Thunder Bay

Elders on FaceTime, virtual feast help First Nations students during pandemic

The Seven Generations Education Institute in northwestern Ontario makes access to elders a priority for its students and the global pandemic means they're getting even more innovative in maintaining that connection.

Seven Generations Education Institute uses technology to keep elders safe and students learning

Connecting students with elders is a priority for Seven Generations Education Institute, as seen here at the 2019 fall harvest event. The event will go online this year in an attempt to maintain traditions during the global pandemic. (Submitted by Seven Generations Education Institute)

The Seven Generations Education Institute in northwestern Ontario makes access to elders a priority for its students and the global pandemic means they're getting even more innovative in maintaining that connection.

The publicly funded, not-for-profit institute offers education at all levels from preschool through to trades certificates, diplomas and degrees at campuses in Fort Frances and Kenora and through distance learning.

COVID-19 is providing new opportunities to apply its core function — empowering students through Anishinaabemowin (Ojibway language) and culture, said Brent Tookenay.

"We're seeing how the two worlds are colliding," Tookenay said of the way that technology and traditions are meeting.

There was the surge in interest in the institute's online language courses, called nests, that "grew and grew" in the early days of the pandemic shut-downs when people had more time on their hands. Or the way the institute can now employ an Anishinaabemowin teacher, who happens to live across a closed border in Minnesota, to provide online classes.

"The world has opened up to us a bit in terms of access," Tookenay said.

There's still work to be done to ensure that students can connect to the internet at home in their communities, where broadband access is rare, he said but Seven Generations is seeing how technology can bridge the generational divide.

Texting tobacco

Elders are using video chats to stay connected with staff and students and stay safe from contracting the virus, Tookenay said.

The cultural protocol of offering tobacco when asking an elder a question can be maintained through technology, as well.

A photo of the tobacco can be texted to the elder and then, when the elder answers on video chat both the elder and the asker will hold tobacco in their left hands to make the spiritual connection, he said.

"It is a way to connect from the heart if the distance is too great to connect in person," Tookenay explained. "It is not the way that we want to do things, but a respectful alternative. 

"With the pandemic we have looked at other ways as well but have done this a few times," he added. "It keeps the spirit and honesty in the conversations. Once we are done the conversation we place the tobacco in the woods or the water to honour the protocols."

A traditional fall feast is one of the highlights of a typical school year at Seven Generations, with up to 20 different stations for students to visit and see different harvesting and food preparation techniques. That too is being adapted as a virtual event this year, Tookenay said, with video appearances from the elders streamed to learners at home.

Language learning

The pandemic is a lesson in patience too, Tookenay said. The next cohort of a successful, intensive language learning program has been pushed back to January so it can be adapted and delivered online.

The course sees each of the 10 First Nations that govern Seven Generations pay at least one student to learn Anishinaabemowin. They take immersion classes for six hours every day, five days a week for three years to become "conversationally fluent."

Many in the 20 students from the first cohort got jobs, including three hired by Seven Generations, before the three years were up, Tookenay said. 

That includes work to create a Microsoft interface that will use the Anishinaabe words for the commands on your desktop such as file, save and edit. There's also an online translation tool being created that will allow you to type a phrase in English and hear it spoken back in Anishinaabemowin. And there are plans to research and develop resources for the distinct dialects of the language that are spoken in different Treaty 3 communities.

All of that work is getting a boost from the Mastercard Foundation, which recently entered a $16 million partnership with Seven Generations, to support it's work connecting Indigenous youth with their language and culture over the next five years.

"Our chief and councils, along with the Seven Generations board of directors have really provided the leadership and support for the language strategy and without them there would be no strategy," Tookenay said. 

"The ultimate goal is to create more speakers on our communities in order to continue our ceremony, culture, traditions and connection to the land," he said.



  • An earlier version of this story reported that Seven Generations received funding from the Mastercard Foundation's COVID Recovery and Resilience Fund. The $16 million in funding is in fact, a new 5-year partnership between the Mastercard Foundation and Seven Generations Education Institute.
    Sep 01, 2020 11:36 AM ET