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Teaching climate justice through arts-based education

CME students with their banners that represent teaching from the Medicine Wheel. Chris Schaufert photos.

By Chris Schaufert (she/her), music teacher, Mission

“Mother Earth is a source of life, not a resource.” – Chief Arvol Looking Horse


Dance, drama, music, and visual arts are each unique languages for creating and communicating.


The communication competency is fundamental to finding satisfaction, purpose, and joy.


Learning recognizes the role of Indigenous knowledge.

Last year, when the BCTF sent out a call for classes to submit student-designed posters for a climate justice poster contest, our school, Ecole Christine Morrison Elementary (CME), was excited to participate. We had been building up to our school-wide Earth Day events for some time, integrating climate justice into many aspects of our learning, but especially into the arts.

Each of the 16 divisions in our school collaborated with Judy Cathers, the Indigenous liaison worker, to create Shxweli banners: Shxweli means “Life Spirit” in Halq’eméylem and is a concept that guided our arts project. The banners represent teachings from the Medicine Wheel. Cathers spoke to students about the reciprocal relationship between us and the four life-giving elements that require our stewardship. The banners, like the Medicine Wheel, represent us with the green centre and represent the four elements, wind, fire, water, and earth, with the four quadrants.

Another message intentionally woven into this arts project ties to the First Peoples principle of learning about recognizing the role of Indigenous knowledge. We wanted to represent climate justice through the lens of Etuaptmumk, a concept from Elder Albert Marshall. Etuaptmumk is a Mi’kmaq word meaning “Two-Eyed Seeing.”

The Mission School District’s Equity Scan and Enhancement Agreement notes, “Etuaptmumk refers to learning to see from one eye with the strengths of Indigenous knowledges and ways of knowing, and from the other eye with the strengths of Western knowledges and ways of knowing...and learning to use both these eyes together, for the benefit of all.” (1) The textiles and materials, specifically, were chosen through this lens to bring all the elements and principles together into a cohesive whole.

The banners were on display at our school-wide Earth Day events. All 16 music classes in the school also worked together to learn two songs for the Earth Day assembly. The lyrics of these two songs inspired the elements and principles of design for the banners. The songs were “Shxweli-Life Spirit,” part of the Good Medicine Songs project, (2) and “Kids for Saving Earth Promise Song.” (3)

Detail of a class banner at CME.

“Shxweli-Life Spirit” taught students that Shxweli is also in the river, salmon, mountains, ocean, sacred roots of trees and plants, and in everyone and everything. In music class, students also shared what they believed they already knew about the four elements of the Medicine Wheel and how that knowledge connects to climate issues. This song was performed as the closing number at the Earth Day assembly and was accompanied by students doing a hand dance to help tell the story through action.

The Indigenous lens of Shxweli allowed students to make connections to self, others, and place. It truly seemed to transform a general malaise of “What can we do about it all?” to action through music and art making. Singing this song allowed students to feel like they were part of an important message about how to move forward together as caretakers of Mother Earth.

The “Kids for Saving Earth Promise Song” was also performed school wide, and the lyrics were read aloud in six different languages at the assembly: French, German, Korean, Punjabi, Russian, and Ukrainian. The student thumbprints in each quadrant of the Medicine Wheel represent the power of their collective promise to care for Mother Earth so that she is here for future generations.

The Earth is my home. I promise to keep it healthy and beautiful. I will love the land, the air, the water, and all living creatures. I will be a defender of my planet. United with friends, I will save the Earth.

After our Earth Day events, our Shxweli banners were hung in the foyer of our school for the month of June to honour National Indigenous Peoples Day on June 21. The banners ended up winning the BCTF climate justice poster contest, a proud moment for many students at CME.

When we started this project, we created the banners with the intention of giving them away in fall 2023 to say thank you to various individuals and organizations who play a vital role in providing opportunities for students to experience satisfaction, purpose, and joy in their learning. So, at the end of September, we gifted half of our banners to acknowledge the amazing work people in our immediate and greater community are doing with and for us all.


At this time we would like to say “Kw’ás hó:y, Thank You, Merci!” to the following people for their time, wisdom, and energy that inspired the making of our banners:

Malila, the Halq’eméylem teacher at CME and Judy Cathers, the Indigenous liaison worker at CME.

All of the CME staff who chose to try something new for Earth Day this year—you are excellent role models for how growth mindset is a lifelong learning process for our students.

The Good Medicine Songs team who provide music, ecology, entertainment, education, and action opportunities for students at CME.

And also, thank you, BCTF, for creating engaging opportunities for students to go public with their learning, reminding them that their learning can reach further than the room they go to school in each day.

Check out some of the other submissions to the poster contest here:

1 “Q’pethet Ye Tel:exw, Gathering to Understand: A Framework for Creating a Culture of Equity, Year Three,” Mission Public Schools, Mission, 2021–22:


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