By Rebecca Chartrand

 

As an Indigenous woman dealing with the effects of intergenerational trauma, I find myself at a crossroads between a painful past and a hopeful future. My journey is more than just getting by, it’s about showing the strength and resilience that come from facing and overcoming these challenges. It’s a message of hope to others in our communities who are working to improve wellness despite the racism and injustices that still exist. 

Against this background, the Pembina Trails School Division (PT) in Winnipeg, Manitoba, is doing important work. PT is committed to creating a school environment where Indigenous, Black, and People of Colour (IBPOC) students feel included, supported, and valued. By organizing events like diversity walks and cultural festivals, and working on an anti-racism policy, PT is taking real steps toward building a more equitable and inclusive community. PT’s work goes beyond just talking about diversity and inclusion. They’re actively making changes, like hiring Indigenous student support teachers and creating an equity and inclusion position. These steps are crucial for making sure every student can achieve their best, in an environment that respects and honors their cultural background. Moreover, PT’s focus on anti-racism education and creating policies to tackle systemic injustices shows a deep commitment to making school a safe place for Indigenous students. 

Addressing the problem of anti-Indigenous racism is essential for the well-being of Indigenous students. It’s about breaking down the barriers in the way of our health, getting equal access to resources, and challenging the microaggressions or stereotypes that hold us back. This effort is not just for us now but for future generations too. It encourages everyone to see things from different perspectives and work together for change, aiming for a society that truly values and celebrates Indigenous Peoples. This narrative of resilience and advocacy for change is deeply personal. My own experiences with microaggressions, both in professional settings and as a mother, highlight the pervasive challenges Indigenous Peoples face.

As an educator myself, I have poured my heart into the education system for over two decades,  integrating history, culture, and perspectives with the hope that this would change attitudes toward my people. When I became a parent I hoped these efforts would create room for my children to flourish in our shared education system. At the tender age of six my son’s experiences with exclusionary behaviours, despite my best efforts, hit a painful bump in his lived experience as a visible Indigenous child. Instead of seeing his brown skin color as a symbol of pride, he wished he had white skin as he was beginning to experience that his skin color and ancestry set him apart and was not as accepted as other races among his peers. His wish for white skin, driven by a desire for acceptance, underscores the critical need for environments that affirm Indigenous identities and promote pride in one’s heritage. 

Pembina Trails Student Artwork

 

These experiences are powerful reminders of the necessity to combat anti-Indigenous racism vigorously. My journey and my son’s journey stand as a testament to resilience and hope amidst the challenges posed by systemic injustice—also reflective of a broader struggle within our communities to foster wellness and challenge the status quo. In this context, the efforts of the Pembina Trails School Division in Winnipeg are important to highlight and celebrate. Through various initiatives, PT is actively working to dismantle the systemic barriers that have long hindered true inclusivity, and their work goes beyond mere dialogue about diversity and inclusion. 

By hiring Indigenous student support teachers and the creation of an equity and diversity position, they have a team, not just talking about change; they’re actively pursuing it. These roles are pivotal, as they are not just hired to support or enhance achievement, they are there to challenge the existing norms. This task is monumental, representing a significant departure from the everyday workings of maintaining the existing systems that often overlook or marginalize voices and experiences. Their very presence becomes a disruptive force against those who maintain the current state of affairs.  Acknowledging the magnitude of this undertaking, I commend PT as the third school division in Winnipeg that is addressing systemic racism head-on by working to develop an anti-racism policy. My work with them, and previously with another school division on similar initiatives, has shown me the depth of reflection and critical examination required in this process. It’s not a small feat—it demands courage, a willingness to confront uncomfortable truths, and a dedication to effecting real, lasting change. 

Pembina Trails Indigenous Student Success Teachers (left to right): Jocelyn Bergunder, Sylvia Wastesicoot, Knowledge Keeper James Queskiekkapow, Brenda Muswagon, and Jill Fast

 

Developing an anti-racism policy is a clear indicator of PT’s dedication to not just achieving academic success but also ensuring wellness for all students. It’s about creating spaces where Indigenous students, and all students of color, can thrive without the burden of systemic barriers or the weight of stereotypes and prejudices. The work of PT, coupled with the personal and collective journeys of Indigenous Peoples striving for wellness and equity, underscores the importance of this ongoing struggle. It highlights the critical role of education in promoting inclusivity and the impact of dedicated individuals and divisions in driving systemic change. 

Hats off to the champions within these communities and institutions who move this work forward, ensuring that the path to wellness is accessible to all. Their efforts are not just commendable, they’re essential to building a future where every student can see themselves reflected, respected, and celebrated within their educational journey.

Pembina Trails Trustees and Senior Leadership from 2023. Back row (left to right): Colleen Roberts, David Johnson, Cindy Nachtigall, Stu Nixon, Craig Stahlke, Nora Wood, Tim Johnson, and Troy Scott. Front row (left to right): Alicia Baker, Linda Karn, Lisa Boles, Jasmine Brar, and Christine Jolly.

 

Rebecca Chartrand, the CEO of Indigenous Strategy Alliance, is an Anishinaabe First Nations woman from Treaty 4 territory in Manitoba with over 25 years of experience in K-12 and post-secondary education, including the arts. She has a strong sense of pride in her identity and is highly respected for her courage, integrity, voice and vision. Chartrand’s work focuses on bridging diverse communities through reconciliation, anti-racism, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), and Indigenous and multicultural education frameworks.