Reconciliation and cultural understanding continues in Wetaskiwin, with schools and community organizations continuing to grow interactive and educational initiatives.
Gloria Rogers, Maskwacis Wahkotowin liaison with Norwood School in Wetaskiwin, says each of the schools in the city have smudge rooms and cultural awareness programs; and this does not stop at city boarders, extending to some of the County of Wetaskiwin schools.
“Overall, Wetaskiwin, I think, is a major part of reconciliation,” said Rogers. “We’re very lucky to have Maskwacis so close. It’s such a valuable resource.”
Principal of Norwood School Frank Heinrichs says there have been many mistakes made throughout history. “Change takes time. It’s unfortunate but it’s important.”
Heinrichs has worked with the Wetaskiwin Regional Public Schools division since 2002 and says the division and the community have come a long way since then, but there is still much to be done.
The school’s cultural awareness initiatives are to help provide a cultural grounding for students, says Heinrichs. “I don’t think we realize how Euro-centric our day to day lives are. It’s very important to respect our multiculturalism.”
“We have a number of kids who chose to come from Maskwacis, and a number of students who have links who live in Wetaskiwin,” he added.
The cultural awareness program at Norwood School included many aspects of First Nations culture, including smudging, drumming, language, dancing, and beading.
“With the smudging, there’s a daily smudging schedule,” said Rogers. She explains students will smudge at the beginning of the day to be thankful for the day and think positive thoughts. “It’s just that little bit, to come in with a more positive attitude, more positive thinking,” said Rogers.
A drum instructor works with 10 to 15 boys in the school and practices with them at least twice a week. “They drum the students into the assembly so they have a goal to work towards,” said Rogers.
While female students are not permitted to drum the program does have some female student singers who accompany the drums.
The school’s Cree language classes teaches the basics. “It’s just preparing them. They do have an option at the (École Queen Elizabeth Junior High School),” said Rogers.
“And we do have elders that come and share their wisdom with us,” she added.
Powwow and hoop dancing season is coming soon and Rogers says the school is putting a dance regalia together. “We’re preparing our jingle dresses and shawls will be made,” said Rogers.
There are also educational and academic benefits to the program. “We know there is a gap to how our indigenous students perform on provincial exams. It’s there as a result of history. It’s there as a result of social circumstance,” said Heinrichs.
“Once the kids are comfortable and happy to come here it’s just a shoe-in for academics,” Rogers added.
A similar cultural awareness program at École Parkdale School includes two powwow groups, drumming and Cree language.
“The purpose of our groups is to bring our traditions back to life again because it feels like those traditions are being lost as time goes on,” said Maskwacis Wahkotowin liaison Brandi Schnettler.
Along with the jingle and fancy dancing groups, the boys drumming program and language classes, Schnettler says beading and hoop dancing programs are coming in the future.
She says the students are excited and proud of the work they are accomplishing and she is able to see those changes in them.
Schnettler says the programs work hard to bring everyone together in a positive place.
The cultural awareness programs are not only open to First Nations students.
“Everybody is welcome. I think that’s very important,” said Schnettler. She adds Métis heritage is also included in the programs.
When speaking about smudging at Norwood School, Rogers says it is not just the First Nations students partaking. “It’s pretty much a combination of every student.”
Teachers, principals, cultural advisors and liaisons are not the only members of the community looking into schools and working to make FNMI (First Nations, Métis and Inuit) cultures better understood by the community.
Through an Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada grant Wetaskiwin FCSS is able to present an Aboriginal youth leadership program. Program co-ordinator Brittany McMaster says it was slow going in the beginning; she was holding meetings after school and found difficulty in getting students to attend.
However, contacts within the schools helped her acquire a list of possibly interested students at the Wetaskiwin Composite High School. “The Wetaskiwin Composite High School has been amazing, They’ve been so helpful form the beginning since I approached them,” said McMaster.
Now holding meetings during school lunch hours in classroom space, McMaster is finding the program growing. Students range between Grades 10 to 12 and approximately 24 youth are involved. “I make up little lesson plans for the kids,” said McMaster.
She adds one of the goals of the program is to help spread cultural awareness. “One of the first lessons was about racism, what’s it like for the students off the reserve and what they face at school.”
Heinrichs’ says he thinks the concept of cultural awareness is picking up steam.
“From a school perspective I would like our students to feel comfortable with their cultural identity, and celebrate their cultural identity,” said Heinrichs.
“I would just like to have the kids realize they are valued, to be proud,” Rogers added. “To be proud of who they are and be willing to share what their families have taught them.”