Beyond the curriculum: How Matawa Learning Centre brings culture to the classroom

Matawa Learning Centre in Thunder Bay offers First Nations teens a holistic education. In addition to standard curriculum courses - like math and science - students also get to take classes where they learn about their culture. 
Vice Principal Jackie Corbett says Matawa offers a holistic approach to education. (CBC/Stephanie Cram)

Matawa High School in Thunder Bay offers First Nations teens a holistic education. In addition to standard curriculum courses — like math and science — students also take classes where they learn about their culture. 

"We're not only considering academics but we're considering the very well-being of our students, including a cultural component," said vice-principal Jackie Corbett. 

"We have language speakers in our program who are fluent and can speak either Ojibway or Cree, it's fantastic to have reflections of Indigenous culture and authentic Indigenous culture within our walls for our students to see." 

The school was created for teens from the nine Matawa First Nations in northern Ontario, after the chiefs from those communities put forward the idea in a mandate. 

At Matawa, success means more than just getting good grades, and that's where the holistic approach to education comes in.

"Yes, there's the academic component of success definitely, but there's also a social component … if we can lend support in other areas beyond the academic realm then that's great," said Corbett. 

"A student who may be struggling with addictions goes through treatment … and if we can offer that support, then that's just fantastic." 

"Our ultimate goal is to get these kids healthy and have pride in themselves and their Indigenous culture." 

One class offered at Matawa is the outdoor education class, where students learn survival skills through camping and hunting trips. 

Student at Matawa are learning how to pluck geese in the outdoor education class. (CBC/Stephanie Cram)

"We try to keep our students connected to their communities as much as possible, whether it's getting food from their communities, or traveling to some of the Matawa communities," said Joey Miller, the outdoor education teacher.

"This fall we participated in a moose hunting trip, and last spring we did our own goose and duck hunt." 

Steve Achneepineskum from Marten Falls First Nation, is a cultural worker at Matawa, and is also a graduate of the program. He teaches students at the school how to play the big drum, and dance powwow. 

When he was a student at Matawa he helped build the big drum that students now use. 

"The drum itself is a teacher, I express the importance of culture to our students, of how it's a major part of identity, especially for First Nations people," said Achneepineskum. 

"Ever since this drum has been happening, going on the third year now … this is the first drum ever at Matawa, so for me that's history in the making right there." 

Steve Achneepineskum is a cultural teacher at Matawa, where he teaches students how to play the big drum. (CBC/Stephanie Cram)

Achneepineskum said when he was student he didn't see himself as a leader, or a role model to others, but the program at Matawa helped him get to where he is today. 

"I came out here in 2007 not knowing my full identity, wondering who I was. So when we have these kinds of programs … it brings a lot of [the students] back down to earth," said Achneepineskum. 

"With culture and teachings, that helps us get [out] ... of our own shells, to where we want to learn more and more for self betterment and self-improvement."

For a lot of the students at Matawa, the move to Thunder Bay is daunting. 

"For some [students] it's their first time coming to Thunder Bay, so some of the words I've heard them say is it's scary, because they're unfamiliar with the lay of the land," said Corbett. 

"Our kids will go to the mall and sometimes … they're met by security and questioned as to what [they're] doing [there] … so it can be very difficult." 

Beyond the walls of the school itself, Matawa is trying to help students feel comfortable in the city. 

They regularly have bowling and movie nights for the teens, and have taken them out on field trips to different areas of Thunder Bay. 

"We did a walking tour and some of our students got to visit some of the local establishments in the Port Arthur area of the city," said Corbett. 

Restaurant owners welcomed the students into their establishments, and let them know it was a safe space for them. 

"That's great messaging for them to hear that they're welcome here."