by John Copley
(ANNews) – More than 400 students, Elders, teachers, Edmonton Public School Board representatives, trustees, community partners, cadets and Amiskwaciy Academy supporters gathered at the school on December 16 to celebrate a new season, usher in the upcoming holidays and thank the many volunteers, parents and community partners for another year of friendship and support.
The gathering included a bake sale, a local vendor with lovely handcrafted items for sale and a silent auction for several beautifully constructed Adirondack chairs, handmade by Amiskwaciy students enrolled in teacher Larry Moro’s carpentry class.
After inviting those in attendance to a pancake breakfast on December 18, Principal Fred Hines introduced the Amiskwaciy Drummers, a talented group of young men and women led by Elder Francis Whiskeyjack and accompanied by teacher Terrace Mah.
“I believe that this time of year is a good time to bring some recognition and give some thanks and right now I’d like to thank the Active Aboriginal Seniors Group of Edmonton for their participation at Amiskwaciy Academy.”
Several students made their way to the podium where they delivered a special thank-you gift to the group, and its president, Lynn Lush.
“Members of this group,” lauded Hines, “come into our school every Tuesday. They help out in the kitchen, the library and the classrooms; they make themselves visible and they welcome engagement with both students and staff. They play an important role at the school and we thank them for everything they do to help our students achieve. I’d also like to recognize the Elders who are here with us today; from Metis Child and Family Services, one of our partners here at Amiskwaciy, Elder Donald Langford. Also with us is Elder Leith Campbell and longstanding Amiskwaciy Elder Francis Whiskeyjack. I’m also very proud to introduce one of the newest members of the Amiskwaciy team, Elder Jeanette Lean, who will be working with Elder Whiskeyjack.”
Principal Hines also paid tribute to former University of Alberta and Amiskwaciy Academy Elder Marge Freidel, who passed away in 2011 at the age of 75 years. Her family, led by son Dale, continues to participate in Amiskwaciy Academy’s special events. The kitchen staff members were also thanked for their extra effort and for coming to the school at 5 am to prepare the delicious meal served at the Annual Christmas Winter Feast. The Edmonton Food Bank and Metis Child were also thanked for the major contributions they make to ensure both the quality of food and the longevity of the school’s lunch program.
Students and teachers from area schools are invited to all of the special events hosted at Amiskwaciy Academy, and the list of participants continues to grow. This year saw participation from schools that included WP Wagner, East Glen, Highlands, Strathcona, Avalon, Ross Shepherd and Percy Page.
Edmonton Public School Board Trustee Ray Martin was called upon to make a few comments to the students, staff and visitors.
“I am very pleased to be here today on this special occasion and I am honoured to have the opportunity to help celebrate the beginning of a new season,” stated Martin. “I understand that winter is a time to celebrate, a time for story-telling, a time when we come together with family and friends to tell stories of the past, share our memories and look to the future and be reminded of the rich heritage of our First Nations, Metis and Inuit cultures. It reminds us that there is a sacredness to keeping these rich cultures alive and ensuring that they flourish for many generations yet to come. Amiskwaciy Academy is working to help ensure that this happens.
“The body, heart and spirit within this school work in unison to bring languages and cultures together in a positive learning environment that supports student success. This is a daily occurrence aided by supportive teachers, Elders, parents and community members. What Amiskwaciy does so well is provide an education that nurtures our students’ development, not only academically, but emotionally and spiritually as well. This holistic approach is placing them on a good path and one that will lead them toward a promising and fulfilling future.”
Amiskwaciy Academy occasionally recognizes those who have helped the school and students over the course of the school year with a special honour blanket that is presented by the school’s Elders. The 2015 Christmas Winter Feast honoured Edmonton Police Service Constable Jeff Thomsen for the work he’s done at the school and for the time he’s spent playing sports with and talking to the students about their futures.
“We are pleased to present the honour blanket to individuals and organizations who go out of their way to help make Edmonton a better and safer place to live. Thank you Constable Thomsen and to all of the other police officers that have joined with us today to help us celebrate this festive season. Unlike many of the larger high schools in Edmonton, we here at Amiskwaciy do not have SRO’s, or police officers with us all of the time so we are fortunate to have been able to develop this community partnership with the Northeast Division of the Edmonton Police Services. As you can see here today the representation and support they provide us is quite overwhelming. This past summer we had the police academy here with the Aboriginal Relations unit who did a wonderful job with a bunch of our kids. It’s important for us to see police officers come into the school, sit and have a coffee and talk with the kids – it means a lot to us.”
After the presentation of the honour blanket the lineups to the buffet-style Christmas dinner formed and everyone enjoyed a delicious meal complete with turkey, caribou, fish, ham, potatoes and an array of vegetables and desserts.
During the festivities Sissy Theissen took to the podium with several of the students she’s been working with as part of a pilot project – conducting a leadership development program designed to help Grade 11 and 12 female students as they get ready to move on from high school to post secondary education. The quartet, which included Thiessen and students Tamara Whitehead, Sydney Spence and Charley Bearhead, performed two Christmas songs for the many who’d gathered at the school to participate in the annual Feast.
The 10-week pilot program is being hosted in partnership with the Institute for the Advancement of Aboriginal Women (IAAW). Sissy works with the IAAW’s leadership, training and employment program as the Youth Leadership Coordinator for the Esquao Leadership Development Program.
The goal of this new partnership between the school and the IAAW, explained Thiessen, is to “help give Aboriginal female students in Grades 11 and 12 an opportunity to discover their strength, impact and abilities by providing the skills, teachings and opportunities that will allow them to develop themselves both personally and professionally. The program is designed to facilitate leadership, youth advocacy, community involvement, and self-confidence through the building of healthy relationships and confident communication. The program will also introduce students to the traditional roles of women, as well as to successful Aboriginal women in leadership today.”
The IAAW created the initiative to help reverse a trend that has become too readily acceptable in today’s society.
“Aboriginal women suffer as victims of racism, sexism and high levels of domestic violence,” noted Thiessen. “At the same time, Aboriginal women are over-represented in the prison system, have high unemployment rates and live in poverty. It wasn’t always this way. At one time, the women in the community chose the Chief and each woman was respected and honoured for her wisdom and vision. We want to see that day return. The IAAW is a small but mighty women’s organization that reaches out to First Nation, Metis and Inuit women to deliver programs and services that work to create better outcomes for women in Alberta.”
The Esquao Youth Leadership Program is funded by Right to Play Int., AB Culture and Tourism and the City of Edmonton. It is currently nearing the end of its 10 week pilot phase, and though, because of regular curriculum requirements it may not immediately continue, Principal Hines said that he’d like to see the program recommence during the next school quarter, sometime in late February.
“I find this to be a worthy and very worthwhile program and one that could be utilized in schools throughout the district and beyond,” noted Theissen. “It is apparent to me, through attending community events and living as a young Indigenous woman myself, that young Aboriginal women in this province and country fall to the bottom of every quality of life list that exists in Canada. They have low self-esteem and self-worth, are disconnected from their communities, supports and culture, and are also highly vulnerable to being involved in dangerous activities and lifestyle choices. This program aims to change that by empowering and educating these girls in the areas of leadership, healthy living, self confidence, advocacy and life skills. In the beginning, the attendance was low and the students were constantly changing. Today I have the same core group of 7-9 girls that come every day, even if they miss their morning class, are injured or are going through difficult times at home.
“In the beginning these girls barely wanted to talk at all, participate, show up or look at one another. Now, they are asking for team building games and spoke in front of 35 people at the end of November to introduce an Olympic athlete and Right to Play ambassador speaker. I am so proud of the development they have shown in this short period of time. So much more confident are they that one student even asked me to sing with her in front of you all here today. She thought she would be the only student singing, but as you can see we have had others join in. This is a true testament to the growing leadership and personal development of these young women – and it’s only one example. I hope to see this program continue here at Amiskwaciy and I also hope to see it expand into other schools as time goes by.”
Amiskwaciy Academy is about learning but it’s also about culture and personal identity. Principal Fred Hines put it all into perspective when he said: “At Amiskwaciy Academy students are at the centre of our initiatives. What we plan for, work towards, and strive for is a community of forward thinkers. A full time Elder is on-site serving our school and community. Students learn about Cree culture through the Morning Song, Traditional Teachings, Sweats and through classroom enrichment. We work hard at giving our students the tools to become productive members of our society through the world of work or post-secondary education. As a community we work to remove barriers that would impede progress for our students. Please stop in and join us for breakfast – the Morning Song gets underway every weekday morning at 9:00 a.m.”