As Nova Scotia advances legislation recognizing Mi’qmaw as its first language, the province has committed to developing a multi-year Mi’qmaw revitalization strategy.
It comes at a critical time. The number of children under four learning Mi’qmaw fell from 44% in 1999 to 20% in 2013, according to provincial statistics. Mi’qmaw Kina’matnewey (MK), a collective voice for Mi’qmaw education, is working with the province to develop language resources as part of this initiative.
The organization held a cultural camp for educators in the Cape Breton Highlands from August 2-6 called Minua’tuek Ta’n I’tlo’ltimkip, or Bringing Back the Mi’qmaw Way. About 50 people attended, said senior MK adviser John Jerome Paul.
“We give teachers the opportunity to talk to knowledge holders and ask them to present ideas about what they do and how they might use it in the classroom,” Paul told the Nation.
Partnerships with the province and several organizations helped defray the significant cost of setting up equipment such as a huge tent, wigwams, portable showers and an on-site nursing station.
“It was very gratifying to hear the positive feedback from the participants,” said co-organizer Miranda Bernard. “The main thing was to train the educators. They didn’t have to be First Nations. We have allocated 10 places to provincial schools so that they can bring this Indigenous knowledge back into the classroom.
The Mi’qmaq First Nations of Nova Scotia took control of their education system in 1998, which has tripled graduation rates and improved other outcomes. Paul was MK’s Director of Program Services during this transition period, developing innovative agreements with St. Francis Xavier University to create teacher education programs.
Recognizing a dwindling number of native speakers, Paul realized that educational autonomy was necessary for cultural and linguistic survival. He also saw Mi’qmaw teacher training as essential for students to see themselves in the curriculum. This recent camp helped Mi’qmaw teachers reconnect with their culture.
“A teacher may not have the greatest knowledge of the language and therefore may be afraid to deal with knowledge keepers who know a lot,” Paul explained. “We had to demystify the work in our language. Many people don’t know the language very well, don’t know the customs. There is a mystery and they don’t want to touch it.
The camp began with an opening prayer, dancers and a pre-sweat smudging ceremony, a talking stick workshop and a traditional Mi’qmaw Waltes game session. Each day began with a sunrise ceremony and ended with the sharing of legends around a campfire.
“One of the highlights was sitting around the campfire inside one of the wigwams and listening to the storytellers,” Paul suggested. “It was powerful.”
Other workshops teach how to prepare skins and make canoes, moose cries, rattles and medicine kits. Highlights included long medical walks and discussions of hunting and powwow protocols.
“John has planned a lot of earth learning,” explained Bernard. “We had a moose calling contest, presentations on oysters and fish. We also had women’s sweatshirts, I think it was the Mohawk style, and another lore keeper used the Lakota style sweatshirt for men. Traditional meals were included – eel, moose, salmon, traditional Mi’qmaw bread.
Bernard, MK’s early education consultant, is gradually indigenizing his school system’s curriculum, which began by creating 200 kindergarten lesson plans. Last year similar resources were developed for Primary and Grade 1 and this year she plans to continue with Grades 2 and 3.
“With Kindergarten, we got rid of all the desks and introduced play-based learning, which is a developmentally appropriate model of learning,” Paul said. “Game-based learning works with the interests of the individual. You’re integrating Indigenous knowledge into every class, not just this weekly Cree class. »
With lesson plans available in its online student information system, teachers have a plan for integrating traditional knowledge into everyday activities. MK also uses a dedicated Facebook page for teachers to share best practices and network with each other.
Now retired, Paul was the first in his community to hold a university degree and soon after had dozens of projects underway at his training center. Reflecting on his long career as an advocate for Mi’qmaw education, he recalled various programs that created a second chance for students who fell through the cracks of the system.
“One of my favorite projects was that we had a bunch of single moms who had left school in 10th grade, one of them was my daughter,” Paul recalls. “We set up a program and graduated most of these 15 girls. From this group, my daughter became a registered nurse and two of them are now directors. Create strengths in individuals and work with their strengths.
Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Nation