Indigenous Ed Enhancement Agreement signed

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Educators, students, families and community members filled the Salt Spring Elementary School gym on Feb. 26 to witness and celebrate the signing of a new Indigenous Education Enhancement Agreement for the Gulf Islands School District.

The ceremony was led by Cowichan Tribes elder Tousilum and featured the Tzinquaw Dancers, with drumming by School District 64 educator Quentin Harris and a small group of students to open the event. Representatives from the collaborative process who were there to sign the document were district superintendent Scott Benwell, Indigenous education coordinator Shannon Johnston, Galiano Island trustee Shelley Lawson, and students Ava Myers and Caleb Wilson, who will be sitting on the Indigenous Advisory Council. They were all blanketed for the ceremony by the First Nations leaders in recognition of their involvement.

Other participating Indigenous students were Andrew Wilson, who recorded the ceremony and spoke as the male youth witness; Taylor Akerman, female youth witness; and Layla Anderson, Lily Lamb, Hudson Scheres and Laine Hogstead, who were ushers for the ceremony and were also blanketed by the elders before the ceremony. 

Speaking to the large community gathered, Johnston said there are 153 kids in the district who have identified their Aboriginal heritage, and the education enhancement agreement will ensure their education experience is positive.

“Our job as the people in SD64 is to take care and guide you to a place of respect,” said Johnston. “I’m so excited and I’m proud of this moment for our district.”

The Indigenous or Aboriginal Education Enhancement Agreement has been part of British Columbia’s education system for the past 20 years. The agreements have created the framework through which school districts act to improve educational shortcomings for Indigenous learners.

“Historically, British Columbia schools have not been successful in ensuring that Aboriginal students receive a quality education, one that allows these students to succeed in the larger provincial economy while maintaining ties to their culture,” the Ministry of Education explains on its website.

Growing recognition of the problem led to a Memorandum of Understanding in 1999 stating that stakeholders would work with relevant groups to improve the situation. The signatories were the Chiefs Action Committee, the provincial Minister of Education, the federal Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs and the president of the BC Teachers Federation.

SD64 policy states it is dedicated to supporting the success of Indigenous learners in the school district, as well as promoting a deep awareness of Indigenous culture and history among all students. Two previous five-year enhancement agreements to further this mandate spanned 2006-11 and 2013-18.

As in previous exercises, development of a new document involved input and collaboration by district staff, Aboriginal families and elders and other community members. The new enhancement agreement has four goals: to foster and strengthen sense of belonging, knowledge of culture, community and success among its Indigenous students.

Johnston said achieving the final goal will mean “that every Indigenous learner, when they walk through our schools and when they start their path in life, they will be given every opportunity to know themselves, to be strong, to be capable, to succeed in whatever their dreams are.”

Part of the ceremony preceding the signing involved the welcoming of witnesses, an important traditional component. These representatives were asked to both legitimize the happenings and to share their feelings afterward.

Witness Rob Pingle, who chairs the Gulf Islands School District, said he was honoured to take part in the event. He echoed the importance of belonging and “the connections that we’re making between the cultures that were established on these lands millennia ago and the current people like myself that have come to these lands.”

“I feel blessed and honoured to help establish and enrich all learning that happens in this district,” Pingle added.

Cheryl Ruff, the Indigenous support teacher at Gulf Islands Secondary School, said when she was in school she didn’t have any supports that recognized her reality as an Indigenous learner.

“As an Indigenous mom with my own Indigenous daughter . . . I’m so proud of this role and I think we’re going to do beautiful and amazing things,” Ruff said. “It will give our Indigenous kids a new path of hope and courage and strength, and that’s so important to me.”

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