Thunder Bay

Northern Ontario First Nation makes history with its community-based curriculum

Claire Onabigon believes that knowing your own history can lead you to a brighter future and she hopes a new curriculum in her First Nation’s schools will light the way.

Long Lake 58 First Nation created ‘groundbreaking’ new lessons from its own past

Long Lake 58 First Nation's new local history curriculum will include lessons about the Finlayson family, pictured here in the late 1800s, who played a significant role in the local fur trade, says education director Claire Onabigon. (Submitted)

Claire Onabigon believes that knowing your own history can lead you to a brighter future and she hopes a new curriculum in her First Nation's schools will light the way.

The education director for Long Lake 58 First Nation cherishes the time she had with her great grandmother, learning about her family's deep connections to the lands and waters and people in what is now northwestern Ontario.

Those inter-generational conversations inspired Onabigon to break new ground in First Nations education, developing an entirely new history curriculum for students in Long Lake 58, with lessons all about their own families and community.

"My grandmother would always talk about her life," Onabigon says. "That really helped us. It added so much more stability to who we were and I don't think our kids have that anymore."

Long Lake 58 First Nation is making a "groundbreaking contribution to First Nations education," says education consultant Waubageshig. (Submitted by Waubageshig)

'First curriculum of its kind'

Onabigon found an enthusiastic supporter for the plan for a local history curriculum in education consultant Waubageshig  (whose English name is Harvey McCue). 

"I nearly hit the ceiling when I was asked to develop this, because it's something I've been advocating for, for many years" says Waubageshig, who co-founded the Native Studies program at Trent University and has worked in education for more than fifty years.

"This is groundbreaking," he says. "It's the first curriculum of its kind in the country."

Waubageshig says federally-run First Nations schools have "abdicated" the responsibility for curriculum development to the province, with bad results.

"We know, after 70 years that the provincial curriculum is responsible for our kids dropping out," he says. "The more we can Indigenize the curriculum in elementary and secondary schools, the better off our young people will be."

About 44 per cent of First Nations people between the ages of 18 and 24 have completed high school, compared to 88 pe cent for other Canadians, according to Indigenous Services Canada.

Residential schools, day schools and time spent in the provincially-run schools in nearby Geraldton and Longlac, Ont. harmed student's sense of self in years past, Onabigon says.

Long Lake 58 "took back" control of their children's education in 1998, she says, by building both an elementary school and a high school on-reserve, a rarity in small First Nations in northern Ontario.

"We need our kids to know who they are and where they come from," she says.

Local connection to Oka crisis

Part of the new curriculum will highlight Long Lake 58's actions during the 1990 standoff known as the Oka Crisis, between the people of Kanesatake, the Sû​ré​te du Québec and the Canadian military over the town of Oka's plan to expand a golf course on contested land.

"During the Oka Crisis, Long Lake 58 blocked the railway tracks," Onabigon says. "A lot of people who were there are still alive. Our children don't know that their grandfathers, or dads or the person down the street, took part in that."

The history of Long Lake 58 is well-documented through its many land and treaty claims, says Waubageshig, which sped along the curriculum development, allowing him to complete the project in less than a year.

'It will empower them'

There are modules and lesson plans for every grade level, beginning in kindergarten with a focus on family relationships and ending with grade 12 classes on the Ring of Fire, a mining development in the region.

"The Ring of Fire holds great potential and I think it's important that students can think critically about it," Waubageshig says.

The curriculum development was paid for through Long Lake 58's regular education allocation from the federal government, Onabigon says.

"Our children will be able to see themselves in the history," she says. "It will empower them."