For years, the school bus that criss-crosses the Skownan First Nation has been full of students each September. In most communities, this would be a sight that would signal the start of a promising school year; but to the eyes of many residents in the northern Manitoba community, the bus served as a bitter reminder of past disappointments.
Located about 300 km northwest of Winnipeg, Skownan has faced its share of challenges, ranging from high unemployment and alcoholism to vandalism and drug abuse. But it’s the community’s poor high-school completion rates that leaders say are at the root of many of its problems.
“That bus came back nearly empty every June,” says Dana Rungay, a child and family services worker on the reserve. “Students would drop out and then they were just wandering aimlessly.”
According to local records, between 1995 and 1999 a total of 60 students enrolled in high school, yet only nine graduated. That's an 85% dropout rate; nearly six times the average for Manitoba during the same period (15%) and seven times the national rate of 12% (according to Statistics Canada’s Labour Force Survey).
It’s a track record that none of the 600 residents of the Ojibway community felt proud of.
“Everybody has a basic need to feel like you’re contributing and doing something meaningful,” says Rungay. “These kids who dropped out had nothing….[How can] a person have a future with a Grade 8 education?”
In 2000, local leaders decided to do take action. In April they founded the Skownan Vision Seekers Initiative, a community focussed program that provides residents on reserves a unique hands-on strategy to solving social problems.
Unlike government initiatives, where outside experts are brought in to fix a perceived problem, Vision Seekers looks first to community members for a possible solution. What resulted was a year-long consultation with local residents that proved both insightful and inspirational.
“What we did was give them a chance to come up with their own solutions to their problems,” says Rungay, the core facilitator at Vision Seekers. The approach paid immediate dividends; initial planning sessions were attended by more than half of Skownan. “What they came up with wasn’t really a business plan, but a vision."
The first fruit of these sessions was the Wood Bison program, a high-school curriculum designed to teach Skownan School students valuable life skills, such as teamwork and personal management. It also aimed to boost the students’ sense of Aboriginal identity through courses that focussed on traditional Ojibway practices, like tanning hides, cleaning fish and tending to the band’s herd of bison.
Colin Kakewash, a Wood Bison instructor, says the mix of traditional and modern skills is critical for the success of any Aboriginal student living in a reserve in Canada.
“As an Aboriginal person I know I have to finish my Grade 12 and go to university or college in order to survive,” he says. “But I also have to know my own language, I have to know my own ceremonies and I have to know my spirit name.”
This combination of practical and traditional education was also important to many parents, who felt the need to expand their children’s understanding of their culture and their relationship with the land, which stretches back hundreds of years.
“We’re slowly going in that direction,” adds the 53-year-old. "I just got my spirit name about 10 years ago. In 1996, I went to my first sweat lodge and my first sun dance in 2000,” he said. “Before that, I’d never had the chance.”
The history of the Skownan First Nation is a proud one, but is also marked by conflict. Originally the Waterhen First Nation, in 1995 the community was riven when a group of protesters who accused the band’s government of wide-scale corruption.
The RCMP was called in, and what started as a small protest became a tense month-long standoff that generated national headlines and forced families from their homes. The incident ended peacefully but had lasting effects; the band changed its name from Waterhen to the Skownan—an Ojibway word meaning “a turning point in the land.”
Around the same time, many community members began to confront their experiences in residential schools; a history of abuse that had lasting effects on the way many parents and grandparents felt about structured learning as a whole.
“School meant nothing to us,” says Charlotte Nepinak who quit school when she was in Grade 8. “You had to be in school just because the government said.”
Community leaders realized that this mistrust of formal education stretched far beyond current students, to several generations of residents. This insight led to the next step for the Vision Seekers: a high-school program for adults.
Established months after the Wood Bison program, the mature student diploma program included a mandatory life-skills program that focussed on personal management and problem solving. The eight-week life-skills course gives adults a chance to earn a high-school diploma, while enjoying the financial benefits of work placements and career development.
“To educate [your children] you need to get educated, so we set up an adult education program and made it a requirement to take life skills for adults to get their [high-school] diploma.” Rungay explains. The program teaches communication skills, problem solving and conflict management skills, all of which are vital in order to function in today’s society and economy. “You start building emotional connections and overcome isolation. Historically, when people have been hurt, they become isolated and ashamed.”
As the adults started to work toward their high-school diplomas they gain an appreciation of learning that they passed on to their children—and in some cases, grandchildren. At the age of 37, Nepinak graduated from the adult program and said the experience was so positive that her mother has started to volunteer in the school.
“She started a breakfast program, and one of the first things she said was, ‘I wish it had been like this when you were in school.’”
The community’s involvement in the program has started to show positive returns. Social workers report that sobriety rates have increased by nearly 5% and fewer children are being put into government care.
In 2005, the community added a career development aspect to the Wood Bison program that allows high-school students to broaden their awareness of their job possibilities. Career Trek sees 30 students travel to Winnipeg once a month to sit in on demonstrations of various careers, from teacher to doctor to search-and-rescue worker. “It’s hard to show kids that there’s a whole big world out there.” says Rungay. “So one of the goals is to let kids try on different careers, so they know they don’t have only a choice of whether to be an RCMP officer, a nurse or a social worker.”
The results of the program tell a story of success. More than eight years after Vision Seekers was founded, 44% of the community have attended its various courses and programs. It also appears to have had an affect on the community’s high-school completion rate which rose to 10 graduates for 2005 and 11 for 2006—a six-fold improvement from 1999. In addition, 26 students graduated from a post-secondary program in community centred therapy in 2005.
(In addition, Vision Seekers has been such a success that in April 2005 the federal government began funding its use as a model in three other Aboriginal communities in rural Manitoba.)
Rungay, who has worked in Skownan for more than 20 years, was stunned by the turnaround in her community.
“You see people when they start the program and they keep their heads down and they don’t make eye contact.” she says. “At the end, people are laughing and hugging and crying. It’s like a flower blooming.”