by Jennifer Lewington
November 22, 2022

'We need to get teachers from our communities'

In 20 years, the Mi'kmaw high school graduation rate has increased threefold. A partnership between Mi'kmaq communities and St. Francis Xavier university helped.

Angie Stevens is pursuing a Masters of Education at St. FX and also teaching primary (kindergarten). (Photograph by Andrew Tolson)

In a Mi’kmaw immersion classroom in Eskasoni, one of 12 First Nation communities in Nova Scotia that run their own schools, five-year-old kindergarten students soak up the sights and sounds of their culture. They look to the classroom blackboard for cues on Mi’kmaw words and phrases, listen to school-made CDs of songs and poems by Elders, and learn traditional drumming and dancing, all while following the provincial school curriculum.

Orchestrating activities in the chatter-filled classroom last June was teacher Angie Stevens, a fluent native speaker who grew up in Eskasoni—at 4,000 residents, the largest Mi’kmaq community in the world.

Stevens, 37, graduated as a teacher five years ago and sees herself on a mission to develop fluent Mi’kmaq speakers who cherish their identity. In September 2018, only one of her 14 students began the year as a fluent speaker. By last June, they all had acquired some basic conversational Mi’kmaw, she says.

“It took me a few years to realize that I really wanted to teach and share my passion for speaking, reading, writing and understanding in Mi’kmaw,” she says. “I really have this passion to sustain our language for years to come. That alone keeps me driving to continue to teach the younger generation.”

Stevens is among a growing corps of Mi’kmaq instructors—many of them graduates of innovative teacher-training programs developed by St. Francis Xavier University with Mi’kmaq schools—who are writing a success story in Indigenous education.

Since 1998, when an agreement with the federal and Nova Scotia governments turned over local control of education to 12 of 13 Mi’kmaq bands (one opted out), Mi’kmaq-run schools have reported rising rates of high school retention and graduation. More than 500 graduates now go to university and college. Last March, federal Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett announced a 10-year, $600-million renewal of the agreement. “The Mi’kmaq Education Agreement is a clear demonstration that self-determination leads to better outcomes,” she said in a press release. “Twenty years ago, the Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq First Nations took control of their education system when only 30 per cent of their students were graduating from secondary school. Now over 90 per cent of their students are graduating compared to the national average [for Indigenous students] of 36 per cent.”

But credit also goes to a once-distant relationship between St. Francis Xavier and Mi’kmaq school authorities. Their relationship warmed over two decades of give and take to generate a flow of teachers returning home to work in local schools. After graduation, the teachers continue to collaborate with St. FX education professors on culturally infused activities for math and language instruction.

It wasn’t always that way.

In the late 1990s, John Jerome Paul was director of program services for Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey, the education authority known as MK that provides financial and curriculum resources to its 12 member communities. At the time, the provincial government had threatened deep cuts to teacher education. Separately, public schools were under fire for underserving Mi’kmaq and African Nova Scotian students.

An early advocate of Mi’kmaq-controlled schools, Paul approached education faculties to build a pipeline of native teachers. “For student success, graduation and everything else, we need to get teachers from our communities, and we need students to see themselves in the curriculum,” he says. “Students have to see brown faces.”

But aside from St. FX, he says, “Nobody would give us the time of day.”

With a generation of native-language speakers dying off, Paul saw self-governance of education as a necessary first step for cultural and linguistic survival, followed by Mi’kmaw teacher training.

He challenged St. FX’s education faculty to adapt programs for aspiring teachers from MK member communities. “I told them, ‘You don’t just let us come in and drown in your pool. We want success,’” he says.

St. FX education dean Jeff Orr, new to his post in the early days of MK, recalls the advice he received from Marie Battiste, a leading Indigenous scholar at the University of Saskatchewan and a native of Poklotek First Nation in Nova Scotia. “She told me, ‘Listen to what they want and partner.’”

Emphasizing flexible program delivery since 1997, the faculty has graduated 145 Mi’kmaq students with bachelor of education degrees and 42 with master of education degrees. One student is in a Ph.D. program. Some programs are offered full-time on campus, while others are offered part-time in the community on evenings or weekends to suit working parents, and there are new specialty certificates in teaching language and math to meet local demand.

Blaire Gould, acting executive director of MK, attributes Mi’kmaw student success to Mi’kmaq bands having “jurisdiction and autonomy over education, allowing communities to define what success looks like.”

But she also credits St. FX, “our earliest partners in education,” for working with local communities. “It’s not only how we trust St. FX to deliver what we want them to deliver for us, but they have a strong trust in us that we will bring the best students to them,” she says.

In Whycocomagh, a Mi’kmaq community on Cape Breton Island, a memorial to residential school survivors is located at We’koqma’q Mi’kmaw School, which enrols 200 students from kindergarten to Grade 12.

Tiffany Gould, a Grade 1 teacher at the school, earned her bachelor of education on the St. FX campus while pregnant with her fourth child. She currently works full-time, studies for a master of education delivered mostly online by St. FX, and collaborates on research projects with the university’s professors.

Last spring, St. FX associate professor of education Lisa Lunney Borden, a former teacher at We’koqma’q Mi’kmaw School and a non-native who learned to speak Mi’kmaw, visited Gould’s classroom to record her interactions with students when teaching math concepts.

With an MK-developed app on an iPad and a little bear hand puppet named Aliet, Gould prompted students to calculate an equal sharing of berries “picked” by the puppet. Later, she and Borden reviewed the recording of the teacher-student interactions to identify gaps in children’s knowledge and strategies to improve their skills.

Gould plans more activities with the bear puppet—along with a moose puppet named Antle already used for oral language training in Mi’kmaw and English—because the children respond so well to the cultural icons.

Her rapport with Borden and St. FX, says Gould, has built her confidence as a teacher.

“I’m not afraid to be who I am,” she says. “I am Mi’kmaq and that is what I bring to the table.”

Borden also works with St. FX colleagues and MK officials on outreach programs, such as Show Me Your Math, coaching Indigenous students to apply hands-on learning, inherent in their culture, to solve math problems.

“Community knowledge is a starting point for curriculum, instead of taking outside curriculum and trying to translate it,” says Borden. In 2017, she was the first recipient of a $300,000 university research chair for equity in math education named for John Jerome Paul, now retired from MK.

Continuing to listen to community priorities remains important, says Orr.

Students and faculty take part in a powwow at Eskasoni Elementary and Middle School in Cape Breton (Photograph by Andrew Tolson)

In 2009, at a Mi’kmaw language conference organized by the St. FX faculty and MK, the principal of Eskasoni’s kindergarten-to-Grade 4 immersion school asked Orr for additional training for Mi’kmaq teachers.

“I told him that we needed a Mi’kmaw program to help our teachers learn more about immersion teaching,” says Ida Denny. “Right away Jeff organized it.”

The result was a language pedagogy certificate for teachers to deepen their ability to read and write in their native language and learn how to create resources for an immersion classroom. Denny, a fluent speaker, earned the certificate in 2011. “This is what I would have wanted as a child that I didn’t have,” she says. Denny attended a federal Indian day school that frowned on Indigenous students speaking their language.

Orr says, “When you come together in that relationship, it turns into these magical moments of ‘We can do that. Why can’t we?’ ”

Eskasoni, which is 68 kilometres east of Whycocomagh, is the location of the only full-fledged immersion school among MK members. It opened in 2000. Since 2015, the school has operated out of its own building and this fall enrolled 145 students from kindergarten to Grade 4. They receive instruction through the day in their native language and are taught mostly by Mi’kmaq staff.

“We are already producing speakers and we are proud of that,” says Denny.

A few steps away, non-immersion students at the Mi’kmaq-run elementary and middle school receive 40 minutes a day of instruction in their native language; next door to them, students at Allison Bernard Memorial High School receive 75 minutes.

Still, in communities where drugs, suicide and unemployment run high, preservation of language and culture can be a struggle. Some Mi’kmaq parents remain skeptical about sending their children to band-run schools, though achievement results are on par with provincial schools on Nova Scotia’s math and literary tests.

“We just have to show people that it is okay to speak the language,” says Starr Paul. She returned to Eskasoni’s immersion school this fall after a year of teaching Mi’kmaw language and culture at Allison Bernard. “Sometimes it is difficult to persuade people in the community.”

For her master’s thesis on the immersion school experience, she found students performed well academically and also gained confidence. “That’s what we noticed—the parents noticed and the Elders noticed,” she says.

Still, there were challenges.

“We had kids who were [already] speaking the language but also had kids who did not speak the language,” she recalls. “We had to juggle our way on how to teach speakers and non-speakers, so we translated books ourselves and we made our own material, because there was no material.”

But the situation is changing because of locally developed resources.

Emma Stevens Mi’kmaw version of Blackbird went viral (Carter Chiasson)

At We’koqma’q Mi’kmaw School, for example, students produce videos to record the stories of local residential school survivors. A teaching and learning centre at Eskasoni’s immersion school relies on retired teachers and Elders to produce Indigenous materials and sometimes translate books into Mi’kmaw. This year, Allison Bernard high school student Emma Stevens drew international attention when she sang a Mi’kmaw version of Paul McCartney’s Blackbird to celebrate the International Year of Indigenous Languages.

Graduates of Mi’kmaq schools say the experience nurtured their identities.

“I didn’t have to go to school and feel like I had to be something else,” says Aaron Prosper, who attended Eskasoni’s elementary and high schools but not the immersion program.

Last spring, the 23-year-old graduated from Dalhousie University with a bachelor of science in neuroscience, a minor in biochemistry and molecular biology, and a certificate in Indigenous studies. The first Indigenous leader of Dal’s student union, he now works as project manager for the Mi’kmaw cancer care strategy of the Union of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq.

Prosper, a member of the popular Mi’kmaw drumming group Eastern Eagle Singers, says those who grew up off reserve tell him, “I don’t have the resources to talk to an Elder or express my indigeneity.”

The growing number of Mi’kmaq students going into post-secondary schools puts financial pressure on bands to provide adequate subsidies. In 2015, St. FX graduate Jeannine Deveau donated $3 million—an additional $5 million was donated by others—for bursaries and scholarships for academically strong Indigenous and African Nova Scotians. Annually, about 50 Indigenous students receive financial support through the fund, according to a university spokeswoman.

Elizabeth Cremo, director of education for the Eskasoni School Board, cites multiple factors to explain student success, but emphasizes the value of recruiting local teachers. “Many of them are Mi’kmaw speakers and can relate to the students,” she says. “They honour and respect our language and culture, and the students who come here [to school] don’t experience being the ‘other.’”

In turn, she says, St. FX “is honouring where we come from and who we are.”

Orr says his faculty’s deep ties to Mi’kmaq schools owe much to the schools’ leaders and teachers.

“You don’t make these things happen just by doing them yourself,” he says. “You do it by building capacity around faculty and partnering with people . . . and gradually the culture shifts.”

For interim St. FX president Kevin Wamsley, the deep alliance between the education faculty and Mi’kmaq communities serves as a lesson in reconciliation for the rest of the university in a province where, decades earlier, Mi’kmaq families were forcibly removed from their homes and their children punished for speaking their first language in school.

“The faculty of education started from a community-based approach and went out into the community and asked questions,” he says. “They recognized that to serve the needs of the community, you have to listen.”

The university established a reconciliation committee last year and has sought to increase hiring of Indigenous professors, work more closely with Mi’kmaq communities and create a culturally welcoming environment.

Eskasoni Chief Leroy Denny, the long-serving chairman of MK, acknowledges progress but warns the work related to educating the next generation is not done. He is especially concerned about providing adequate services for students with disabilities—he says Eskasoni has a high incidence of children with autism—and mental health issues.

“This is not a sprint,” he says. “We have been at this for many years.”

He acknowledges the university’s “huge contribution” to teacher training but, in equal measure, makes clear that “the Mi’kmaq also taught St. FX about our ways and our struggles.”

This article appears in print in the 2020 University Rankings issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “A rare partnership.”