Big ideas afloat at teachers’ conference (from September 30 issue of the Yukon News)
Kathy Michel was lost as a child and lost as an adult.
A member of the Seewepeme First Nation near Chase, British Columbia, Michel didn’t grow up speaking Shuswap, her mother tongue.
Unlike the elders in her community, she spoke only English and was alienated from her culture because of it.
“My idea of a First Nations person was someone else,” she said to a gathering of Yukon teachers on Thursday.
“It was our elders. It was somewhere else. I was at a loss for who I was, where I fit in the world.”
Michel solved her identity crisis by working to save the next generation from a similar fate.
She started a Shuswap language “nest” on the Adams Lake Reserve in Chase in 1987.
Today, almost two decades later, the Chief Atahm School’s language nests and immersion programs are a vanguard for aboriginal language re-education in Canada.
Michel brought her mother, Anne Michel, and their inspirational story to Whitehorse for the Kaleidoscope of Change teachers’ conference, organized by the Yukon Teachers’ Association.
The talk is part of an underlying theme at this year’s conference for the territory’s educators: inspiration from unexpected sources.
Like, for example, celebrity activist and journalist Avi Lewis, who will address the conference as a keynote speaker on Friday.
Lewis is a former City TV, MuchMusic and CBC broadcaster, well known for his pointed opinions, pointed hair, thick hoop earrings and interviews with cranky rock stars.
Though an activist seems an odd duck at a teacher’s conference, Lewis thinks otherwise.
Fresh from a research trip to New Orleans, he’s trying to help educators recognize that many of the world’s problems are related, he says.
“I think teachers have a sacred duty and an enormous privilege to hold the key in their hands,” said Lewis during a telephone interview Thursday.
He wants to stress the importance of connections.
“We’re living in a time when cause and effect have become unmoored in people’s imaginations,” he said.
The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is as an example of that phenomenon, said Lewis.
Republican economists responded to the disaster by calling for corporate tax cuts, the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling and a flat tax for gulf regions, he said.
“These right-wing economic ideas were somehow being offered up immediately as hurricane ‘relief’, literally giving massive exploration subsidies to multinational oil companies,” said Lewis.
“At the very same time, Exxon-Mobil is about to announce the largest single-quarter profit of any company in history. This displays a deep disconnect between cause and effect in the world. And the only way to restore it is to bring a generation of young people who see the connections.”
In a way, Michel agrees with Lewis.
The key to awakening a people, disconnected with their culture, is to speak to them in their indigenous language at a young age, she told a room packed with mostly First Nations educators.
Michel started the language nests in an abandoned building, with three kids and one elder speaking Shuswap, she told the group.
Now, the Chief Atahm immersion program teaches children exclusively in Shuswap until Grade 4, when the language is gradually rolled back and English is introduced, she said.
“If you’re going to do a language nest, you have to believe that everything you know in the world can be done in your language,” said Michel.
“It does not affect the learning or the capabilities of your children for going to university or getting a career. If we don’t start believing that, then we’re going to be a monolingual culture.”
The school has developed math and science books and curriculum in the Shuswap language, she said.
“Through this program, I now know who I am,” she said.
The words seemed to resonate in a room of nodding heads, including Yukon education minister, John Edzerza.
But bringing a First Nation language immersion program to the Yukon could pose new challenges, said Sandra Henderson, president of the Yukon Teachers’ Association.
“There may not be curriculum materials available in the First Nations languages to be able to present all the information,” she said on Wednesday.
But Michel feels that isn’t even an issue.
“If all fluent speakers would raise their children in the language, we wouldn’t have this problem that we have today,” she said.
Lewis’ talk, titled We know what you’re against — but what are you for? addresses an underlying problem for social activists: the image of being against everything and lacking concrete solutions.
“That title came from me, and it’s a question that I’ve been trying to answer,” he said.
His search for examples of people solving their problems in a globalized world led him to Argentina.
Workers had taken over their abandoned factories after the country’s economy collapsed in 2001, and re-organized them into co-operatives.
Lewis and his wife, writer Naomi Klein, made a documentary about the Argentineans in 2004, The Take.
Lewis has spoken to many teachers’ groups, and feels they’re willing to accept his radical ideas more readily than many might think.
“I think teachers, as people on the frontlines of a deteriorating public sphere, see the social problems in their classroom that are created by economic policy and that we’re really destroying the public institutions in this country by governing with a business mindset,” he said.
“I don’t think teachers want to see their role as producing custom-designed little workers for industry’s convenience.
“I think teacher’s see their role as producing critically-minded shit disturbers.”