Connecting with Culture in First Nations Education

By Tamara Baluja
Haida Gwaii, B.C.






When I started planning my itinerary to B.C., I assumed the most expensive item would be my flight from Toronto to Vancouver.
I was shocked to discover that my round trip flight from Vancouver to Haida Gwaii cost only $50 less than my flight three quarters of the way across Canada. Although only a short two-hour flight away from Vancouver, these B.C. remote islands close to the Alaskan border were harder to get to than simply flying across the country. In delivering quality education in First Nations communities, it was clear that cost and accessibility were major obstacles.In spite of those challenges, both the band school and public schools try hard to make schooling culturally relevant for their students. My goal was to dig deeper.

When I initially started reporting on First Nations education, it felt very strange to be writing about reserve schools I had never visited. Distance, time, and cost are all factors that newsrooms across the country are grappling with when it comes to reporting on aboriginal education.

The Greg Clark Award, through The Canadian Journalism Foundation, provided me the opportunity to travel to remote reserves in B.C. and meet face-to-face those I was writing about—a key to building trust and getting access to the community.
Like many readers, I was fatigued with negative stories about dismal graduation rates and classes being held in broken portables stained with mould. My reporting took me to band schools and public schools that were bucking those trends.

One of my favourite memories is watching the Grade 6 class in Chief Atahm School on Adam’s Lake reserve chop their way through the last catch of the spring salmon run. Some of the students sliced off fins and got their hands bloody as they pulled out the guts, hearts and eggs from the salmon. They then tried to convince me to eat them raw. Others had typical reactions and refused to hack the fish.

Through the fun and games, the homeroom teacher reinforced the checklist of science topics students would be expected to learn, such as the life cycle of the salmon and conservation and environmental protection issues. I was initially skeptical of the value of these ‘field trips’ and cultural immersion schools and wondered how it would help students graduate with a high school diploma.But I met with experts who spoke of the positive foundation this kind of culturally-responsive education had in ensuring student self-esteem and success. I spoke with parents and elders on how their traumatic experiences with residential schooling influenced the decisions they made for the schooling of their children as well as public school officials who acknowledged the shortcomings of their system and changes they were planning to institute.
Along the way I learned that education can come in many shapes and forms and it is indeed possible to learn outside of the traditional classroom setting. Travelling to these remote schools challenged my own assumptions of what education on reserves would look like and instilled a deep respect for those educators who are striving to make change in spite of financial challenges.   To The Canadian Journalism Foundation, thank you for giving early career journalists like me the opportunity to challenge ourselves, improve our reporting skills and bring untold stories to light.Read Tamara Baluja’s report about First Nations schools in the Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail.

The Canadian Journalism Foundation would like to thank

for their generous support of the 2012 award.