Education’s big test Educators in Bloodvein First Nation hope land-based learning, boosted broadband access and a new school can re-engage students who became disconnected from studies during lockdowns
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BLOODVEIN FIRST NATION — Internal Hansen squints in the midday sun as he balances himself — standing upright and his feet shoulder-width apart — on the back of a wooden sleigh being tugged across the frozen river.
Six eager mutts propel the high school student forward.
The pack travels into the bush at about 12 km/h, although the dogs’ pace slows when the hour-long ride nears an end.
From start to finish, a half-dozen pink tongues and tails flap and wag; their goofy expressions are a stark contrast to their 15-year-old driver’s composure.
“You feel a rush, but after a while, it just feels calming,” Internal says, after his latest winter outing on the Bloodvein River with his school’s land-based learning team. “You can get stuff off of your mind.”
A meditative afternoon is a welcome one. There’s been a lot weighing on him lately.
The Grade 9 student and his peers at Miskooseepi School have become intimately familiar with prolonged unpredictability, due to the pandemic, and its profound impact on one’s well-being over the last three years. Their teachers and school support staff have, too.
The first positive COVID-19 tests in the province prompted the Manitoba First Nations School System, in partnership with band councils and local health authorities, to trigger immediate closures.
Stop-and-go became the status quo in Bloodvein, with countless pivots to and from at-home learning between March 13, 2020, and Dec. 5, 2022 — the end of the most recent remote learning stint sparked by worrying levels of respiratory illness on the reserve.
Miskooseepi students missed 36 per cent of the regular school year in 2019-20. That figure was just shy of 90 per cent in 2020-21. Last year, it was about 62 per cent. Combined, nearly two entire instructional years have been written off.
While 2022-23 is still playing out, the current school year has been more stable. There is optimism the chaos and chronic disruption residents were forced to accept because of the virus is finally in their rearview.
Coming out of survival mode, however, means “COVID-19 learning loss,” student disengagement and the mental health implications of long-term stress are revealing themselves.
Teachers in First Nations schools across the province are only beginning to understand and address the repercussions of children and youth spending more time being dismissed from school than not. And in this particular community, a team of knowledge keepers, cultural educators and outdoor-education staff are prioritizing lessons on the land to re-engage students and build their self-confidence.
For Michael West, an Anishinaabemowin language and cultural teacher, land-based learning is a form of therapy.
West says there is no light switch to flick to fix any of the losses students have suffered. His solution is to help youth understand where they come from and reconnect them with the language, ceremonies and traditional activities colonizers have attempted to eradicate through force and manipulation over the last 150 years.
“If you know who you are and if you know who your identity is, you know how to heal yourself,” he says.
Miskooseepi, an Anishinaabemowin phrase, evokes the image of a red river — a literal reference to the moniker of the waterway whose shores are a five-minute walk from the nursery-to-Grade 10 building.
Local legend has it that Bloodvein’s name nods to both the aftermath of a historic war in the area and a common artery-like pattern on rocks in the region.
The origin story goes as follows: a Sioux tribe landed upon an Anishinaabe settlement in what is now Bloodvein, a slaughter ensued as the groups fought for supremacy and ultimately, the longtime residents prevailed to protect their home.
In recent years, the boreal landscape on which the Anishinaabe reserve sits, a half-day’s drive north from Winnipeg via all-season road or a two-and-a-half hour flight, has earned an international reputation for both its cultural and natural significance.
This summer will mark five years since the United Nations declared a swath of land, wetlands and bodies of water encompassing Bloodvein, known as Pimachiowin Aki (“the land that gives life”), to be Canada’s first dual world heritage site.
The designation honours the Anishinaabe worldview of a symbiotic relationship between humans and nature, and recognizes the landmarks, from trap lines to sacred sites, that reflect the way inhabitants and their Indigenous ancestors have made use of the area for more than 7,000 years.
“The education that’s most important to a lot of our people is the caring, the connection, the ability to work hard because land-based is hard work, but you don’t notice the hard work because it’s so enjoyable,” says Gabriel Hall, a community lead at Spirit North, a national charity that leverages snowshoeing, archery and other sports to improve the health and well-being of Indigenous youth.
First Nations students are tactile learners who thrive in fast-paced, hands-on learning environments because they are descendants of trappers, hunters and foragers, Hall says, noting he has found behavioural issues “completely dissipate” in these settings.
Residents are matter-of-fact about how difficult the COVID-19 disruptions have been for Bloodvein and other northern nations, including Hall’s home in Hollow Water First Nation and West’s community, Lake Manitoba First Nation.
Anxiety levels have spiked, traumas have resurfaced, and routines have been upended.
West makes a point of noting it is no fault of the leaders who have made difficult decisions to lock down for the long-term benefit of their communities. Their priority has been to protect elders and the wisdom they are safe-keeping for their relatives who are long gone and those who have yet to be born.
A handful of band members who were living in Bloodvein, which has a population of fewer than 1,000, died after contracting the virus.
First Nations, Métis and Inuit residents are greatly overrepresented in infection data, owing to numerous health, housing and other social inequities — many of them tied to systemic racism — that predated the pandemic.
Hall says land-based learning teaches students how to respect their ecosystem and the importance of protecting it so colonization does not repeat itself, while encouraging them to be active and keeping youth away from drugs and alcohol.
Throughout their latest afternoon dogsled outing, Hall — alongside Bloodvein elder William Young and phys-ed teacher Sidney Klassen — explains how to care for the animals, use the traditional mode of transportation, and reminds students of the importance of not dragging their feet in the snow.
An impromptu lesson unfolds mid-ride when Young, the land-based co-ordinator for his community, spots coyote, fox, lynx and wolf tracks scattering along the sled and snowmobile trail and pulls over to show students the imprints.
The western schooling system revolves around students sitting at desks to listen to teacher presentations, complete textbook assignments, and work through literacy and numeracy projects.
Hall likens the setup to “penning kids up.” Not unlike sled dogs, he says students benefit from running around and expending energy.
It’s shortly after 4 p.m. on a Wednesday and Donna Dudek is sorting through student assessments at her desk in Room 36. For another two hours, the career educator will remain in this spot. Surrounded by cardboard boxes of benchmark tests for elementary reading.
Ten- and 11-hour work days have become the norm at Miskooseepi.
That’s how teachers are keeping up with all the planning required of them to teach and reteach classes filled with a spectrum of skills at this point in the pandemic.
Dudek teaches Grade 5. In reality, she says she is delivering Grade 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 curriculum because of face-to-face learning disruptions during her students’ critical foundational years.
“When I was telling them what we were going to cover, they were apprehensive and kind of scared, too, because they knew that they had some gaps,” she recalls.
Manitoba’s latest numeracy and literacy evaluations show notable dips in the scores Indigenous students were achieving in primary grades before and after the onset of the pandemic.
Certified teacher shortages and staff retention issues have long been challenges in remote First Nation schools that, in addition to high poverty rates, impact student outcomes compared to the wider population.
Educational assistant (EA) recruitment and retention has been a particular problem in Miskooseepi this year. It is not uncommon for hires to be without a Grade 12-level education.
Dudek’s elementary students did not know how to tell the time or identify a quarter in September. And their reading comprehension was severely lacking.
“I tested them (this month), and the lower ones are at a Grade 1, 1 ½ level. The higher ones are approaching or at middle Grade 3,” the teacher says.
“When I was telling them what we were going to cover, they were apprehensive and kind of scared, too, because they knew that they had some gaps.”–Donna Dudek
The percentage of Grade 3 students in the province who were meeting expectations for reading dropped three per cent from the five year-average prior to COVID-19 and the fall of 2021. In mathematics, that figure fell 2.5 per cent.
For Indigenous learners, those respective drops were seven and five per cent. The gains made between last year and this year have also been smaller among racialized students.
COVID-19 is to blame for significant knowledge gaps, though occasional operational problems at Bloodvein’s water treatment plant and particularly frigid temperatures have paused classes, too. The school also shuts down for funerals and administrators required time to move into a new state-of-the-art school last year.
Dudek estimates one-third of her class of 18 received some support from an adult to complete the homework packages that staff dropped off at their doorsteps. She has found the highest achievers are from homes where a parent either works at the school or in the community.
Distance learning participation varied between grades, so Miskooseepi administrators began purchasing prizes as incentives for the school’s approximately 200 registered students and their guardians to continue studies from afar.
Pupils who submitted work were rewarded with everything from backpacks to bikes. Adults who supported learning and submitted completed packages in a timely fashion could win televisions and general-store gift cards, among other pricier items.
The school also gave out old desks and handed out 170 iPads, though the latter initiative wasn’t without its challenges.
Until recently, the number of Bloodvein families without reliable and high-speed internet outnumbered those with access to it.
Jim Moar recalls engraving names on tablets to discourage theft and dissuade recipients from giving devices to friends and relatives grappling with the digital divide elsewhere.
Both issues resulted in dozens of devices disappearing early on, according to Miskooseepi’s in-house tech expert.
Moar says Bloodvein’s adoption of Starlink, starting in late 2021, has been a game-changer.
Nine out of 10 houses now have access to quick upload and download speeds via the upstart broadband satellite network that can beam service anywhere.
While the school’s internet bills have surged, Moar says service has improved dramatically since ending a contract with Xplornet.
“It’s funny now, because the kids are more proficient than the staff,” he adds. “Teachers always come up to me… ‘I didn’t know how to do this, but then this third-grader showed me.’”
The school’s initial pandemic shutdown spanned more than 11 months.
Principal Irene Rupp reopened the doors for alternate-day instruction on Feb. 22, 2021, following countless false starts due to virus activity. Everyone’s mental health suffered greatly during that period and the pivots that followed, she says.
“Even teachers got depressed, from the COVID. They couldn’t work. They wanted to work,” Rupp says.
Children in Group A were scheduled to attend in-person classes on Mondays and Wednesdays. Group B members were invited back on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On off-days, children were expected to do independent study at home. Fridays were reserved for school-wide sanitation.
News of a positive COVID-19 test in the community triggered a sudden spring shutdown. For the second year in a row, children finished the year at home.
If a student showed up to all of their designated in-person classes that year, they were in school for just over 20 of the 196 instructional days Manitoba Education earmarked for 2020-21.
Despite incentives and checkups, home-school co-ordinator Ramona Ladoceur says only about half of all Miskooseepi families engaged with homework packages “to some extent.”
“Thank you to the 37 parents/households whom have been participating, you will get your prize after the next homework packages are picked up. Miigwetch,” states a post that was published on the school’s Facebook page in November 2020.
“Thank you to the 37 parents/households whom have been participating, you will get your prize after the next homework packages are picked up. Miigwetch.”–Miskooseepi School Facebook post
Mother Maxine Turtle says she did her best to sit down with her children, work through academic papers and read to them.
“It was too much, to a point where they didn’t listen to me,” recalls Turtle, whose children range in age from six to 17. “They didn’t like being sat down at a table and listening to me. They’d rather play, because they were at home.”
The impacts of pandemic disruptions are showing up in younger students’ difficulties with sharing and children who are out-of-shape during phys-ed because they have been preoccupying themselves with far more Roblox and other online games than any doctor would deem healthy.
In Lina Whiteway’s middle years classroom, the fallout manifests itself in student hesitations about reading aloud and basic grammatical errors on assignments.
“I still have kids writing the small ‘i’ when they’re supposed to be using a capital ‘I’ when they’re talking about themselves — that kind of thing, and I have to stress, ‘You always start with a capital letter and end with a period.’ That’s really basic, and yet they’re in Grade 6,” says the educator, who has 40 years of experience.
Whiteway is optimistic about the progress daily attendees are making. The problem, she says, is that only eight of 15 children on her class list attend regularly.
Chronic absenteeism is not isolated to Room 35. Across the hallway, Dudek pegs her daily attendance at 65 per cent.
In the building’s high school wing, teacher José Guerra has started rewarding teenagers who have a perfect attendance record at the end of every week with pens and pencils he purchased with his $500 classroom stipend for the year. Guerra also frequently calls parents and brings snacks to entice learners to show up to social studies class.
Mornings are especially challenging because nocturnal habits became further entrenched in March 2020 and teenagers welcomed the opportunity to sleep in without consequences.
While masks are no longer universal, high school teachers remark that their pupils are wearing hoods more often now as if to make themselves invisible during classroom discussions.
“(Students) have been at home so long and coming out into the world is a big change and they’re scared to interact with people, because it’s been a while,” says Marley Cook, a Grade 9 student.
Marley, 14, is the junior chief at her school. She and her peers are trying to organize events, including an upcoming Easter-themed egg hunt, to draw students back into the building.
The student leader is honest about her personal struggles with social anxiety, but she says school is a gathering place for her friends and she wants to finish her education so she has options in the future. Anishniaabemowin is her favourite subject.
Miskooseepi’s home-school co-ordinator puts in overtime to aid teachers with calling absent students and knocking on doors. Even still, her boss says there is only so much the school can do.
“Some parents just totally refuse to bring kids,” says Rupp, who has been at the helm of Miskooseepi for 20 years. “We don’t know what else to do in order to have them send their child.”
Teachers and administrators say their repeated pitches seldomly break ingrained patterns. Nor has it been easy to allay a family’s fears about the risk of contracting COVID-19 in the school.
But there have been wins. One happened after the principal called up a grandmother to plead with her to send an elementary-aged boy in her care to class so he does not grow up feeling ashamed that he cannot read or write.
Rupp adds: “I start telling (guardians): ‘You know, they’re going to be growing up, they’re going to be teenagers, and they’re going to be adults one of these days, so they’re going to need a good job, if they’re ever going to start a family.”
The school leader has been checking in with her colleagues in other First Nations, many of which are grappling with similar concerns, throughout the year.
The school system, overseen by the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre, did not respond to requests for comment.
“We’re one big happy family in the school. Everybody looks after one another.”–Hilda Fisher
The new Miskooseepi School, which opened last year, has cherry-red lockers, a stocked gymnasium with a rock-climbing wall and weight room, and light pouring in from all angles through large classroom windows.
Resource teacher Hilda Fisher called the move “a breath of fresh air,” that has boosted morale among staff and students alike. “We’re one big happy family in the school. Everybody looks after one another,” she says.
The dingy old facility is still standing, across the field from the new one. The prison-like structure, made of cement and outfitted with few windows, is marked with graffiti.
Its modern replacement has a new canteen for a daily breakfast program and if all goes according to plan, a large kitchen will soon allow for the distribution of free lunches — yet another initiative to draw students back.
The clouds have the best view; from above, the structure’s shape takes the form of an eagle.
Perhaps most important of all is the size of the building. It is big enough to now house Grade 10, meaning teenagers can stay home for an extra year before moving away to continue their high school education.
“We didn’t have very much in-class learning (last year) so I didn’t get half of the assignments back — not even a quarter of it.”–Yvonne Young
Manitoba’s four-year graduation rate was 83 per cent in June 2021. It was 51 per cent among Indigenous learners. Among non-Indigenous students, it was 91 per cent.
Bloodvein grandmother Yvonne Young says she worries youth are getting lost when they have to leave family and familiarity to pursue a diploma — not unlike the disorientation she felt when she was forced to attend a residential school as a teen.
Miskooseepi graduated all its final-year students throughout the global health crisis, but not all of them have decided to complete their schooling away from home. And some of those who did leave became sidetracked, overwhelmed by cultural shock and homesickness. However, there is no capacity to expand the local school to Grade 12 at present.
“We’re setting them up for failure,” says Young, a former culture and language teacher at Miskooseepi who is on medical leave.
The educator worries the absence of a plan to tackle learning gaps will put future graduates at a greater disadvantage when they attend academic classes in Winnipeg, or wherever else they end up — if they are motivated to graduate at all.
“We didn’t have very much in-class learning (last year) so I didn’t get half of the assignments back — not even a quarter of it,” she adds, noting it was already common for city schools to put Indigenous students on modified programs before the pandemic.
“We’ve been in crisis for, I don’t know how (long)… It’s either the water, it’s either alcohol and drugs, there’s people dying in the homes.”–Yvonne Young
Young and Dudek are among the educators who argue requiring students to repeat grades would have benefited them.
Most First Nations schools in Manitoba have not held students back because of COVID-19. Garden Hill and Shamattawa First Nations, both of which are in northern Manitoba, were among those that required teachers to rewind.
“The teachers are afraid to do home visits because it’s iffy. You never know what you’re going to walk into,” Young says. “We’ve been in crisis for, I don’t know how (long)… It’s either the water, it’s either alcohol and drugs, there’s people dying in the homes.”
Teachers say they are more used to the school’s flag being at half-mast than otherwise.
Multiple tragedies, including a teenager’s suicide and the death of an intoxicated man in police custody, have rocked Bloodvein in recent weeks.
On and off the reserve, members have turned to alcohol and drugs to numb pandemic disruptions and the intergenerational scars that predated them.
Sitting at his dimly lit office in Bloodvein, Chief Roland (Rollie) Hamilton says he is confident teachers can tackle pandemic learning gaps. He is far more worried about the proliferation of meth in his community, and how to find addicts, some of them teens, a route to recovery.
Earlier this year, a school employee was fired after repeatedly clocking-in while high on the drug. It is an open secret in the staff room that others occasionally arrive under the influence.
Hamilton has been meeting with leaders from other First Nations that are also grappling with highly addictive stimulants in their communities. He wants to see more beds made available for long-term treatment because short-term rehabilitation options are failing families.
“Parents, I think, need to push their kids a little bit more to go to school. (Everyone) has fallen out of routine,” he adds.
Parent disengagement is an ongoing point of contention in the community.
Bloodvein elder John Cook, a former guidance counsellor, says a guardian’s active involvement in a child’s schooling is critically important because it motivates a student.
At the same time, Cook acknowledges the intergenerational legacies of Canada’s colonial policies as a result of Indigenous children being forcibly separated from their communities in an attempt to assimilate them at residential school and through the child welfare system.
“It damages the relationship between mother and child. A lot of our parents were raised in the residential school (where) they basically kept an eye on the child — but they were not parenting,” he says, adding many ’60s Scoop survivors grew up without role models, too.
Inside the school, there are wide-ranging perspectives on why families are disengaged. Teachers point to poverty, suggest parents do not feel heard, and defer to an overgeneralization that First Nations parents coddle their children, be it from a virus or bullying. Others are at a loss for an explanation.
There has been some parental pushback to smudging and cultural lessons inside the school, which teachers attribute to religious reasons and misunderstanding about how their Ojibwa ancestors lived.
Methodists, Roman Catholics, Mennonites and interdenominational leaders each influenced the community during their respective stints operating a local day school, which took on various forms when it was open between 1903 and 1985.
“Some people say, ‘Well, we can’t go back to the 1800s, 1900s,’” says Young, who is on leave. “That’s not the point. The point is we lived a good life.”
Phys-ed teacher Sidney Klassen perks up at the sight of a student who strolls onto Miskooseepi grounds to go dog sledding on a recent afternoon. Later on, once the child is out of earshot, he remarks that the pupil’s attendance record is far from stellar.
“If I can get them through the door, any which way — that’s a win; they’re coming to school. I can provide a safe place and hopefully, I can teach them and build their confidence, and make them proud of who they are,” he says.
Klassen is always covered in dog hair, but he doesn’t seem to mind. He is one of a handful of non-Indigenous residents on the reserve, and lives in an aging teacherage with eight furry roommates.
Vicky, Apple, Taya, Kelsey, Sheera, Anna, Tom and Huckleberry venture between the two-bedroom home and a fenced-in yard via the miniature flap door Klassen installed.
The animal-lover started Bloodvein’s mushing education program in 2019, before the pandemic locked down life and led to the band office requiring residents to temporarily obtain permission slips to leave the reserve in order to monitor movement.
The irony of the situation was not lost on Klassen, who cites Canada’s problematic pass system that historically forced First Nation people to get written approval from an Indian agent if they wanted to leave their community.
COVID-19 is another layer in “the onion of trauma,” the teacher says.
Following what he describes as a three-year long roller-coaster ride, Klassen remains steadfast in his belief a teacher’s excitement when they incorporate their passion into the classroom — in his case, dogsledding — is contagious.
Miskooseepi’s outdoor-education team and their colleagues cannot help but get excited when they talk about the benefits of language, culture and land-based learning on the reserve.
Asked about what motivates him to co-ordinate land-based programs, elder William Young says there are many social problems in the community at present and facilitating fun is important for morale.
“Giving them a pat on the back — a ‘Good job!’ (is important),” he says. “They don’t get enough of that.”
Rupp, the school’s veteran principal, has been encouraging all of her employees to show empathy towards their students and “talk positive to them about their future.”
What’s most heartbreaking is when students know they are behind, says Dudek, who is grappling with Grade 1-5 instruction when her classroom label suggests she should be focused solely on Grade 5.
The veteran teacher says she has found her students respond well when Anishinaabe culture and language is woven into the curriculum. She has shared the Ojibwa creation story with them and taught them about Nanabozho — a beloved trickster figure in First Nations storytelling — in English language arts.
“You’ve just got to hope to achieve whatever you can in the short time that we have,” she says.
“Our children are disadvantaged in the First Nation and that’s sad because I thought every child mattered, but it’s not so.”–Donna Dudek
But if she is completely honest, Dudek is deeply worried about the gaps that will follow her students through their schooling career if significant interventions do not occur.
At the start of the year, she did not have an EA to help her support 18 children, all of whom have lived through a public health crisis and some of whom have complex additional needs.
“Our children are disadvantaged in the First Nation and that’s sad because I thought every child mattered, but it’s not so,” Dudek says. “Our Native children are falling through the cracks, and COVID is one more obstacle now, one more thing to have to always deal with.”
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.