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Building belonging for Indigenous students

By Rick Joe, teacher, Chilliwack

Teacher, May/June 2023

In my first class, on my first day in the Native Indian Teacher Education Program (UBC NITEP) in 1995, the professor asked me, “Why do you want to be a teacher?” I said, “To make a safe place for Indigenous students to learn and have a sense of belonging.” My commitment to Indigenous youth has never stopped and continues to drive my teaching practice even today.

At the start of this school year another Indigenous teacher, Christina Billingham, asked to meet with me about some ideas on what can we do in our school to support Indigenous students. We met one lunch break to brainstorm ideas that could build on some of the supports and options already available to Indigenous students at our school. We came up with an idea for an Indigenous leadership course.

The Indigenous leadership course was intended to provide an avenue for Indigenous students to access the language and culture experience credit and/or fulfill the new Indigenous graduation requirement; both are new initiatives announced by the Ministry of Education and Child Care over the past year. Currently, the process for Indigenous students to receive experience credit is not easy. I spoke in person with four elected council members in four different First Nations communities, and each shared that they had trouble completing the paperwork for students’ experience credits, because the form is designed for teachers or administrators who are familiar with the curriculum.

The questions and language on the form are also very colonial. Growing up on my First Nations reserve, no one ever said they were an “expert” and did not refer to their knowledge as “expertise,” which is the language used on the experience credit form. For example, I coached cedar dugout war canoe training and took youth aged 5–16 in races every weekend, starting from the May long weekend and ending with the September long weekend. We trained two to three times per week after school. Over the five months, some youth trained and worked to help fix the canoes and paddles. Overall, youth would put in approximately 400 hours of working and learning in and around canoes and canoe life. I did this for 12 years, but I would not call myself an expert at this. In this way, the language on the paperwork to receive experience credit is a barrier.

The leadership course creates opportunities for students to learn about their identities while actively practising First Nations protocols and bringing Indigenous culture into the community.

The new Indigenous leadership course is a way for me to use my position to honour the students for the work they are already doing in their community and school.

Christina and I booked a meeting with the Chilliwack School District Indigenous Advisory Committee to present our idea. The idea was accepted, and a subcommittee was tasked with guiding the process of creating this new course and ensuring local Indigenous communities are part of the process.

For this school year, we started a pilot Indigenous leadership course that is off timetable, meaning we meet after school hours. Currently, seven students who have self-identified as Indigenous are enrolled in the course. Students are working on self-location projects to learn about their Indigenous heritage. Once the projects are completed, the students will present their family histories to the group.

I frequently bring my lived experience as a Lil’wat Hand Drummer and my connections and experiences with the Stó:lo community into the classroom for students to learn from and draw from as they explore their own identity. For example, I am a hand drummer and have all of the teachings around this. I can teach someone how to take care of a hand drum, how to make one, and so on. While I am in Stó:lo territory, I call on my friend to come and teach how to make a hand drum, as we are in his territory; most of the teachings are the same, but not all. This also ensures that we are following local protocols around ceremony. I always ensure that local First Nations are part of each event we host, and that the events are planned in a way that we would hold ceremony. The family gathering and mini pow-wow was our way to invite the local Indigenous community to our school. We shared a meal and had time to just talk. Each month we will either go to the community or invite the community to our school.

Events Indigenous leadership students have planned and participated in so far

Have a Heart Day

Students and staff signed a letter to the Prime Minister to support First Nations children on reserves. The main message was to provide clean drinking water to all First Nations reserves. In April 2021, Semiahmoo First Nation, in White Rock, BC, announced the end of their long-term boil advisory.

Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Memorial March

At lunch break, students and staff participated in drumming and singing in front of the school to reflect and remember the thousands of Indigenous women and girls who have gone missing or been murdered in Canada.

Family gathering

Three hundred Indigenous students and their families were invited to a gathering to learn more about how to navigate high school.

Mini pow-wow

This event was open to all members in our community; approximately 500 people showed up on a Tuesday night for a celebration of Indigenous cultures and to honour Indigenous resilience against colonialism.


HOBIYEE! Is the start of the Nisga’a new year. They invite all nations to celebrate the new year. This year there were 800 First Nations dancers in full regalia representing 80 different nations. Students volunteered for five hours, helping each group get ready to drum, sing, and dance. We also helped classes attend by guiding them to their seats.

The leadership class also has several other events planned for this school year. We are planning to harvest inner cedar bark and root and cottonwood bulbs for Salve. We will also attend the Moose Hide Campaign Day, and our year-end event will be Paddle Day, with a local First Nations school on June 21, National Indigenous Peoples Day. All First Nations used water as the highway. Each region had a watercraft to get around. On Paddle Day, we provide a variety of watercraft for youth to try out, including war canoe, outrigger canoe, kayak, paddle boards, and dragon boats to celebrate the continued use of the water.

By the end of the year students will have the opportunity to lead parts of events and know the planning process, as well as local First Nations protocols with organizing events. The leadership course creates opportunities for students to learn about their identities while actively practising First Nations protocols and bringing Indigenous culture into the community. Reflecting on this year, I can already see the leadership and sense of belonging that this small group of youth are bringing; other students are also starting to join in and plan. I am so thankful to the students for their dedication and the work they do above and beyond their full-time course load.


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