My dad tells a story from his younger days as a teacher in a northern school division. A young student hadn't returned from Christmas holidays so, because my Dad spoke Cree, he was sent to find the parent to figure out why the student hadn't returned to class.
After a trip on the train and some slogging through the bush, Dad arrived at the trapline of the boy's grandfather. They had tea, of course, and exchanged the normal introductions, which included figuring out who was related to whom in each other's families. When Dad finally asked the old man why he hadn't sent his grandson back to school, he simply said:
"I've been sending my grandson to school for nine years now and he still doesn't know how to work."
For those in the North, a strong work ethic and the ability to deal with challenging situations means prosperity. It is what Stanford University professor Carol Dweck would call "Mindset," meaning success does not come from talent or praise, but from effort.
To this Cree trapper, if a school could not deliver that, well then...
The balance of finding a school system that can achieve academic excellence, yet also pass on cultural values and expectations, is no easy task. Just ask Renee Carriere, a former teacher at Joe A. Ross School on Opaskwayak Cree Nation, who raised and home schooled her three children, with husband Solomon, out in the bush on their trap line on the Saskatchewan River Delta.
In a daring proposal, she asked permission to take a group of Grade 9 students on a 1,000-kilometre canoe trip to complete their course work in physical education, social studies and English en route. The reaction and support was mixed and tenuous from administrative and board levels but she persevered.
So, on a fine spring day, Renee, her Grade 9 boys (girls went on the next trip) and a few additional experienced paddlers hiked up to the Saskatchewan Glacier on the western edge of Alberta to see where this beautiful river begins. Then they "put in" to the water and set off in two voyageur canoes headed down the Saskatchewan all the way to Opaskwayak.
It was no easy journey, but the routine did have a rhythm to it -- break camp, eat, paddle two to three hours, stop for lunch, paddle two to three hours, set up camp, study for three hours, eat, sleep and repeat. No iPods, iPhones, video games, flat screen televisions or headphones.
Paddling a voyageur canoe is, in itself, a challenge in teamwork. You have to keep the canoe balanced, and have one paddler per seat (seats in the middle are about four feet wide). On signal, all paddlers have to slide across their seat to paddle on the opposite side.
Also, given that all the food, tents and clothes are stored under the seats, the canoes have to be kept clean. That, too, requires team work, especially in the face of cold weather, rain, wind and, of course, academic studies each night.
But maybe that was the point.
Three weeks later, the well-tanned, fit students paddled into Opaskwayak to a deeply emotional welcome. Many tears were shed. The students, who, a short time earlier, had seemed like any other eye-rolling teenagers, now all seemed wiser. To them, this was their rite of passage from adolescence to adulthood.
As the then education director for Opaskwayak, I was curious to see the effects this journey would have on the students' grades and attendance rates but, most importantly, I wanted to know whether or not it was possible to mix academic excellence with high cultural expectations.
A few weeks after the trip, I got my answer when an elder came to visit me. He is a trapper who has lived a life faced with many challenges and adaptations. As we sat and talked, he told me that his grandson was on the canoe trip and had come to visit him the night before. With a tear in his eye, he said, "My grandson made me tea... something he has never done before. "
That is all he needed to say.
James Wilson is commissioner of the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba, a neutral body mandated to encourage discussion, facilitate public understanding, and enhance mutual respect between all peoples in Manitoba.