Sharing school stories creates ‘sense of pride’

Wiikwemikong Board of Education Communications Officer Dwayne Animikwan informs community members and the broader public about learning successes

By Jennifer O’Brien for FNWSC

Around Wiikwemkoong First Nation, Dwayne Animikwan is affectionately known as “the Picture Guy.” 

When students were out in the sugarbush collecting sap for maple syrup last month, he was there with his camera. When the Grade 3 class learned to fillet a rainbow trout, he caught it on video. When the Grade 11 Manufacturing and Technology class built a robot, he recorded that too. Basically, if there is anything interesting happening in a Wiikwemkoong school, you can expect to find Animikwan there snapping photos and shooting video. 

And of course it was Animikwan who took the photo at the top of this page, showing Grade 2 Wiikwemkoong Junior School pupils dressed in their #EveryChildMatters shirts to honour the children who never got to go home from residential schools. 

As Communications Officer for Wiikwemkoong Board of Education, Animikwan’s role is to inform families, community members and the broader public about the stories — especially the learning success stories — happening at the three schools in the Anishinabek community.

“My goal is to communicate what’s going on in our board of education,” said Animikwan, during a presentation for the First Nations with Schools Collective (FNWSC).  “I like focusing on things that make our community proud: Our language, our Land-Based-Learning  — things I wish people could get to see.”

Animikwan’s presentation was the third in a media and communications training series hosted by the collective as part of its objective to support its eight member First Nations in sharing education success stories. The FNWSC provides a forum for its members to collaborate and share resources and approaches for education system transformation.

Communication is priority number one

“Success stories highlight why culturally based systems make a difference to First Nation student outcomes,” said Leslee White-Eye, FNWSC Structural Readiness Co-ordinator. “They create pride in the community in their own school and inform the public that First Nations have always been better positioned to govern over their own systems, which is remarkable given the very limited resources communities have at their disposal for education.”

The FNWSC has identified communicating community stories as a critical component in achieving the goal of First Nations control of First Nations’ education.

“Communications is priority number one at this stage,” said White-Eye. “We should give every parent and every leader in a First Nations setting specific examples of success — and of show them how we are doing better than the provincial system in ways that don’t harm learners’ identity development.”

As part of his role, Animikwan helps the education director craft messages, school statements and news releases. He also helps manage interview requests from area news organizations and builds relationships with them. But his favourite aspect is sharing the school and student success stories on the education board’s Youtube and Facebook pages.  

Often those posts aim to showcase classroom lessons and education success stories, but sometimes they highlight a school community member or amplify achievements of students, such as an incredible basketball shot by life skills student Fabian or a beautiful piano solo by Grade 9 student Mason. 

 “These are things that parents wouldn’t otherwise see,” said Animikwan. The posts can generate “a sense of pride,” in educators and students alike, he said. 

Having a constant presence on social media can attract outside media attention, which can also contribute toward other board goals, such as recruitment efforts, he said. 

“We were highlighted nationally for the robotics team. We need to get (that news) out there and get world class educators to come and work for us,” said Animikwan. “All the stuff we do here in our schools,

Well wishers from Wiikwemkoong Junior School walked to support a member of their education family who was not able to be in school this year.

I’m really proud of it.” The session was the latest of several webinars the FNWSC has held since its launch in 2016. Previous online events have featured panelists from all over the world who have shared knowledge about Indigenous evaluation methodologies, land-based learning and curriculum design that honours ways of knowing and education law development.

Earlier sessions offered training to help participants find ways to media attention for their stories.  Education leaders who participated in this third session heard how having a strategy and an employee dedicated full time to communications has benefited the Wiikwemkoong Board of Education.

The goal of the collective is to share methodologies between First Nations working to reinstitute ancestral knowledge into the daily learning of community life. 

First Nations Work to Reclaim Data Sovereignty

As a collective, 8 First Nations draw on each other’s common view of success and work to build a data infrastructure blueprint 

March 23, 2021

By Dr. Ashley Sisco, Jana George, & Alisha Fowler, Sisco & Associates Consulting Services Inc. – Special to the FNWSC

First Nations have always had their own ways of gathering, protecting and using their knowledge and information. However, Canada has continuously ignored First Nations sovereignty.

Education data sovereignty is not an exception. 

Data sovereignty is defined as the right to manage information in accordance with a community’s unique laws, customs and culturally-relevant practices. Data is key to self-determination because it provides evidence to influence decision-making.

Canada’s education system determines educational success and funding based on indicators such as attendance, grades, standardized tests and graduation rates. These indicators reinforce European values and undermine Indigenous worldviews. Yet, First Nations are forced to conform to these indicators in education. Funding shortages have prevented First Nations from consistently collecting the data that connects learning outcomes to community goals. 

The First Nations With Schools Collective (FNWSC)— a group of eight First Nations in Ontario working together to advance shared goals in lifelong learning — is asserting data sovereignty through redefining how First Nations’ lifelong learning is measured. 

For FNWSC First Nations, the purpose of education is to support individuals, family and community members in reaching their full potential, based on their individual goals. Member First Nations share common educational goals, impacts and measures, which differ from Canada. However, due to chronic federal funding shortfalls, they have not had the capacity to collect data using their own lifelong learning measures and build the comprehensive data systems comparable to provincial data systems. 

Our firm, Sisco & Associates Consulting Services (SISCO), has been honoured to support the FNWSC First Nations in developing their data sovereignty capacity. Through this pilot project, the FNWSC is building on conventional student achievement measures by adding community-defined goals and indicators. The purpose of this work is for the FNWSC First Nations to be able to measure and support their learning journeys, as well as advocate for federal funding in a meaningful way for their communities. 

Throughout this process, our team experienced a few “aha moments” that gave us important insight into FNWSC community values and visions for learning. 

  1. FNWSC member First Nations define lifelong learning as an ongoing process that supports individuals in developing strengths, realizing their potentials and contributing to their communities. This is in contrast to the Canadian system, which is designed to train students to support the economy. 
  1. For FNWSC First Nations, learning occurs from pre-birth to post-death, not solely confined to a period of someone’s life (e.g. Kindergarten to Grade 12). It is not confined to the classroom but happens everywhere, especially in the community.
  2. Education is all around us. It is what an individual learns from every experience in daily life. FNWSC First Nations currently collect data by areas like social services, economic development, and health separately from education because funding authorities require it this way. What we learned is that in order to understand lifelong learning this data should be collected and considered together as indicators of success. 

First Nations need both adequate funding for and control over First Nations education. 

If Canada is serious about reconciliation, it must respect First Nations jurisdiction to define and measure lifelong learning and uphold federal funding obligations for First Nations education.

As a next step, Canada must make space at intergovernmental tables for First Nations as sovereign Nations with self-governments of equal decision-making power. 

First Nation education leaders join forces on COVID-19 school re-entry plans

Jennifer O’Brien – Special to the FNWSC

Since COVID-19 became a global pandemic, First Nation education leaders have been at the forefront of strategies to keep their communities safe and healthy.

Antler River Elementary teacher and a student working through a plexiglass during one-on-one learning time. (Antler River/COTTFN Education)

Amid unprecedented, rapidly changing circumstances, education directors have been involved in big decisions that go beyond education to protect students, staff and the broader community.

And during the past eight months, some of those leaders have gathered several times as part of the First Nations with Schools Collective( FNWSC) to discuss everything from safety protocols to remote learning technologies to the social-emotional needs of students during a community shutdown. 

“When COVID first happened, it was really good, being in like-mind with people who had ideas about what shutdown looked like and what safety in education looked like,” said Felicia Huff, board of education chairperson at Chippewas of the Thames First Nation.  

Members also shared important knowledge about the financial support First Nation education boards should demand from the government of Canada, said Huff. 

“I love the work the group is doing. We are working together. We’ve had a lot of our emergency needs answered by being able to talk to the other folks in the circle,” she said. “Our minds were filled with being proactive and being safe and being prepared to support the community.” 

Early on in the pandemic, the collective’s conversations focussed on community health plans and how to cancel school in a way that education would safely continue.  That led to critical discussions about how to continue providing nutrition programs and stay connected with children who need school for social and emotional support. 

Social distancing measures are just one of many safety measures being taken by First Nation schools (Majvecka/AdobeStock)

“When we decided to shut down, the biggest concern was health and safety related to COVID-19, but the second biggest concern was that we do have families who struggle. We had to keep in mind that this isn’t a holiday for all children,” said Huff. 

Some communities have found ways to maintain those vital connections by having learning support staff bring nutrition packages to households where they can also touch base with students and families. 

School re-entry looks different at each of the member communities, with the spectrum of COVID-19 era education plans running from complete online learning to full immersion back into schools with safety precautions in communities where wi-fi is not reliable. Some communities have a mix of online and in-person tactics.

Antler River Elementary students at Chippewas of the Thames are learning through paper-based assignment packages. Classes are suspended, and the students attend school individually to pick up their learning packages and have regular one-on-one meetings with their teacher. 

Wiikwemkoong Board of Education have returned to school in two cohorts. Before entering the building, all students must undergo screening and have their temperature checked. Inside they wear masks or face shields and follow strict guidelines on distancing and hand-washing. 

“Everybody is co-operating. It’s very important that everybody supports these health and safety initiatives,” said Education Director Fay Zoccole.

“We are very vulnerable here. One sweep of COVID-19 through our community could take our language speakers, our cultural keepers, our story tellers,” she added. “We’re not ready to let go of our precious elders. We need them. They are a rich part of our culture and our ways of life.” 

Teachers at Wiikwemkoong schools are encouraged to do outdoor and land-based learning as much as possible, she said.

As they worked toward approaches that made sense for each community’s different needs and circumstances, FNWSC members bounced ideas off each other and shared successes and challenges. “When communities come together to share stories — particularly in unknown situations like COVID-19 — the considerations are far more comprehensive and solutions come faster,” said Leslee White-Eye, Structural Readiness Co-ordinator for the First Nations with Schools Collective. “There is a real sense that you’re not alone in this. I’m happy the Collective can organize the time to come together and share which  result in some really practical solutions and preparedness.”

Some topics covered:

  • Arrival procedures for students
  • Access to schools & off-reserve staff during border closures
  • Financial support to manage the pandemic 
  • Continuous of nutrition programs
  • Protecting the privacy of people connecting via video from home
  • Protection of Elders living with students 
  • Lag times in receiving PPE or supply orders 
  • How to avoid layoffs
  • (watchable/AdobeStock vector image)

COVID-19 & First Nation Schools’ Physical Education Curriculum as a Long-Term Strategy for Disease Prevention

LESLEE WHITE-EYE is the Structural Readiness Coordinator for the First Nations With Schools Collective (FNWSC), an inter-nation table of First Nations seeking control over education.

While First Nation communities have yet to see the true impact of COVID-19 in terms of health and well-being, there is certainty in knowing the impacts will be devastating.  Given our collective vulnerabilities to disease as a colonized people and continued limited access to Western care, this virus will find a perfect host in the average Indigenous body.  

A recent talk[1] by Dr. Michael Yellow Bird, Dean of Social Work at the University of Manitoba, entitled “Decolonizing COVID-19: A Return to Traditional Indigenous Prevention Strategies in the Time of Uncertainty” led me to think more deeply about how leaders in First Nation communities must legislate specific health education standards for their school(s) that align more closely with critical local health and cultural needs to reduce chronic disease instances and strengthen immune systems.  

It is important that these standards go far beyond expectations found in the Ontario Health and Physical Education Curriculum currently in place in Ontario schools.  First Nation communities have a huge hill to climb in terms of positive health outcomes. Each community having scarce resources would need to hyper target a change to their curriculum to bring about the most positive change to student health, i.e., observing traditional feasting protocols for their high nutritional value, incorporating daily reflective thinking practices such as meditation, instituting more time outdoors or allowing for participation in intermittent sweats and fasting that have strong mental health benefits. 

Dr. Yellow Bird highlighted how centuries of tried and true Indigenous cultural practices, almost eradicated by colonial and racist policy, were mechanisms to build physical resiliency in our bodies.  In his talk, he references western research related to natural and seasonal sleep patterns, ‘immune memory’, and cognitive resilience that relate to and affirm benefits of traditional practices like prolonged fasting; prolonged singing, dancing in supportive social groups; humour and laughter; and sweats.  Each cultural prevention strategy did its part in building immunity in our microbiome, cognitive and muscle/skeletal structures.

With this in mind, more must be done to include traditional physical health practices in First Nation schools. Dr. Yellow Bird worries about the epidemic of inactivity, the devaluing of independent play and the disconnect in relationships between people and place that have become prevalent in modern day society, which is why, he focuses on Indigenous mindfulness practices in his work. Adopting similar practices and more land-based learning that is culturally based as a requirement of curriculum in First Nation schools could be an easy remedy to these issues. 

And now more than ever, First Nation education system leaders are in a position to engage in discussions about setting rigorous learning goals that represent the needs of the community and are culturally relevant health standards for all students.  

What would a revised Physical Education curriculum look like?

In the short-term, community education decision-makers could legislate increased instructional time outdoors, increased hours of physical education per week and a redefining of what constitutes physical education. Educators can then, in turn, reinvigorate key physical experiences, co-taught with cultural knowledge keepers, like fasting, hiking, canoeing, camping, fishing and other land-based training to strengthen children and youth physical health and cultural knowledge.  

In the mid-term, for example, community infrastructure planners would need to build school fire pits as Wikwemikong Board of Education has; teaching lodges as Chippewas of the Thames has outside their school; and, outdoor shelters.  Lands and environment officers would need to designate areas for maple bush growth, sweetgrass harvesting (as in the case at Walpole Island First Nation), hunting and interpretative trails to support the work.  Curriculum writers and cultural leads would need to help teachers align learning about customs to seasonal timetables, i.e., winter storytelling, and prepare teachers to be flexible when natural life circumstances present significant learning opportunities, i.e., deaths, births, feasting in a revised school improvement plan.  And finance officers would need to assess budgets for their ability to hire knowledge keepers, provide the equipment, safety supports, transportation and liability insurances to run rigorous outdoor education programming.  

Why culturally relevant curriculum will help our immunity?

Our cultural values place the highest importance on the interconnectedness of all living things. Dr. Yellow Bird says knowing cultural values like humility and respect for all life would keep in check the current thinking prevalent in some youth who believe they are invincible to COVID-19.  One example he provided of cultural thinking in the face of disease is being able to see viruses and bacteria as thinking living species that live in our bodies ‘as a great population’ in balance and harmony.  Students who understand these values and can apply them to their own immune system functioning will be less likely to take for granted the instability and threat to life a pathogen, like COVID-19, can be to their bodies in times like these.  

What will a call to action look like?

Let’s create research teams to assess how First Nation schools are impacting immune system functioning in our students.  Let’s legislate for school-led cultural experiences where a healthy level of environmental stress through fasting, doing sweats and being outside for longer period of times strengthen immunity.  Let’s plan for schools where children and youth laugh, sing, dance, sleep, meditate, and run more.  Then finally, let’s track the impacts these changes in education legislation have on overall community wellbeing and immunity over the long-term. 

By learning the lessons of this pandemic, communities can build stronger physical education experiences that draw from tried and true cultural practices for greater physical health. 

[1] The talk was hosted by KIN Knowledge in Indigenous Networks on April 7, 2020 and can be found on their Facebook page.

See National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health at for a diversity of publications, resources and other information related to Indigenous health.