ATTAWAPISKAT – Graduations symbolize an achievement a student has completed in gaining a new level of education. To my people, seeing the youth move up in their education is celebrated in a major ceremony as it symbolizes so much for us. My parents Marius and Susan Kataquapit always looked forward to celebrating these accomplishments. I can remember seeing all our Elders from my parents generation being so happy to witness the graduation of their youth every year.
Celebrating a graduation for youth was so important to our Elders because a proper education was something they had hoped for themselves but were denied. They had survived through the horrors of the residential school system as children and to them, receiving an education from non-Native instructors meant pain, abuse and even death.
In my parents time when they attended residential school in the 40s and 50s, education for Indigenous children was more about an indoctrination into a foreign culture. It is a documented fact that the Canadian government wanted these residential schools run in such a way as to ‘civilize’ the Indigenous children by forcibly removing them from their families and their homes. It was all about assimilation no matter the cost.
Education became better later on but it was always lacking in so many ways in Indigenous communities. Personally, I consider myself fortunate in that I experienced several skilful and caring teachers in elementary school in my home community of Attawapiskat. However, there were several instructors in the 70s and 80s who still saw Indigenous children and Indigenous families as people to dominate, be abusive towards and provide a less than perfect education.
The greatest tragedy we faced as children at the JR Nakogee Elementary School in my home community was the fact that it had been disastrously designed from the start in the 1970s with the installation of fuel storage tanks underneath the school. The lines feeding and emptying these tanks broke in the extreme cold winters and over many years leaked thousands of gallons of fuel into the ground. Little did we know as children that several generations of students spent their entire elementary school education over top a toxic fuel dump.
I can remember the smell of the school as a child. It reeked of some chemical and we all just assumed that it was the smell of institutions like hospitals or a grocery store where they used strong industrial cleaning products. We just thought it was normal and that is what a school smelled like. In fact we were breathing in toxic fuel every day in class.
Education has always been a struggle for my people on the James Bay coast and across Canada. Even now, our educators and advocates have to keep fighting to push for resources and adequate funding for their schools, the teachers and the students. Thankfully we have more Indigenous educators these days working hard to make sure our students are getting culturally appropriate instruction. My home community has also built the new Kattawapiskak Elementary School which now provides a healthier environment for its students.
I’ve always believed that education for Indigenous children should be a top priority for government. It doesn’t just make sense from a historical perspective after the terrible history we have endured, it just makes good economic strategy in the long term. If we encourage generation after generation of well trained, well educated and highly motivated Indigenous youth, they will go on to lead our communities and find solutions to so many of the problems and challenges we face. The alternative is far worse because if Indigenous education is neglected or cut back it will leave young people with no hope and no opportunity. This will keep my people stuck in a colonial mindset and that takes us to a dark and sad future.
Education has always been an important part of life for my family and for many others on the James Bay coast. My parents encouraged us to focus on learning in school, to keep up our grades and to arm ourselves with knowledge. They always taught us that gaining as much education as possible would give us the opportunities we would need to survive in the new world. They saw in every annual graduation a new generation gaining more and more knowledge, confidence and ability.
This time of the year we celebrate all of our graduates Indigenous and non Indigenous as we realize the future is in the hands of these young people. Our Elders have always understood that many of these young students will go on to become better, stronger people who will in turn inspire and encourage new generations of Indigenous children. These new generations will move our people ahead while maintaining a balance with one foot in our cultural and traditional ways and the other foot in the non Indigenous world.
Congratulations to all students and in particular for those Indigenous young people who are proudly carrying our traditions and cultures as they move further in education, employment and leadership. Education is knowledge and knowledge is power.