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Innu kids learn from their own as Labrador First Nations take control of schooling

The third grade class at the Sheshatshiu Innu School in Labrador stands outside a traditional Innu tent on Wednesday, May 10, 2023, set up behind their school. Inside, they got to watch three elders make Innu doughnuts. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sarah Smellie

SHESHATSHIU, N.L. — Inside a wide, white canvas tent behind the Sheshatshiu Innu School in Labrador, the first drop of sweet molasses dough falling into a bubbling pan of fat gives off an aroma that prompts a group of third graders to look up, almost in unison.

Munik Aster, a pre-kindergarten teacher at the school, calls the scent "Innu heaven."

Aster is one of 11 Innu teachers who graduated last September from an Indigenous educator program offered through Ontario's Nipissing University, in partnership with the Innu school board in Labrador. And she is a sign of a new approach to education in Labrador Innu communities that is yielding results.

Inside the bright red and yellow hallways of the Sheshatshiu Innu School last month, teachers and administrators spoke in terms of before and after, with after being what has happened since the Innu took over from the Newfoundland and Labrador school board in 2009.

In the four decades before the Innu took over, about 30 students in the two Innu communities in Labrador finished high school, said Kanani Davis, chief executive of Mamu Tshishkutamashutau Innu Education — the Innu school board. Since then, more than 150 students have graduated from the schools in Sheshatshiu and Natuashish, Davis said.

"For so long, we haven't been taken seriously," Davis said in a recent interview. "There were a lot of things that we couldn't make decisions about for our own children. Decisions were being made for us."

The two-year Nipissing University course lets students complete their training in their own communities.

Aster did her in-class training at the Innu school in Sheshatshiu, and she did her course work at night when she got home from teaching. It was hard work — she's a mother with three children — but it was worth it, she says, for her and now for her students.

"My oldest, she's turning 12 this year, and I was 17 when I had her. So I had to drop out of school to be a mom. And I always said, once my kids grow up, I'm going to go back to school," Aster said. As for her students, she said it's important for them to have Innu teachers like her who share their culture and speak their language. It helps them trust her, she said.

Trust is at the heart of one of the Innu school board's biggest challenges — getting more kids in the classrooms — and having trained Innu teachers has been a key part of building it, Davis said. The board oversees the schools in Sheshatshiu, in central Labrador, and in Natuashish, a fly-in community on Labrador's north coast.

"There were some parents that have been hurt by the old system, and they don't push their kids to go to school because of what happened to them," Davis said. "But we see a change since we've taken over, parents are trusting the system now. There are more kids coming than there were ever before."

And now the community can train teachers like Aster who want to be there, and who want to see the students succeed, she said.

In 2017, the Innu Nation rejected an apology from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for harms caused by residential schools to Indigenous people in Newfoundland and Labrador. Gregory Rich, then the Innu Nation's grand chief, said the apology didn't include Innu children who were abused in the Roman Catholic day schools in their communities.

Sheshatshiu, about 40 kilometres north of Happy Valley-Goose Bay, is home to about 1,200 people. It looks out over Lake Melville and the mountains behind it. The town's school takes students from pre-kindergarten to Grade 12, and it's a bright building with signs in English and the Innu language, Innu-aimun. In its front foyer is a glass case holding a traditional Innu jacket made of caribou hide and painted with intricate red, white and black patterns of repeating triangles and lines, and spiralling loops.

Markers of the Innu school board's success were everywhere on a recent visit. Parts of the school were under construction to make room for a growing student population, which is currently more than 550 pupils. Pictures of graduating classes lined the foyer's upper walls. And kids and teachers alike were zipping through the halls clutching warm, soft mounds of the sweet bread — Innu doughnuts — cooked by three elders moments before in the tent outside the gymnasium.

The students follow the provincial curriculum, but there is a large emphasis on Innu traditions and language, and on learning from elders. They take classes in Innu-aimun, they learn to clean hides, sew Innu tea dolls and pick berries in the fall. They also go out on the land to spend days living in traditional Innu tents, learning how to hunt and fish.

"These are the kinds of things that we couldn't do before," Davis said.

The successes haven't come easy, she said. There were some Innu teachers in the old school, but when they retired it was tough to replace them, though Davis noted that some came out of retirement to be a part of the new system. Under the school board's funding arrangement with the federal government, which is responsible for financing schools on First Nations territories, teachers don't qualify for the federal government's pension plan, Davis said.

And the Innu school board feels its schools in Sheshatshiu and Natuashish are desperately underfunded. It filed a human rights complaint against Ottawa last summer alleging the current funding is inadequate and discriminatory, and that it puts Innu students at a disadvantage compared to those in the rest of the province. Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation Chief Eugene Hart said at the time that the finances make it hard to recruit capable teachers and convince them to stay. 

A 2021 report from the Canadian Human Rights Commission found the Innu school board received less money from Ottawa for its schools than provincially funded schools receive.

Davis said the school board is working on a regional education agreement with the federal government. Her dream is to one day have textbooks made by Innu, written in Innu-aimun, and a curriculum developed by the school board.

"My vision is that these students walk away and say, 'I'm proud to be Innu. I know my way of life. I know the history of the Innu. And I'm going to go out there and teach it."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 4, 2023.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press