It all started rather innocently when the curiosity of a 15-year-old student was piqued as to why the river near the home community of Cumberland River was browner than usual.
The quick answer was perhaps simple enough in that there was increased sediment in the water. However, that seemingly innocuous question set the wheels in motion for what Renée Carrière said went on to become a life-changing experience in terms of engaging students and the northern community in honouring and combining both Indigenous and western ways of knowing via authentic land-based education.
Along the way, subsequent answers were sought to find out why the muskrat population had decreased and what is Acorus calamus [rat root]. Utilizing land-based teaching practices of controlled fire burning, water sampling and plant collecting, the Wachusk or Muskrat Project became an all-consuming endeavour that is still in progress.
Aided by the extensive use of Elders, Knowledge Keepers and community members, the end result was the development of a high school credit recovery program at Charlebois Community School. This program is a perfect fit for the vision and belief statement of the Northern Lights School Division of valuing Indigenous education.
Since its inception, the project has had a profound impact on all those involved, ranging from students and teachers right up to the Ministry of Education and to the McDowell Foundation, which recently honoured the action research project as its 2016 McDowell Foundation Research Award recipient.
Carrière, the lead researcher who worked closely with Tim Jardine and Solomon Carrière as research collaborators, shared the experience with those attending the Learning From Practice conference. Her enthusiasm for the project was readily evident, never more so than during the question-and-answer segment as she extolled the virtues of using the outdoors as the classroom.
“I challenge teachers to let go of the power sometimes and empower the kids. We need to do more of this and we need to think outside the basket and not be afraid. We found it was great to give students a camera and that tells its own story. As educators we became those little kids again. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty because this is hands-on learning that really engages students. Use curriculum as a guide but it’s not a law. There are different ways to get to the outcomes and that makes it an authentic journey,” she offered.
Carrière noted it was interesting to observe how what they learned dovetailed across all subject areas. A trapper herself along with her husband, Carrière said the questions generated by this project got trappers and community members excited and it was a poignant way to bridge Indigenous and western science knowledge. “It’s not a matter of right or wrong, but it’s different and throughout it all, the students developed real pride in their community and their confidence to ask questions grew so much because we were able to open that door.
“We often talk about attendance issues, but my Grade 11 science room wasn’t big enough and that’s because the students were truly engaged and having fun because we were bringing this to life. It’s one of the tragedies of our curriculum, that there has been a failure to make any effort to validate Indigenous knowledge,” Carrière said.
As a staunch proponent of the outdoor education approach, Carrière reminded those in attendance that they can apply this to any environment–urban or rural–and it doesn’t have to be a locale blessed with the abundant natural beauty of this northern Saskatchewan community.
“We have a great repository at our disposal and it’s a matter of getting to know your place and your community. As a society we’ve lost our senses, so take the students out to read a poem underneath a tree. We are a tactile species but we have to reconnect. Pretty soon you realize that the impact you can have in your own backyard can have a global impact as well.
“Does it take extra work to make this part of your regimen? Yes it does, but it’s a win-win situation to do these small things. Don’t photocopy a butterfly; go outside and see one.”
By her own admission, Carrière was initially very nervous about how this ambitious project would unfold, alluding to it having so many pieces that would have to fit together. Upon its conclusion, she was, in her own words, floored by the overall results.
The real silver lining was that the findings of the project have led to the potential creation and inclusion of Saskatchewan environmental policy in regards to the adoption of a fire burn template. According to Carrière, the acceptance of the findings by the Ministry of Education ostensibly legitimizes and validates Indigenous science and ways of knowing in secondary science courses.
Carrière indicated that the fire burning is ongoing and that this is still a work in progress, adding that “we live in a western world, but we have taken small steps in bringing the two ways of knowing together and that’s to everyone’s benefit.”
Anyone who would like to view a video documenting the report can check out The Wachusk or Muskrat Project: Part One at www.mcdowellfoundation.ca/research-topics/award-winners.