Seek To Understand: Hard Lessons

One month to go…

To help give those interested a bit of a sense of what our students will be experiencing during their upcoming trip to the Gwich’in First Nations hamlet of Fort McPherson, NT early next month (April 6-14), I have been sharing an NFB film that focuses on the local radio station, CBQM (also the title of the film), and its importance to the community as a whole. The cinematography in the film is simply stunning. The cinematography in the just over one hour film is simply stunning.  

I have now watched, in splendid wonder, director Dennis Allen’s mesmerizing piece of work three different times each with a differing lens or perspective: life in the north, a brief glimpse into the Gwich’in community, the role and leadership of the elders, and the awkward relationship between the non-aboriginal members of the community and the greater First Nation community.

What I think the film offers best to its viewer is the importance of building understanding. An understanding First Nations communities that have come out the other end of the residential schools and baby-sweep debacles.

After the students from CJS left Nelson, we received an email from Sonia, one of the teacher that accompanied the group south). She wanted to share the impact that their visit to our little mountain community had on some of the students. In short, Sonia relayed that many of her students did not want our students to visit of spend any time in their school as they were “embarrassed” by its learning environment, lack of rigor, lack of variety of learning, and lack of academic standards of any kind. After a week of building friendships, the students from Chief Julius School feared that our students (now their friends) would be quick to judgment.

As a result we have been working diligently with our students to help them to ‘seek to understand before moving to judgment’ when faced with the many things they will see, experience, and feel during their trip in the north. Former L.V. Rogers Secondary principal, and now author, Mike McIndoe (whose son Ryan taught at Chief Julius School from 2007-2012), spoke with our group at a recent lunch hour. We asked Mike to talk to our students about what the group of seventeen students making the trip to a community with just under 800 people (in comparison our school has a poplulation of over 800), 150 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, living in relatively lower economic conditions, and coming out the other side of the residential school disaster, could and should expect upon their arrival.
After a brief warm-up that was a slideshow of Mike’s photos of his most recent trip along the Dempster Highway, time in Fort McPherson, and at Chief Julius School, Mike pulled no punches. Mike reiterated that this trip was not unlike any other ‘exchange’ opportunity that many of our students may experience during their years at LVR. It has been said by several folks, including the teachers that accompanied the students from the north last month, that traveling to Europe (and even to places in the Far East) require much LESS cultural understanding/awareness/compassion than what will be required of our students.

Mike was upfront with the students about what they would see at the school where fifty percent of the students attend fifty percent of the time, and that it was not uncommon in a class of fifteen to see only three or four students in session. Students were ‘passed’ through from grade to grade based solely on age and academic achievement was not a standard used for matriculation. The students learned that the community did not value education nor see its importance only as a result of the colonialism beyond over 200 years ago. The dropout time for most of the students is Grade 9 where students must challenge provincial examinations (Alberta). But, of course most are not prepared and end up dropping out. Those students with an academic bent are forced to head north to the town of Inuvik to continue their academic rigor.

I’m excited about our time in the north, but I’m also cautiously optimistic. I think that they are up to the challenge. We encouraged our students to maintain an open mind and heart; to share when they are uncomfortable; and communicate when they need help. We hope we’ve help to empower them to face what lies ahead of them. 

The rest is up to them.

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