Opaskwayak Cree Nation students hunt, trap for grades

A northern Manitoba community is drawing on its Cree traditions to shape students' future, through a unique program that has students hunting, fishing and trapping for high school credits.

Northern Manitoba Cree community uses land, tradition as educational resource

Richard Budd (right) learns to use a compass under the watchful eye of teacher Dan Ehman (centre), part of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation's land-based education system. (Tim Fontaine/CBC)

A northern Manitoba community is drawing on its Cree traditions to shape students' future, through a unique program that sees students hunting, fishing and trapping for high school credits.

Students at Oscar Lathlin Collegiate on the Opaskwayak Cree Nation essentially learn to live off the land with a trapping education course in Grade 11 and a forest ecology program in Grade 12 — programs that integrate Cree culture and language from community members and elders.

It also complements the school's existing language requirement: students must complete one Cree-language course to graduate.

"I like setting the rabbit snares. We skin them and we eat them," said Richard Budd, 13, a participant in the school's newest program, aimed at Grade 7 and 8 students who have fallen behind in their studies. 

'A sense of connection'

"The more that it's outdoors and the more that it's activity-based and hands-on, I think the more that they're motivated to participate," said teacher Dan Ehman.

Richard Budd (centre) learns to use a compass, part of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation's 'land-based' education program. (Tim Fontaine/CBC)
Now in its second year, students like Budd take classes that are a mix of academics and hands-on outdoor activities.

On a typical day, the students will spend the morning in a classroom while afternoons are spent doing activities such as canoeing, learning to make fires safely or orienteering — an exercise that has Budd and his classmates walk through a large field, using compasses to find clues left by Ehman.

"I can use this to help people, like my family, when they go out hunting," Budd said.

Teacher Randy Koshel says the land-based courses give students on the Opaskwayak Cree Nation a sense of connection. (Tim Fontaine/CBC)
"It gives the kids a sense of connection," said land-based education teacher Randy Koshel.

"They're getting a chance to see what outdoor living is and the cultural and spiritual values that are shared, especially when elders come in and talk about it."

During the warmer days, Koshel's Grade 12 students do activities like carving and sanding walking sticks made from trees harvested in the surrounding area. Things will ramp up as the temperature drops, with more intensive trapping and hunting trips.

"I like hunting and fishing, so I figured this course would be the course to take," said Andre St. Gelais, 16, while sanding a walking stick made from diamond willow.

Andre St. Gelais, 16, sands a diamond willow walking stick, just one of the activities students do in the Opaskwayak Cree Nation's land-based education system. (Tim Fontaine/CBC)
Like many students who have taken the land-based courses, Koshel said he's seen St. Gelais' confidence grow.

"There's excitement when they go out. They're focused. They start identifying with who they are and what they can do," he said.

'A huge resource'

With just over 500 students, Oscar Lathlin Collegiate is a large school surrounded by trees and fields. Built in 2011, the building uses geothermal heating and cooling and natural sunlight to illuminate the many rooms. Classrooms are equipped with smartboards — state-of-the-art interactive digital whiteboards. There's even a skatepark.

It's a modern facility filled with the community's Cree culture and language.

For some Grade 7 and 8 students at Oscar Lathlin Collegiate on the Opaskwayak Cree Nation, only half the day is spent in a classroom. The rest of the time the students are on the land. (Tim Fontaine/CBC)
Signs are in Cree, while portraits of the community's chiefs and leaders watch over students in the large, airy hallways. There's also a framed reproduction of the documents that make up Treaty 5, of which this community is signatory.

But it's the land, water and people just outside the school grounds that some staff see as the greatest educational tool.

"Kids are into iPhones and videos games, so it would be great for them to be involved, since there is such a huge resource in the country around them," said Ehman.

To help make that resource more accessible, the school built two cabins on nearby lakes that can be used as land-based classrooms or a base for the staff's professional development days.

Developing 'knowledge keepers'

While it's a creative way to get kids physically active and engaged in education, principal Ron Constant said the land-based program also ensures the next generation becomes the Cree community's future "knowledge keepers."

"We're getting older and we want to keep passing it down," he said.

The school gets nearly 30 per cent less federal funding for each student than the school just across the river in the town of The Pas gets from the province, but Constant said his students aren't suffering.

Oscar Lathlin Collegiate on the Opaskwayak Cree Nation in northern Manitoba has Cree signs. (Tim Fontaine/CBC)
In fact, he said his students are testing at the same level as their provincial counterparts.

"The stigma that you're going to school in the reserve school and getting a sub-par education is no longer a hindrance," Constant said proudly.

"They'd get the same level of education if they were to go to Winnipeg."

About the Author

Tim Fontaine is a Winnipeg-based writer who has worked for APTN National News and CBC Indigenous. You can follow him on Twitter: @anishinaboy.