‘Everyone is equal here’: tears of joy greet opening of Indigenous outdoor classroom
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As students, school leaders and community members celebrated the official opening of a new Indigenous outdoor classroom on her alma mater’s grounds, Jodi Fourre started to sob.
“They are very happy tears,” she said Thursday, following an afternoon ceremony at École secondaire Oak Park High School, from which she graduated in 2021.
Fourre said she was overwhelmed by the final result — a patio depicting the wheel of a Métis Red River cart in sand and stones, surrounded by a circle of benches made from cream-coloured limestone and gardens filled with sage, cedar and other traditional medicines.
During the 2018-19 school year, members of the student council medicine wheel committee pitched an ambitious project to leaders in the Pembina Trails School Division.
Fourre, a determined Swampy Cree student enrolled in Grade 10 at the time, said she never imagined their proposal to design an outdoor space to instill and foster pride in First Nations, Métis and Inuit students would actually come to fruition.
“We wanted a place for Indigenous students coming from off-reserve, who may not feel very connected to the people around them, feel very isolated in a way — just like how all of us felt during (the height of) COVID. We just wanted a way for people to connect,” Fourre said, adding she hopes everyone in the community gets to use the space. “We’re all, as we say, treaty people.”
Nearly four years, countless design meetings and $160,000 later, the division hosted an unveiling of the communal educational and social space Thursday.
Ray (Coco) Stevenson, a local knowledge keeper, traditional singer and drummer, sang an opening and closing song to mark the occasion.
Senior administrators, trustees, teachers, alumni, current students, project architects, and the city councilor for the area all gathered to listen to speakers celebrate the addition to the Winnipeg high school.
“We wanted to build a space of belonging, a space of learning, and a space of community at Oak Park,” said Troy Scott, who was the school’s principal before he became an assistant superintendent in the division prior to the 2022-23 school year.
Scott noted organizers met with Indigenous support teachers, knowledge keepers and the Manitoba Métis Federation to learn more about the significance of the land on which the school sits — 820 Charleswood Rd. — and surrounding area in order to design the space.
It may be lesser known than The Forks, but Charleswood is a place of great historical significance when it comes to Indigenous residence, trade and life due to the nearby location of the Passage, among other local landmarks, said Brian Rice, a professor of kinesiology and recreation management at the University of Manitoba.
Many hunters lived in the area to be close to the Passage because bison migrated to the ford — the shallowest waters of the Assiniboine River, said Rice, a knowledge keeper who is a member of the Mohawk nation.
He also spoke about the importance of the nearby Woods Trail, an influential trading route, and the various groups (Nakota, Cree, Anishinaabe, Mohawk, Métis, and Dakota) that once populated the region at different points in time.
One of the highlights of Oak Park’s outdoor classroom is a replica “bison rubbing stone” embedded in one of the gardens. The rock weighs approximately five tonnes.
“What the bison used to do is in the winter, they would have their heavier coats and so they would rub on the stones to get the fur off because it would itch them so they would scratch the fur,” Rice told a crowd of roughly 40 spectators.
Humanities teacher Darren Klapak said the space will be primarily used for storytelling during the school day.
“There was no written language in Indigenous culture when the Europeans arrived, so they shared their history, their stories verbally, orally — and so, I try to do that in my class, as well, as often as I can,” said Klapak, who teaches an Indigenous studies course.
The educator said the plan is to install signage to identify the various elements in the garden and build a structure around it in the future, as well as painting murals on a nearby wall.
“Reconciliation is a process. This is going to be a process, too.”
The central location of the classroom is critical so passersby will take note of the outdoor space, every square foot of which was purposefully designed — from the medicinal plants to the circular shape that nods to four directions teachings, according to organizers.
To date, local businesses Viking Landscaping and Architecture49 have executed the project.
“Reconciliation is a process. This is going to be a process, too,” Klapak said.
For Fourre, the best part of the outdoor classroom is the seating.
“Everyone is equal here,” she said. “There is always a chance for communication with everyone in a circle.”
Indigenous students make up approximately 10 per cent of the K-12 student population in Pembina Trails.
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.