The Robertson team traveled this week to Johnny Therriault School at Aroland First Nation (three hours North East of Thunder Bay) to learn about their approach to land-based learning and student well-being.
We were warmly welcomed by all the educators and school administrators Bill Beaucage and Marlo Sobush, whose powerful vision for their K-8 school as a hub of the community is evident throughout the school.
We heard about the school’s exciting year-round initiative to support mental well-being through traditional cultural practices on the land. Under the guidance of Marlo and Bill, the “Choose Life” project is run at the school by Ishpaming (Don McCleod), cultural knowledge keeper and mental health counselor, Wayne Boucher, land-based educator, and Darren Matasawagon, artist and land-based educator. Their comprehensive program, incorporating a multitude of seasonal cultural practices – including storytelling, ice fishing, canoeing and kayaking, traditional crafts, drum making, trapping and hide preparation, to name just a few – exemplifies the characteristic wisdom and commitment to children pervasive in this remarkable school.
The outdoor education team brought us outside to see the new ceremonial sweat lodge they had built on the school grounds. They showed us a large freestanding greenhouse for growing vegetables and sheds packed with equipment for outdoor exploration. At this point we were joined by students from Grade 7 and 8 who industriously and playfully set to work stripping the bark and paring the branches from 10-metre spruce poles in preparation for building a full-size traditional birch bark tepee.
The adventure continued the following day when we drove into the bush with the Grade 7s and 8s. The school has recently built three beautiful cabins on a pristine lake surrounded by dense forest. The intent is to reconnect children and families with their land and culture – an Ojibway language revitalization camp for families is planned for the coming summer. The spot offers the school community limitless opportunities for learning, discovery, and mastery – snowshoeing, fishing, trapping, learning the ways of plants and animals, and much, much more.
When we first arrived, Ishpaming led a discussion of local plants and their medicinal uses, all in the context of personal growth, identity, and living a good life. Marlo stressed how the cabins and their land belong to each child and the responsibility that entails, while Bill spoke of his dream that this place will allow students the freedom to drop the burdens of living and simply “be kids..
Wayne and Darren took groups in turn by boat to the far ends of the lake to see a large eagle’s nest. We were excited to spot the male bald eagle surveying us from the heights of a poplar tree. We returned to the cabin for a delicious lunch of hot dogs wrapped in freshly fried bannock.
We thank everyone at Johnny Therriault School for their generosity in hosting our amazing visit. We loved seeing how engaged, kind and thoughtful the children were; everything we saw spoke to the incredible energy and dedication of all the school’s educators to creating the best possible opportunities for all children and families.