Haida Gwaii leads the way on Aboriginal curriculum

In many ways, the B.C. curriculum changes announced this fall are catching up to what Haida Gwaii schools already do.

What is the volume of a bentwood box that is two feet tall, three feet long, and two feet wide?

Students on Haida Gwaii may have already answered a math question like that, but many more students will join them now that B.C.’s latest curriculum calls for Aboriginal teachings in every subject.

“I think it’s wonderful really, because it doesn’t isolate it,” says Joanne Yovanovich, principal of Aboriginal education for Haida Gwaii public schools.

“I went to school here, and later on we would have ‘Haida month’ in May and it was the only time we had anything Haida at the school.”

While the shift will take some time, Yovanovich hopes it will not be too hard, noting that many teachers already include Haida teachings in their lessons just because they live here.

In many ways, the B.C. curriculum changes announced this fall are catching up to what Haida Gwaii schools already do thanks to years of work by local educators and community groups.

In 1976, Kathy Bedard and Cliff Armstrong made Haida Studies kits for Grades 1 to 11, the same year Diane Brown and Ada Yovanovich started teaching Haida in Queen Charlotte and a few years after the first Haida Culture course started at George M. Dawson Secondary.

Today, all students take Haida culture courses until at least Grade 7.

So far there are partial Haida language immersion classes up to Grade 2, and high school students can take electives in Haida language and culture or provincial electives such as BC First Nations Studies 12 and English 10: First Peoples.

Local Haida knowledge holders take part in school events, and teachers also have locally made materials to draw on.

In 2012, Yovanovich and Cynthia Nicol published a book, Tluuwaay ‘Waadluxan: Mathematical Adventures for Gina, that was packed into welcome-to-kindergarten bags at schools all across Canada.

This year, it’s Taan’s Moons, a picture book by Alison Gear, Kiki van der Heiden, and local students.

Speaking in the lead-up to today’s Orange Shirt Day an event started in Williams Lake and held for the last three years to remember residential school survivors Yovanovich talked about some of the learning it has led to, and not only for students.

“Some people here were surprised ‘Oh, did Haidas go to residential school?” she said.

“It seemed to them like we might have been off the grid. But the boats came in, and they took them.”

Whether it’s a math problem on bentwood boxes, or an essay on Tomson Highway’s Kiss of the Fur Queen, Yovanovich said the other benefit of more culturally representative education is what it does for student-teacher relationships here and elsewhere.

“We know our successful students generally have a positive relationship with their teachers,” she said.

“So when the teachers are more aware of who you are, and what you believe in and accept that, I think that makes learning better.”