COLUMN: Building relationships with our FNMI partners

Ponoka’s STAR Catholic trustee speaks to a division-wide plan to improve outcomes for FNMI learners

Dan Svitich

STAR Catholic Trustee for Ponoka

Building relationships, better equipping educators and improving outcomes for students, namely First Nations, Metis and Inuit (FNMI) students, were the intended outcomes from a division-wide professional development day that began the school year.

St. Thomas Aquinas Roman (STAR) Catholic School Division hosts an annual professional development day each school year, which is called Learning Day. At Learning Day in September the focus was on FNMI culture and history in what was a historic day for the school division.

Held at St. Augustine School in Ponoka, STAR Catholic’s FNMI Learning Day, saw more than 60 sessions and presentations led by First Nations leaders from the bands making up Maskwacis, as well as from Edmonton Catholic Schools, the Maskwacis Cultural College, and Maskwacis Museum. The sessions varied from blanket exercises that give a powerful illustration of Indigenous people’s history since European settlement, to elder-led discussions, to a sweat lodge ceremony and the raising of a tipi.

The day built on partnerships established recently with Nipisihkopahk Education Authority in Samson Cree Nation and Miyo Wahkotowin in Ermineskin Cree Nation, our two main educational partners in Maskwacis.

The theme for Learning Day came out of our board’s priorities. As a top priority, the board puts a focus on strengthening student learning and wellbeing. As part of that, improving educational outcomes for our FNMI students and fostering a greater appreciation amongst stakeholders for FNMI culture has been identified as key.

To that end, Learning Day took a giant step forward to help achieve this goal. Feedback from the sessions shows that it made a difference for staff. Elders and presenters indicated that Learning Day was an outstanding opportunity to sit down with teachers and share their culture and history. Teachers came away energized by the sessions and better equipped with proper protocols and cultural understanding on how to incorporate and share FNMI culture and perspectives in the classroom.

There is much in common between our Catholic faith and Indigenous culture and traditions. Gary Gagnon, Edmonton Catholic School Division Cultural Facilitator and Learning Day keynote speaker, said as much to the staff gathered. He drew many similarities between the beauties of our Catholic faith and the richness of First Nations’ understandings.

There is an increased focus, and rightly so, on reconciliation with our Indigenous peoples and on better understanding FNMI culture and history. Recently it was announced that students across Alberta will learn about the history of residential schools, its legacy in Canada and the stories of Indigenous history. This is part of Alberta’s commitment to the recommendations of the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Superintendent Dr. Troy Davies began Learning Day by reading aloud Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 2008 apology for the Residential Schools system, before staff and FNMI presenters and elders proceeded to share in the many professional development sessions scheduled. It was important to first start the day by acknowledging our country’s past, as we look to take our next steps forward.

STAR Catholic is proud of the relationships that have been built in recent years as we move toward an ever-deeper understanding. We are blessed to have the dedicated staff who worked tirelessly to bring Learning Day to our Division and strengthen a bond that will only serve to benefit all of our students.

Dan Svitich – dan.svitich@starcatholic.ab.ca – is a Ponoka Trustee on the STAR Catholic Schools Division Board. STAR Catholic Schools has more than 4,000 students in 12 schools located in Beaumont, Drayton Valley, Leduc, Lacombe, Ponoka and Wetaskiwin.

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