‘It makes me very hopeful’: Education project brings syilx teachings into classrooms

The Co-Curricular-Making project is helping Okanagan educators and students learn the true history and legacy of the lands they’re on
mhuya Bill Cohen, a syilx professor at UBC-Okanagan (UBCO) and a member of the Co-Curricular-Making research team, sits inside of a board room at the university in syilx homelands on March 10. Photo by Aaron Hemens
mhuya Bill Cohen, a syilx professor at UBC-Okanagan (UBCO) and a member of the Co-Curricular-Making research team, sits inside of a board room at the university in syilx homelands on March 10. Photo by Aaron Hemens

When European settlement began in syilx homelands more than 150 years ago, the relationship between humans and tmxʷulaxʷ (the land) shifted from one of mutual care to a dynamic of ownership and exploitation. 

Today, communities are living with that legacy, as habitat destruction, resource extraction, and urban and rural development have exacerbated the effects of climate change locally, resulting in devastating wildfires and floods across the territory.

“What we know for sure is that if the current trend continues, we’re going to have more wildfires, we’re going to have more climate change effects. We’re going to have more species, what we call tmixʷ, extinction,” said mhuya Bill Cohen, a syilx professor at UBC-Okanagan (UBCO) and a member of the Co-Curricular-Making research team. 

As a result, Cohen said, Indigenous knowledge is being recognized beyond the community level for its potential to protect and preserve the natural world. 

“The understanding is becoming more clear: the reason the natural world and our territories were in such a healthy state was because knowledge, imagination and pedagogy was applied responsibly,” he said.

“Now, there’s an opportunity to combine that with all of the world knowledge we have access to now.”

‘It’s in all of our best interest’ 

For the past three years, university educators and teachers with Central Okanagan School District 23 (SD23) have been developing relationships and learning from syilx Elders, knowledge keepers and community partners to incorporate syilx history, wisdom and land-based-education in their classrooms.

There are more than 100 school teachers — from Kindergarten through to Grade 12 — actively learning and participating in the Co-Curricular-Making research project in syilx homelands. 

The five-year program, funded by a Social Sciences Humanities Research Council grant, is a collaborative effort involving SD23, University of British Columbia (UBC), Okanagan Nation Alliance (ONA), IndigenEYEZ, Kelowna Museums, Kelowna Art Gallery, the University of Alberta and the University of Ottawa.

“What we’re essentially doing is putting our minds and our hearts together to determine what kind of knowledge, what kind of curricular resources, can our collective children have access to,” said Cohen.

“It’s in all of our best interest — and it’s pragmatic — that we collaborate and figure out how to collectively take care of this place, so that we have a healthy ecosystem, healthy food security and wellness security for the future.”

Since the Co-Curricular-Making project began in 2020, participants have engaged in a number of different learning experiences, such as water ceremonies, being out on the land, captikʷł storytelling and attending a Witness Blanket exhibit, a large-scale piece of artwork created by Indigenous artist Carey Newman that was displayed for four months at the Kelowna Art Gallery in 2022.

The Witness Blanket contains hundreds of different items from residential “schools,” churches, government buildings and other structures from across “Canada.”

“That coming together piece was really around an awakening of teachers in the district who recognized that they didn’t understand Kelowna as a place of heritage, but as a place of where they lived,” said Desiree Marshall-Peer, a Cree-Ojibway educator at UBCO and one of the project’s managers.

“To reconcile it, they needed to understand, who are the people who live here? And who are the people who have history in this area?”

‘We need to get our kids out there’

The project’s facilitation team said the goal of the project isn’t to create one clear-cut curriculum for educators to follow. Rather, it’s to equip educators with confidence and a plethora of different syilx-based knowledge and teachings — with respect to protocol — so that they can share what they’ve learned with the students that they teach. 

Jody Nelson, an educator at UBCO and research assistant with Co-Curricular-Making, said that the project is about creating hope for future generations.

“I think teachers really come for that reason. They want hope about the environment, about the land, about the water, for all of our children,” said Nelson.

“The curriculum is out there in the hills with the animals and the trees. We need to get our kids out there.”

During roundtable conversations on March 2 with educators, Elders, community partners and researchers, participating teachers shared what they’ve learned from the project, and how they’ve incorporated these teachings into their classrooms.

Elementary, middle and secondary school teachers talked about their journeys of decolonizing their curriculums, embracing Indigenizing, utilizing the Four Food Chiefs in the classroom, connecting students through Indigenous art, and more.

“The opportunity to embody these ideas requires teachers to trust themselves,” said Margaret Macintyre Latta, a professor and the director of UBCO’s Okanagan School of Education, as well as the project’s principal investigator.

“They have to be willing to educate and re-educate themselves on an ongoing basis. And then trust their students — trust the narratives that each student brings as a valuable part of the makings of Co-Curricular-Making.”

‘Things need to change’

Ten years from now, Marshall-Peer said that she hopes the project will allow Indigenous students to see themselves reflected in every classroom.

“I don’t want them to be feeling othered,” she said. “I want classrooms to be much more relational, and much more proud of individuals and individuality, as opposed to the one and done, or the broad brush strokes that often happen in classrooms now.”

For Cohen, he hopes to see more kids, classrooms and schools engaging in more land-based knowledge and having a deeper connection to the land.

“I’d like to hear our language more,” he said. “I hope to see a lot more collaboration and co-creating, rather than antagonistic relationships, or exclusive, intolerant relationships — much more appreciative.”

The growing interest from teachers to participate and learn through the project, he added, tells him that the relationship between the education system and Indigenous people is changing from erasure and exclusion to inclusion and collaboration.

In the program’s third year, the facilitation team is hoping to include UBCO bachelor of education students in facilitation efforts alongside school teachers, and to create a book where all the ideas from information forums will be put into one resource.

“It makes me very hopeful. It’s a big reason that I — and I think quite a few others — became educators,” said Cohen.

“Things need to change. We’re not happy and we’re not going to continue with the way things are.”


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