It's a camp, but it's not "just a camping trip."
For the second year, Living Sky School Division’s land-based learning camp has brought 54 First Nation and non-First Nation students together to share a common history, despite their cultural background differences.
Hunter-gatherer skills, such as making fire and finding food on the land, are common ancestral legacies to all people, not just First Nation people, notes experiential archeologist Kim Pasche, one of the instructors of the camp.
“In these classes we have kids that come from both cultures,” says Swiss-born Pasche. “It is important for kids of native culture to realize the importance of keeping their own culture, but it’s just as important for western people to understand that it is a blessing to have First Nation culture alive.”
It's been gone for a long time in Europe, he points out.
Mike Mercredi, community co-ordinator with the Experiential Learning Initiative, adds the camp is an opportunity for kids, native and non-native, to learn to walk in two worlds.
Students are taught by elders and land-users and by their schoolteachers in a way that aligns learning traditional skills with accomplishing provincial curriculum goals, earning class credits in what has proved to be a life-changing experience for most students.
Mercredi says, “With the teachers, we co-teach so that the curriculum matches the present western education way of things.”
This year’s program featured two four-day camps near Chitek Lake in May and June, one for the Grade 10 students who attended last year’s Grade 9 camp, and one for a new round of Grade 9 students. The participating schools are Cando Community School and Leoville Central School.
Tammy Riel, the Cando School principal, who has been described as “relentless” in spearheading the land-based learning project, says it’s a learning experience for everyone – elders, instructors and students. The program also included a weekend camp for teachers between the two student camps.
“It's a community of learning and it's really a unique opportunity,” says Riel.
The program was inspired by a 2012 Cando School project that took Grade 9 students to a similar camp at Old Crow in the Yukon. The division recognized it as a life-changing experience for many of the students, and a catalyst behind Cando producing more three-year graduates than ever before, tying into the provincial education sector plan calling for increased graduation rates, especially amongst aboriginal students.
At the camp, students learned from Mercredi and Pasche traditional skills such as making fire, canoeing, finding shelter and foraging for food. Each camp was attended by four elders who passed on traditional and spiritual aspects as well.
It's a complement to what they learn from their teachers, says Mercredi.
Learning to harvest and process animals and fish for food helps students lean biology in a hands-on way. Elders' teachings about medicinal plants and what plants can be consumed is botany in scientific terms, he adds.
Travelling and learning the lay of the land is geography, he says, and when students are out on the water learning the different ways to travel on a lake, on a river and on creeks and tributaries, that's hydrology.
"It's just turning all the traditional lifestyles so it applies to basic schooling."
That's the basic concept behind the work of the Experiential Learning Initiative, says Mercredi, who established the ELI in his home area of Fort Chipewyan, Alta.
"Elders have stated to me that the traditional way of life is disappearing along with the land use practice of the First Nations, so it was my job to figure out a way to do that so that the traditional lifestyle does not disappear, but it had to coincide with education."
Mercredi explains, "The classroom is out in the bush, the elders and the land users are the teachers and the teachers come along to check off to say, 'Yes, that could be applied [to curriculum].’"
The students are heavily engaged, he says, "because it's not an 8 to 3 lesson, it's from when we wake up and when we go to bed because we’re out on the land and everything is there."
A week long camp can change a student more than four months in the classroom, he says, and even the kids who, in the beginning, say they don't want to be there end up not wanting to leave at the end.
"Everybody engages everyone else," said Mercredi, "The cool thing is even the teachers had said this is a side of the students they've never seen. They see the students in the classroom from 8 to 3, but after hours it's almost like a different person. They see the person as a whole because they wake up with them, they learn with them, eat with them and all go to bed together at the same time in the same area and are waking up and doing it all over again."
It's also gratifying for Mercredi to see how the students from two different cultures and two different schools come together.
"It was just like they were all the same people by the end, all hugging, 'I'm going to miss you guys,' the bond they created from that, now they are not going to be strangers anymore, they are friends for life."
Mercredi says respect was the growing theme from the last night when each student was asked what they learned.
"Respect elders, respect the land, respect each other, respect what we're doing, respect themselves. They have that change and you can see that."
They all had something to say, even the ones who were out of their comfort zone speaking to groups, he said.
"It put a smile on my face to see that."
Living Sky School Division Director of Education Randy Fox says having facilitators like Mercredi and Pasche and the participation of elders makes the program what it is.
"If we don't have people like [them] to help, it just becomes a camping trip, and we don't want it to be just a camping trip," he says.
He hopes the program can continue, even though it is not recognized by any extra provincial funding.
"We'll budget … certain funds, but there's always some fundraising that goes with it, too, and that will probably be part of it again," says Fox. "We'll sit down and do reflection on the two weeks and start building our plans out of that."
They will work to find a way to make it happen, he says.
"There's no additional dollars, but the board believes in it and believes it's important to put board dollars towards it," says Fox. "We've seen how important and how meaningful the experience is to the students."
Other schools are interested, he adds, but it would have to be carefully planned so any additional camps could live up to those that have happened so far.
"To go and not have those same opportunities, I don't know if it would be worth it."
Swiss archaeologist finds in Canada what is lost in Europe
One of the facilitators at this and last year's Living Sky School Division's land-based learning camps is a Swiss-born experiential archeologist who brings a European perspective to Canada's cultural differences. He says Canada should cherish the fact that its First Nation culture is still alive.
"We lost that in Europe a long time ago," says Kim Pasche, who holds a trapping concession in the Yukon and spends more than half of his year in the bush.
He says, "The European perspective here might be that we, as European white western culture, used to be hunter-gatherers, too, a long time ago. But that's still where we all come from. That's what I can bring here as a European living in Canada."
As an experiential archeologist, Pasche says that instead of digging and trying to interpret things from artifacts, his work is a hands-on relationship with artifacts.
"Trying to rebuild the artifacts, trying to use them and see if the theories that go along are right or wrong, that is one aspect of my job."
He's been teaching workshops on ancestral skills for 10 years.
"That's my passion in life, I love to go back to nature, trying to learn where we come from," says Pasche. "I would say that by knowing where we come from we might know where we go."
Pasche says, growing up, "I had no clue and no one could give me a clue how to really have a deeper understanding of nature, and when I say nature I'm really talking about the wild nature, untouched, the bush the forest, not to do with human activity."
In Europe, he says, what he called the dialogue with nature was gone.
"Here in Canada it is still alive and maybe people don't realize this, so maybe that's the aspect I can bring," says the man who goes mainly barefoot and teaches others to make fire from nothing. "I am maybe more conscious of this as a white person coming from Europe."
The First Nation point of view that there is no "pass" or "don't pass" in their way of teaching – "we teach you until you get it" – is different from mainstream education and it applies to learning opportunities such as Living Sky's land-based learning camp.
"No one is left behind," says Pasche. "It's not about getting to a specific point and some people have credit and some people don't.”
He agrees with Mercredi that at camp there is no separation between school and everyday life.
"I feel like life is this school and maybe they get a better idea of that in the bush with us."
Pasche says with today's technology, life tends to be more complicated in the sense that our needs are still the same, but the way to get things has changed.
"All of a sudden, by being in the bush, we are going back to basic … Going to those ancestral or traditional skills brings us closer to our needs and fulfilling them ... All of a sudden everything makes sense because it's directly related to our needs, and I think this is important for the mind somehow," says Pasche. "It settles something."