Critical service-learning stirs call to action among Calgary teens

Werklund School students using MMIWG commission as opportunity towards reconciliation

As the final public hearing of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) commission was concluding last Sunday in Vancouver, the question remained how Canada will come to terms with its history in relation to Indigenous people.  To further the dialogue essential to reconciliation, students at the Werklund School of Education are asking how children and youth might better engage the brave witness and collective shared voices of Indigenous women, girls and two-spirited people. 

Sarah Beech, a Calgary teacher and current graduate student, began asking this last year, after enrolling in Indigenous Education: a Call to Action, part of the Werklund School’s Master of Education, Interdisciplinary Route, with course work that supports the University of Calgary’s Indigenous Strategy.

Beech, who works with the Calgary Board of Education, saw an opportunity to involve teenagers in the topic of reconciliation, particularly in light of the ongoing inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirited people.  “Aboriginal studies has too often been presented in a superficial manner, or as tokenism, within a social studies curriculum,” Beech explains. “Students feel cheated when they are told a sanitized version of history.  They want to know what really happened.”  

“Often adults don’t feel that children or teenagers are able to process what is happening,” Beech says.  Working with colleagues and students in the classroom, she wanted to prove that teenagers were not only capable, but interested in engaging the topic.

Together with teaching partner and former Werklund School student, Darren Vaast, and current BEd student Harbir Khakh, Beech hoped to discuss the inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women, girls and two-spirited people with their teenage students. But she was unable to find current teaching frameworks appropriate for middle school.  As a result, the team designed their class around a critical service-learning model Beech studied while at the Werklund School.  

With their grade nine students, the teachers delved into the causes of intergenerational trauma among Indigenous communities, the policies of the Canadian government, the impact of colonization, as well as potential opportunities for decolonization.  

Beech and Vaast were able to include Indigenous history and current affairs in the Humanities curriculum as it fell under the umbrella of collective and individual rights.

“Students can process the issues exceptionally well given the knowledge and tools,” explains Beech, who organized an event, “Heart to Heart”, to showcase student artwork related to their discussion around missing and murdered Indigenous women and the inquiry. 

Since then, the students and their work have become ambassadors, giving voice to an important issue.  “This is starting conversations at home, sometimes difficult ones, inviting the community in to see what they are doing, and impacting people beyond the walls of the building, even bridging communities,” Beech says, noting the broad impacts they’ve witnessed from healing conversations to changing minds across generations.

Beech’s teaching partner, Darren Vaast, believes well-informed students can change the trajectory of history.  “Our students are helping to educate themselves and create a better future with hope for positive change. We are at an intersection of our history and are coming to terms with a past that has been obscured,” he admits.  “We are uncovering the truth and are taking steps to clear misconceptions and perceptions held by the general public.”   

Associate Professor Yvonne Poitras Pratt, one of Beech’s instructors and a coordinator in the Werklund “Call to Action” program, says art projects like this are a strong example of the type of education that hold the potential for reconciling relations between the First Peoples of Canada and non-Indigenous Canadians.     
“This initiative demonstrates how you can move education into transformative learning.  The take-away is that we need to teach students about the whole of Canada’s colonial history, where this future generation can learn about, and understand, the impacts of the colonial past on Canada’s First Peoples.  Teachers like Sarah and her students represent hope for a brighter future – for all Canadians.”

Watch for artwork by students from William D. Pratt School and the “Heart to Heart” exhibit, now and in the coming weeks at these locations:

  • Fort Calgary MMIWG2S exhibit, through the end of May
  • Parkdale School, May 7-18 , Area 1, Calgary Board of Education
  • Ksistsikoom, at the Reeve Theatre, UCalgary, June 2, 2pm and 7pm shows; June 3, 2pm show. Tickets available soon through the box office.  

The University of Calgary unveiled its Indigenous Strategy, ii' taa' poh' to' p, on Nov. 16, 2017. The strategy is the result of nearly two years of community dialogue and campus engagement, and involved the work of a number of people from the university, Indigenous communities and community stakeholders. Recommendations from the strategy are being implemented as we move forward with promise, hope and caring for the future.