Tell us about your journey in First Nations’ lifelong learning.
As the daughter of a residential school survivor and non-native father my journey to learn more about my First Nation culture is something that I strived to learn from a young age. Even now I continue to learn more about my Anishinaabe culture, language, and traditions. I love to hear the language. It’s like music to my ears.
I grew up in Port Dover, Ontario and hadn’t known there was an Ojibway community so close to home. While working at a co-op preschool in Jarvis my sister told me she saw a job posting for an early childhood educator in New Credit. I applied and was hired as a RECE (registered early childhood educator) in 1997. I worked in each room - infants, toddler, preschool and kindergarten. I became the assistant supervisor in 2001 and then was asked to apply for the supervisor position by the then-chief and previous education director.
My role as the Ekwaamjigenang Supervisor lasted for 16 years. I learned so much in this position and learned even more when I became the Director of Child Care and EarlyON Child and Family Programs in 2018. Last year when I was approached to be the Director of Lifelong Learning, I was very humbled. I knew that there would be much to learn in this new position as well.
You share a unique perspective, coming up through early learning. Can you talk about how that is important to Indigenous lifelong learning systems?
Quite often early learning isn’t seen as part of a person’s overall education. From a young age, children are beginning to show their gifts, personalities, knowledge and opinions. I want them to have a strong foundation for who they are. Knowing who they are as an Indigenous person is key to their future success.
They need that early foundation to understand their Indigenous identity, but also their identity in general. Land-based learning and language creates that strong foundation, right from child care. My goal is to keep early learning on the table as an important element of the lifelong learning continuum.
You’ve done advocacy work as well.
Advocating for best practices and excellence has always been a part of who I am in early learning. In 2014 myself and Elaine Wrightman from Bkejwanong Territory created Progressive Early Learning Aboriginal Centres of Excellence (PEACE). Our goal was to connect childcare supervisors across Southwest Ontario.
We would meet monthly to share resources, stories, challenges and work together to find solutions. We were so strong together that the Ministry of Early Learning and Childcare was very interested in our work and created a responsive relationship with us to the point that our childcare advisor was coming to the meetings on a regular basis. Our voice was heard, and we made sure that First Nations voices were heard at the table.
What are some lifelong learning successes you’ve been involved with?
In 2016, as part of the Journey Together reconciliation initiatives we worked with the neighbouring municipality and began the creation of new Indigenous-led programs which included our EarlyON Child and Family Program and the start up of a new 49 space licensed child care program within the high school.
Together with our neighbouring municipalities we have been hosting an annual children’s summer celebration Pow Wow. We invited all neighbouring child care centres to come together to celebrate the changing of the season. It is an amazing sight to see over 300 little ones dancing and celebrating together.
I am most proud of being able to move on from the Early Learning Portfolio into the larger Lifelong Learning Portfolio and know that we have a strong leader and team and foundational programming in place for our littlest learners.
The opening of the Indigenous-led childcare program in Hagersville high school is another step of the journey toward reconciliation. It’s providing connections of our youngest children with high school students from various backgrounds.
This initiative has created new relationships which will include co-operative education opportunities, art programming where students will be creating an wall mural at our child care centre as well work with the horticulture class to assist in the creation of a medicine wheel garden and playground gardens.
What are some challenges that Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation faces in strengthening its lifelong learning system?
Right now, our challenge is information-gathering and working to help people understand the importance of lifelong learning. It's about shifting our education perspective from one that focusses on teaching to the children, to one that moves toward learning together with the children. Let’s learn alongside our children and journey together to a bright future where passion and excellence are part of all our education systems from our Early Learning Centres through to the Elementary, Secondary and Post Secondary systems. Let’s look at incorporating outdoor learning or a balanced school year which has been shown to work toward closing the gaps in our current systems. It was a goal that my mentor Maxwell King baa, wanted for years.
What gives you hope for the future of Indigenous lifelong learning systems?
Years ago, when I worked in childcare, I saw a child who wasn’t having their particular needs met. I reached out to an outside community agency for support. The “bosses” at this agency didn’t understand why I kept reaching out to them. An ECE on this agency’s staff decided to be that help. They were hired to work one-on-one with the child and supported him in the classroom. This support continued on with the family for a number of years. I was able to see the success of this child through a supportive lifelong learning process. He has continued in his success and is enrolled in post-secondary schooling.
So many of the children I first began caring for in my career on the Territory as an Early Childhood Educator are now graduating college, university, high school, starting families and careers. I have been rewarded and honoured to see them travel their journeys of lifelong learning. I would often say to staff at Ekwaamjigenang “you never know when one of these children could become our boss.” Well it happened! Cathie Jamieson (daughter of Councillor Veronica King-Jamieson’s) became a councillor and “boss” so to speak!
In what way has FNWSC helped you as lifelong learning director?
The collective has been instrumental in helping me to connect with other First Nations that are working on initiatives outside of the federal or provincial government policies. We don’t want to fit into that box, we want them to start to bend and work to meet each individual community’s needs. It’s helpful to have the alliances and the support of other voices together. There is strength in numbers.