Connections to culture important for Aboriginal youth

NANAIMO – Findings released from McCreary Centre Society's latest report about the health of Aboriginal students in B.C.

Aboriginal students who feel connected to their culture were more likely to also feel connected to school and to exercise more regularly.

This is one of the key findings of the McCreary Centre Society’s latest report about the health of Aboriginal students in B.C.

The report uses data from the society’s 2008 Adolescent Health Survey – more than 3,000 students identified themselves as Aboriginal in the survey – and also incorporates feedback from groups of Aboriginal youth and adults in each health authority.

Nanaimo school officials consider high levels of cultural connectedness an important factor in keeping students healthy and ready to learn.

Laura Tait, the school district’s principal of Aboriginal education, said there are Aboriginal employees in every school who support students academically, socially and emotionally, and serve as role models.

“We’re trying to follow a holistic model,” she said.

Tait said one of the effects of colonization has been a mistrust of the system and Aboriginal employees can help parents become more comfortable in schools.

The district also developed, in conjunction with Vancouver Island University educators, a workshop to help all employees increase their ‘Aboriginal literacy’.

The workshop runs through a basic history of First Nations peoples as well as current issues and offers suggestions on building positive relationships with Aboriginal communities and students.

It also challenges teachers to take action and include Aboriginal content in lessons, even if there are no Aboriginal students in their classes, added Tait.

“The more that we instill respect for different cultures, kids are going to come to school feeling proud of who they are,” she said. “If you feel good about who you are, are you going to do better or worse on that exam?”

All students benefit when all viewpoints and perspectives are valued, added Tait.

Sharon Hobenshield, VIU’s director of Aboriginal education, said the department offers a number of supports for students to help create a sense of belonging for Aboriginal students at the institution.

Support includes a peer mentorship program, Shq’apthut: A Gathering Place – the new Aboriginal centre designed to resemble a traditional Coast Salish longhouse – and elders-in-residence.

“The elders are the heart and soul of everything we do with Aboriginal education,” said Hobenshield. “We look to them for guidance on how we can support Aboriginal students. It’s more than just culture, it’s their lived experience and knowledge of the distinct communities they represent.”

Indigenous education is about incorporating the mind, the body, the spirit and the heart, so health and education are not seen as separate, but parts of a whole, she said.

Aboriginal artwork, programs and services on campus serve to remind First Nations students that the institution is acknowledging indigenous history and traditions, said Hobenshield, but another goal is educating the student body and community as a whole.

William Yoachim, a Snuneymuxw First Nation councillor and executive director of Kw’umut Lelum Child and Family Services, said his organization hosts cultural activities, such as language classes, that have a huge impact on the children.

“Knowing their culture and where they come from has built a sense of self-esteem and self-pride,” he said. “When they’re feeling good, they’re thriving in other areas of life.”