Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
November 30, 2009
Council of Elders aims to bring native culture into classroom
School district out to enhance education for growing number of aboriginal students
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
EDMONTON - With rapidly growing numbers of aboriginal students in Edmonton Catholic Schools, the Council of Elders is determined to ensure that those students achieve success.
The council, the first of its kind in the province, has been in operation since May 2008, working to heighten understanding about the importance of bringing the cultural heritage of native peoples into the schools.
Among its goals is to lobby the government for a stronger voice for aboriginal students in Alberta. It also wants to hold traditional healing circles as an alternative method of conflict resolution.
"The majority of what was in our action plan was completed by June. A lot of information went out to the schools and into the community," said Betty Lafferty, an elder who leads the council and has been working with Edmonton Catholic Schools for about five years.
Through the action plan, the council seeks to provide guidance to Edmonton Catholic Schools within the context of the provincial model of education. Another goal is to provide guidance and support to staff and students pertaining to traditional teachings and cross-cultural issues.
"I think a lot of time what we faced was a lack of understanding of who we are as First Nations, Métis and Inuit (FNMI) people," said Lafferty.
STRONG CATHOLIC FAITH
"A lot of people don't understand that we have a strong Catholic faith. The spirituality that we have is combined with our Catholic faith. With that, a lot of times, people have misunderstandings. That is one of the main barriers that we face."
FNMI make up about seven per cent of Edmonton's population. Within Edmonton Catholic Schools, 10 per cent are FNMI and the number is growing. By 2012, FNMI students will comprise 15 per cent of the school population in Edmonton Catholic.
Karen MacKenzie serves in a support role with the Council of Elders.
Speaking from the Sacred Heart Centre (9624-108 Ave.), MacKenzie said, "Sacred Heart Church, right across the street, is not only a wonderful church, but it allows people to see that it's not one or the other - First Nations spirituality or Catholicism - it's a beautiful marriage of both."
Through ongoing discussions with Edmonton Catholic Schools, the Council of Elders aims to explain its point of view on the commingling of aboriginal spirituality and Catholicism so the notion is better understood and accepted.
"Many, many FNMI families and individuals are Catholic, and so we are pleased that the Council of Elders has requested a meet and greet with Archbishop Richard Smith and Archbishop David Motiuk for Jan. 4.
"This is a really wonderful opportunity for open dialogue," said Cindy Olsen, a school board trustee who serves as a liaison for the Council of Elders.
Olsen is appreciative of the outreach work that Lafferty and the council have already done throughout Alberta in a short period.
"She has spoken far and wide, to more than just Edmonton Catholic. She's done presentations in different parts of the province, and the Council of Elders is actually being featured at a provincial symposium in January," said Olsen.
Whenever Lafferty has spoken to students in the classroom about aboriginal education, the response has been favourable. Many students who suspect that they might be First Nations, Métis or Inuit will ask how to learn more about their ancestry.
A common goal among both the council and the school district is to ensure high levels of success for self-identified FNMI students.
"I know that the Edmonton Catholic school board has designated it a priority that First Nations, Métis and Inuit children will succeed at the rate of the mainstream population.
"Alberta Education has deemed the Council of Elders a promising practice because the results everybody wants are not going to happen by doing the same things over and over again," said MacKenzie.
"Those things haven't worked in the past, so Edmonton Catholic has said here's our stake in the ground and we will commit to doing things differently."
Another goal identified in the action plan was to provide counsel and support for FNMI recruitment and staffing, especially to increase the number of FMNI teachers.
"It's very important that we have more FNMI teachers in our classrooms, especially when there's such a large population of FNMI students in the schools here. We must continue working with the University of Alberta and other universities in the province to recruit them," said Lafferty.
The council is also providing professional development opportunities to help all staff become more aware of the aboriginal culture.
While schools incorporated French into their curriculums long ago and teaching Ukrainian is also common, Lafferty is disappointed that native languages are not being taught in schools through bilingual programs. Of the many FNMI languages, Cree is the only one being taught in Edmonton Catholic Schools.
"Edmonton Catholic recognizes that we have a lot of knowledge, a lot of wisdom, and a lot of history that we can pass onto our children, and not just FNMI children but all children," Laffery said.
"They are going to be our future leaders, and they need to know who we are as the first peoples of Canada and what we have offered and what we continue to offer."
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