A land-based education school in Ugpi’Ganjig (Eel River Bar First Nation) in New Brunswick is re-introducing children to Mi’kmaw traditional knowledge.
Seated along Charlo Beach, about 250 kilometres north of Moncton, on Thursday kids took in lessons about plamu (salmon), clams and water safety as part of the M’sit No’kmaq Forest & Nature School program.
“Our education is culturally grounding,” said program co-ordinator Jasmine LaBillois, from Ugpi’Ganjig.
“[It] just allows our children to feel that connectedness to land.”
The forestry school was founded last October and brings about 60 kids to the community learning lodge for a lesson each month. The children are currently spilt into two groups — from kindergarten to Grade 2 and from Grades 3 to 5 — but there are plans to expand and offer lessons to older students in the fall.
The curriculum is based on the Mi’kmaw calendar and there’s fun mixed in with cultural and history lessons. LaBillois said the lessons revolve around introducing the kids to Mi’kmaw ways of knowing, like how the tides and winds help them on the water.
She said her students learn about gardening, building shelters and fires, maple syrup, the Mi’kmaw language and they were introduced to ceremonies by elders.
She said a lot of the land-based knowledge wasn’t passed down after Mi’kmaw and other First Nations people were restricted from the land because of the reserve system and the Indian Act banned many cultural practices from 1876 until 1951.
Now, she hopes to leave a legacy in her community by revitalizing and cultivating that relationship to the land through her work at the nature school.
“I think it’s important to share with the kids that this is a way of life and it’s just as valuable and as important as what a doctor does,” she said.
On the water
As part of their final lesson of the year, the children learned the river system was the traditional highway of the Mi’kmaq and that it’s important to respect the water and be cautious around it.
The students spent the first part of the morning smudging and playing in the woods and trails at the learning lodge in the community heritage park. Later, they took to the water of the bay.
Kason LaBillois was excited to get to splash and play with his friends while also learning about life-jacket safety. Nala LaBillois said she learned about smudging and kayak safety.
“I’m learning all these new things,” said Nala, 8.
“I just learned to do [kayaking] by myself.”
“I love it because we do lots of fun things and lots of activities,” said Gunter Simonson, 8.
Jenna LaBillois’s daughters Nala and Addison are enrolled and she said she’s been impressed with what they’ve learned.
“My girls, they come home with different medicines; they come home with moose meat,” she said.
“They learn how to skin fish — they don’t like it, mind you, but they learn how to do it and it’s things that I never learned.”
Time outdoors beneficial
Chad Denny, a cultural teacher originally from Eskasoni First Nation on Cape Breton Island, has lived in Ugpi’Ganjig for nine years. This past year he’s shown children how to butcher a moose, skin rabbits, how to offer tobacco.
Among his teachings is a more simple lesson, too: play outside.
“The sun is medicine,” Denny said at the camp on Thursday.
The teachings at the camp offer numerous benefits for the young ones, he said. Fine motor skills are developed through hands-on activities, and they’re getting time outdoors instead of in a classroom.
He said when they butchered the moose they were able to send the kids home with 20 pounds of meat for their families.
Misty LaBillois’s daughter Marley enrolled in the program this year. She said she’s happy her daughter is getting a sense of who she is, culturally.
Misty LaBillois said as the school’s first year wraps up, she hopes older students in her community can attend something similar.
“Our pre-teens and our teens, they struggle with identity and who they are as Mi’kmaw people,” she said.
“It would be beneficial for the kids that age to have that opportunity, because it can bring them some sense of belonging.”