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Moving forward as allies: Working toward reconciliation in the Vancouver Island West Teachers’ Union

VIWTU reconciliation retreat participants L to R: Robert John, Kaija Farstad, Ian Caplette, Devon Hansen, Julie Smith, Connie Chan, Audrey Smith, Lee Vanden Ham, Carole Tootill, Azar Kamran, Nathan George, Marie Lavoie, Richard Samuel, Tammy Dillon, Elmar Nabbe, Christian Stapff, Valerie Hansen, Jeremy Payne, Jay Ishaya, Sarah Kerman. Sunjum Jhaj and Sarah Young photos unless noted.

This has been a great first step for teachers to learn about the things we want for our children, and for us to learn how we can support teachers. – Richard Samuel, Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council

For those of us living in BC’s urban centres, it’s easy to forget just how remote parts of our province can be. Most of us are used to easy access to shopping and necessities. We can drive to grocery stores and hospitals within the city limits of our own communities. For members of the Vancouver Island West Teachers’ Union (VIWTU), these activities require a lot more planning.


With just 35 full-time members, and fewer than a dozen teachers teaching on call, this local is spread out across the territories of the Nuchatlaht, Mowachaht/Muchalaht, Ehattesaht/Chinehkint, and Kyuquot/Checleseht First Nations.


The members of this local serve families in four communities: Gold River, Kyuquot, Tahsis, and Zeballos. Elmar Nabbe, VIWTU Local President, has taught in all four communities and has a thorough understanding of the challenges of teaching and living in each area. The communities, though all very remote, have greatly different demographics and geographic challenges for teachers.


Kyuquot is the most remote school in the local, with just five teachers at a K–12 school in a community that is only accessible by water taxi. Housing, while challenging to access across the province, is exceptionally difficult to come by in such a remote community, so all of the teachers live in teacherages. Groceries are shipped in once per week, with an extra cost of nearly $80 per order for shipping costs. The nearest grocery store requires 10 hours of round-trip travel across ocean, logging roads, and highways.


Teachers Tammy Dillon, Kaija Farstad, and Sarah Kerman have found teaching in the community to be one of the most rewarding parts of their careers, despite the challenges of being so isolated from other parts of the province.


“We get to really be a part of the community,” said Sarah. “There are no cars in our community, so I walk to the school, I see my students in the community all day every day, and I get to centre the community in my classroom practice.”


The school works closely with the Kyuquot/Checleseht First Nation to support students, nearly all of whom are Indigenous, through locally responsive curriculum. This means including culturally relevant teachings from local leaders, supporting student engagement in land-based learning, and incorporating Nuu-chah-nulth language into all aspects of the school.


“There is a difference between teaching a second language and teaching a cultural heritage language,” said Tammy. “We have to find different ways to integrate the language into the school and community to make sure it isn’t forgotten.”


This year, Kyuquot Elementary Secondary School will host the annual district-wide, student-led cultural gathering. For this event, students from each school in the district will come together in Kyuquot to celebrate local Indigenous cultures through presentations, song, dance, and feasts.

VIWTU members and local Indigenous leaders spent the first day of their retreat in a talking circle.
I want our children to come out of the school system with the same amount of care and love they came in with. – Marie Lavoie, Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation

The teachers from Tahsis intend to bring all of their students to witness the cultural gathering in Kyuquot as part of their commitment to reconciliation.


In Tahsis, unlike Kyuquot, the student population is predominately white. For teacher Jeremy Payne, this means his classroom has a strong focus on reconciliation.


“To me, reconciliation is having hearts open, hearing the truth, and acting together to bring healing and learning,” said Jeremy.


Through partnerships with community members, Jeremy’s students have had an opportunity to learn from the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation. Students have learned introductory protocol so they can introduce themselves respectfully to Elders who visit their class. From Margaretta James, the school First Nations support worker, the students have learned about the history of the Mowachaht/Muchalaht people, including the historical significance of Yuquot Whalers’ Shrine.


Whalers’ shrines are sites of cultural significance to Nuu-chah-nulth nations and included collections of important cultural artifacts. The generational Yuquot Whalers’ Shrine embodied ancient spiritual practices connected to preparation for early Nuu-chah-nulth whaling practices. Many of the spiritual artifacts have been in storage for over 100 years in the American Museum of Natural History in New York.


The students in Jeremy’s school put their learning around reconciliation into action when they learned about the artifacts stolen from whalers’ shrines. Students are currently writing letters to the museum requesting the artifacts be returned to the community from which they were removed.


“Kids can shift stories into something more honest and beautiful,” said Jeremy. “They teach their families and the adults around them when they know the truth.”


Mowachaht/Muchalaht Elders and representatives also travelled to New York to initiate claims for the rightful return of their cultural property. As of yet, the artifacts have not been returned, but the students are hopeful as they continue to back their commitment to reconciliation with action.


In the afternoon the talking circle broke into community groups.
This retreat has been an eye-opener for me and makes me want to support teachers however I can. – Devon Hansen, Kyuquot/Checleseht First Nation

“Teachers in this local are very committed to reconciliation, and so is the school board,” said Elmar.


In this district, like many across the province, school and district administrators have opportunities to meet with leaders from the local nations to discuss reconciliation and partnerships for education. Teachers, however, do not often get an opportunity to participate in these discussions.


“About a year and half ago, I listened to Ian Caplette from the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council speak passionately about his vision for the future and the way forward for reconciliation,” said Elmar. “My colleagues didn’t get to hear this conversation because it happened at a meeting of mostly administrators. But the grassroots movement is in the classroom; teachers are the ones with the children. We can better support students and reconciliation if we work directly with the nations.”


After nearly two years of brainstorming and problem-solving, Elmar was able to create space for teachers to meet directly with members from the local nations at the first reconciliation retreat hosted by the VIWTU at Strathcona Park Lodge and Outdoor Education Centre.


The VIWTU sponsored attendees from each school to join the retreat using the BCTF Political Action Grant. These members will be able to take their learning back to their school to share with their colleagues. Representatives from the nations whose lands the schools occupy were also present.


The retreat was facilitated by Richard Samuel from the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council. Richard shared that reconciliation is change, and that working toward change requires discomfort sometimes. Rather than following colonial ways of meeting and working, the retreat put into practice Indigenous ways of knowing and being. The group had no formal agenda or pre-determined outcomes. Instead, they sat together in a talking circle.


“We’re all equal in a talking circle,” shared Audrey Smith from Nuchatlaht First Nation.


Elmar Nabbe and Lee Vanden Ham navigate the course.
Elmar is what we need to build up our union; he has a vision, and I can get behind passion any day. – Connie Chan, teacher, Gold River

The circle created a respectful space where teachers could ask questions about their role in supporting reconciliation in schools and members of the nations could share their hopes and goals for the future of their communities’ children.


“I want to see our children learn our traditional ways, but they also need to know the ways of the modern world they live in. We need to find a common ground,” said Nathan George from the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation.


Lee Vanden Ham, a teacher from Zeballos, is trying to do just that in his teaching practice. Lee incorporates Indigenous ways of knowing and being across the curriculum and draws on community members from the nation to guide students’ learning about culture and heritage.


The recent death of a mother whale, and the subsequent stranding of her calf, in the waters off Zeballos were culturally significant events in the community. Lee worked closely with Shelia John, the school First Nations support worker, and Victoria Wells, a community leader, to create culturally appropriate lessons related to the events taking place in the community. The students later visited the site to offer prayers to the whale; however, not all students expressed interest in participating.


“When kids don’t want to be a part of their cultural events or learning, I wonder what my place is,” said Lee. “How do I navigate my role in helping students learn about their culture as a visitor on this land?”


Julie Smith from the Nuchatlaht First Nation offered that it’s important for kids to see and be around culture, even if they don’t appear to demonstrate interest. “Not every aspect of culture will resonate with every child, and that’s okay. They are developing their understanding of culture through experiences like this, and they will take away pieces that resonate with them,” said Julie.


Richard Samuel, Julie Smith, and Sarah Kerman support Carole Tootill on the ropes.

The retreat created opportunities for many rich and meaningful conversations about what reconciliation in schools looks like, but the most important outcome is the relationships that were built between teachers and community members.


On the second day of the retreat, the attendees moved from a talking circle to an outdoor team-building activity on a ropes course. Through participation in the ropes course, the attendees worked collaboratively to overcome obstacles—a visual representation of the work they did the day before in the talking circle, and a way to further build the relationships and trust that were established on day one.


“Reconciliation is only meaningful through collaboration with as many community members as possible,” said Connie Chan, a teacher from Gold River. “Building relationships through volunteering for community organizations and coaching youth sports are a few ways that allow me to bring community connection into my teaching. I am a community member first. I want to start a family here, so the impact I have isn’t isolated just inside the school,” she added.


At the end of the retreat, the teachers and community members all expressed interest in carrying on the conversations they started that weekend. Elmar is now planning a second reconciliation retreat for the fall, when a new cycle of grant applications will open for additional funding.


“My hope is that teachers and members of the nations will have more trust communicating with each other, so we can move forward as allies,” said Elmar.


The Vancouver Island West Teachers’ Union may be small and isolated, but as this first reconciliation retreat shows, local leadership and grassroots organizing have the power to decolonize the structures we work within, all while creating meaningful relationships and long-lasting change.


Teachers and members of the nations arrived at the retreat with open hearts and minds, and were able to hear each other’s questions, challenges, and priorities. Future retreats will create opportunities to expand the work already happening in schools across the local, and work to overcome barriers they face in their work toward reconciliation.


“The reason things change is because now we have people in the system who are willing to listen with open hearts. That listening must continue,” said Marie Lavoie from the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation.


A view in Kyuquot, BC, one of the communities served by the VIWTU. Tammy Dillon photo.


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