40 Years of Heiltsuk Control over Education

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On the Eve of the 2016-17 School Year

On the eve of the 2016 -17 school year, the school is gleaming with freshly waxed floors and classroom bulletin boards are ready to feature a representation of the children’s best work. My job, as Principal is to support the staff with all that it takes to provide quality instruction to our students. My expectation is that staff will maintain high expectations and provide a high level of support for each student. As well, each staff member must convey a warm acceptance of each child in order to develop a trusting relationship – one that is most conducive to effective teaching and learning. Each child can enjoy progress and meet appropriate and relevant goals given encouragement and support.

In the weeks leading up to the start of school, I have had time to reflect on my experience in the field of education from student to educator. I have had several diverse experiences in my career as a teacher and I decided to pull it all together and finish off as a school administrator. I was thrilled to accept a wonderful opportunity in my ancestral home community after being in the Fraser Valley for most of my career.

When the local school board initially interviewed me, I made a commitment to stay for four to five years and here I am beginning my fifth year. Time has flown by and my work in the school has been incredibly challenging, yet very rewarding. I feel very much at home here, more than I have anywhere else that I have lived. I have a caring and dedicated staff and the children are beautiful.

I have so much hope for the children and I have worked hard to learn their names to be able to greet each of them by name when I see them in the hallway or in the community. I have a new crop of K4 names to learn and I am excited to know them.

I recently added eight wonderful new teachers to the current pool of caring and hard working teachers, several of whom have been at BBCS for many years. I can say with certainty that the staff is comprised of people who care deeply about doing what it takes to make a difference for the children. I also have a group of caring and very committed support staff who provide support to students with special learning needs. They are an important and integral connection to the community, as they know the families of the children and many are aunties or uncles to the children.

I am proud to say that 46% of our teaching staff is of Heiltsuk ancestry; this includes three Heiltsuk language teachers who have been granted permission from TRB to teach our language. Each one of us has enduring ancestral connections to this territory. Having such a high representation of local teachers is a feat for reasons, which have historical significance. Things have changed dramatically since our people, the Heiltsuk, took over the education of our children.

At one time, the Bella Bella Day School, which was operated by the Dept. of Indian Affairs, only went to grade seven; children around my age were systematically sent off to boarding homes in order to attend high school. It was a heart-wrenching experience to go through as many of us were 12 or barely 13 years old when we were put on a plane and dropped off with strangers, people who were paid to provide us with a bed and meals and for many children, this was the extent of the care they received. For our parents, it must have been equally heart wrenching. My mother began having nervous breakdowns as four of her children left home in succession at the end of each summer. My siblings and I lived in separate cities for the most part and rarely saw each other. When her fifth child was ready to go to high school, my mother packed up and moved her remaining children to the city. Enough was enough. Both my parents were residential school survivors and I can only imagine what went through their hearts and minds as they watched each child board a plane to move to the city to live with strangers. There were some very strong parallels between boarding home and residential schools in their minds, I’m sure.

My boarding home experience was immediately troubling. I lived in three homes before I found my forever “other” family in grade nine; I lived with the Cashores to the end of grade twelve and I can say with certainty if it wasn’t for their loving care and support, I may not have been able to graduate from high school. To this day, I have a unique bond with them. I wonder how many children had the same kind of loving support that I had with this wonderful family.

When I arrived to my first boarding home in Sept 1969, I was extremely lonely and could not feel at home living in the basement of a family who invited the four of us upstairs for meals only. The population of my school, New Westminster Secondary was the same as my home community; a community where I knew everyone compared to a school where I knew no one except the other girls who lived in the basement with me. It was culture shock for us and school personnel had no idea about our situation. They knew nothing about a small group of disenfranchised First Nations children who simply could not obey school rules.

Most of us came from remote communities where we had electricity for only a few hours in the evening. That meant we didn’t have a phone, fridge, electric stove, or television and we didn’t have indoor plumbing or garbage pickup. The adjustment to a big city took a toll on us and the separation from families became too great for many. Several students chose to return home at various stages throughout grade eight and beyond. This made the possibility of graduating from high school very remote. In the mid 1970s, a group of dedicated Heiltsuk community members decided to address this situation and they formed a grass-roots school committee and lobbied the federal government to have our own school built.

This dedicated committee raised their own funds to travel to Ottawa and after lots of hard negotiating, a school was eventually built and they hired their first batch of teachers; the elected school board has been doing this every since.  A NFB film, Bella Bella documents this historical time in our history as a nation.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of local Heiltsuk control of the education of our children. The education of the children has seen many changes. The graduation rate has improved tremendously. Children do not have to leave the community to attend school beyond grade seven. Children have pride in being Heiltsuk; they know where they come from and they know the songs and dances.

In 2016, Bella Bella Community School is the center of the community. We have a strong language and culture program and we have a strong SEAS program and we have a committed staff. There is a clear focus on merging language and culture with leaning about the land and sea. Children go out on the land and water to participate in traditional harvesting and medicine gathering as part of school curriculum. Each child in elementary school takes a minimum of 30 minutes of Heiltsuk language instruction daily. Students in the high school can take a range of courses (in class and online) to meet specific post-secondary requirements.

The faces of the children when they are drumming and singing radiates Heiltsuk pride. It is wonderful to see the confidence that comes from knowing who they are and where they come from. Schooling has changed so much in our community and I am proud that what we do at BBCS is a reflection of who we are as indigenous people.  I look forward to the school board’s plans to celebrate this important milestone – 40 years of local control of the education of the children of Bella Bella.

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