and share the knowledge, and share the teaching, and we sit and we kind of absorb things, and we look at the different ways of learning that the students are engaging with."

The first cohort of students in the master’s level land-based learning program between Lakehead University and Biitigong Nishnaabeg. (Ron Desmoulins/CBC)