Here's why this Indigenous educator thinks a local outdoor program could be 'a first step to healing'

An educational program that gives thousands of students a glimpse of Canadian heritage is expanding to include Indigenous traditions for the first time.

Students now learning Indigenous traditions at John R. Park heritage homestead

Darlene Marshall is the Indigenous education lead at the Catholic school board. As a student in the 60s, she says she never saw herself represented in the history books. (Salma Ibrahim/CBC)

If the sprawling home at the John R. Park Homestead stands as a tribute to the European couple who built it, the land all around it tells the story of a different people. 

The Indigenous groups that call Essex home are deeply rooted in the area — from maple syrup tapping to snowshoeing, their traditions helped define the landscape. 

And now, an educational program that gives thousands of students a glimpse of Canadian heritage is expanding to include those traditions for the first time.

"It's about time our students understood the impact that Inuit, First Nations and Métis people have had on development historically and currently in Canada," said Darlene Marshall, the Indigenous education lead at the Windsor Essex Catholic District School Board and one of the developers of the program.
For more than 40 years, the Essex Region Conservation Authority (ERCA) has been conducting workshops at the John R. Park Homestead.  Eighteen-thousand visitors, half of whom are students, learn the story of John and Amelia Park annually. They were a European couple who made a home for themselves on the shore of Lake Eerie in the 1800s. 
The John R. Park homestead sits on the shore of Lake Eerie. (Salma Ibrahim/CBC)

Visitors get a glimpse into the Park's home, into their ovens, their barns — all to preserve and celebrate Canadian heritage. But now, some students are also learning stories of how local tribes lived off the land.

They learn about how maple syrup was discovered, how snowshoes were used to help navigate deep snow, how plants and animals helped sustain the tribes and more. 
This archival photo shows an Indigenous woman making snowshoes in 1928. (Library and Archives Canada)

It's a small program that Marshall believes will have a ripple effect. 

"It's time our families and our teachers be comfortable with this information," she said. "Understanding is the the first step to healing, reconciliation and mending that relationship between Canada and its Indigenous people."

This potentially far-reaching change started with a conversation. 

Marshall reached out to ERCA to find a way to bring Indigenous teachings to students in a practical setting. She said there are other sites to visit in Southwestern Ontario, but they're far away from the Windsor area and costly to transport the students to.

And so she worked with the team at the John R. Park Homestead, who were "on board right away," and local elementary Catholic teachers to develop this program. 

"We are now able to use on-the-land learning to embed an understanding for Indigenous peoples locally, in the hopes that students bring that home to their families and have a sincere discussion about Indigenous peoples in Canada at the dinner table," she said. 
Students get a demonstration of how Indigenous people originally made maple syrup. (Salma Ibrahim/CBC)

Marshall is an Anishinaabe woman who grew up in Leamington and said she never saw herself and her stories in the history books as a student in the 60's. 

Creating a legacy

With this program, she believes she's helping to create a legacy for generations to come, including students like fifth-grader Georgina Burgess. 

"I'm First Nations, and I love when other people learn about my culture," she said during a visit at the site. "That's why this is important to me." 
Georgina Burgess is a fifth-grade student at the Our Lady of Perpetual Help school. She says learning about her culture is a source of pride. (Salma Ibrahim/CBC)

The change is also creating awareness among staff at the John R. Park Conservation Area, Kristin Ives, the park's curator said.

"It's an exciting time of growth for our staff and team of environmental educators."

She adds that they're hoping to engage more First Nations "to get more eyes on the program." 

This type of collaboration is one of Marshall's main objective with this plan. She said, especially at a time when Indigenous relations are cast in the spotlight, awareness programs like these must not be overlooked. 
The barns at the John R. Park homestead are used as educational centres. (Salma Ibrahim/CBC)

"It's time for something different," she explained.

To that end, ERCA hopes to scale up the program this year. The pilot has been running over the last few months with the Catholic school board alone. Two-hundred students in five elementary schools were able to participate. But now the aim is to expand to all school boards, potentially reaching around 9,000 students per year.