By Terra Kerani MacPhail
Traditional men and Gopit (Beaver) Clan members gathering at the Pabineau Health Center Summer Gardens. Top L to R: Robert Kryszko,Steven Randy Peter-Paul, Warren Brown, Terrance Richardson, Warren Jr. Brown. Below L to R: Gopit (Beaver) Clan Elder Gilbert Sewell with special guest Metepaniagiag First Nation Elder George Paul.
Community education is the heart of our community,” said Cynthia Sewell, Pabineau First Nation’s education cultural student support coordinator (featured on page 12). The Pabineau First Nation of New Brunswick is a Mi’gmaq community deeply enriched by its cultural heritage and values. Community members recognize the importance of Indigenous education and working with youth to keep their Mi’gmaq culture alive and thriving. “We are a small community, and it is important for our children to hear our stories, and learn our language, customs and teachings,” explained Sewell. “It is important for them to be seen and recognized for who they are—Mi’gmaq. It’s really about identity.”
In response to this need, Pabineau First Nation launched a cultural school program that brings cultural teachings into five local schools in Northern New Brunswick. Since this is a fairly remote community (two hours north of Moncton and three hours away from Fredericton, the capital of New Brunswick), the community took the initiative to fill the need themselves. Now they support cultural and historical content for 50 students attending local schools at the primary and secondary levels. Sewell further explained that the community has an educational team consisting of a Mi’gmaq Elder and community cultural support worker, and volunteers that go to the community schools to provide a shared sense of community, culture and teaching. “We seek to provide a Mi’gmaq perspective that helps our children understand where they come from because it is not the same as taking a multicultural approach or a pan-Indigenous approach.”
“For us, it is all about relationships and community. We are all about shared experience, understanding our treaty relationship as an independent Nation and building on that treaty relationship with the world around us,” said Sewell.
The Pabineau First Nation Cultural School Program calls upon many community people to contribute their traditional cultural knowledge. One such person is Phyllis Grant. She is a proud Mi’gmaq artist, rapper, filmmaker and dreamer whose animated films enrich the program with stories and teachings.
“Legends are healing; they are powerful transformers of mindsets and a precious community resource,” said Grant. The program utilizes two of her animated short films produced by the National Film Board of Canada. Maq and the Spirit of the Woods is about a Mi’gmaq boy who realizes his potential with the help of inconspicuous mentors. Waseteg presents the story of a young Mi’gmaw girl whose name means “the light from the dawn”. These resources are available for purchase online in both French and English with a classroom license at nfb.ca.
A valued part of the program is the dedicated participation of Cultural Program Elder Gilbert Sewell. He travels from school to school in the district sharing stories, history and culture from Pabineau First Nation. “We are so lucky and grateful to have an elder with a deep understanding of Mi’gmaq ways to interact with students and provide a familiar face and voice within our schools,” explained Sewell. “By doing this, we combat any notion that exists that somehow our culture is gone or doesn’t exist. Of course we exist. We survived over 500 years of colonization, and we are still here.”
For Sewell, this work restoring Mi’gmaq culture and language to the youth in her territory is a vital part of her own vision for the future. “Many people in my generation were affected by the past colonization tactics, such as the Indian Day School, which was very similar to residential schools in their determination to eradicate Indigenous culture by not allowing us to speak our language or express cultural and spiritual practices. Now I get to restore what I experienced in school by supporting our youth and celebrating who we are as Mi’gmaq.”
Non-Indigenous teachers appreciate the support they receive from the Pabineau Cultural School Program. Sewell often hears remarks of surprise from teachers as they learn Mi’gmaq history and culture that they didn’t know right alongside their students. This sparks dialogue, conversation and sharing among all who participate. “We offer students and staff exciting learning opportunities that they really enjoy,” said Sewell. The whole mission of the program is to see students succeed, and they can do so by knowing their own Mi’gmaq culture and heritage.
Myth-breaking and bridge-building are core tenants of the program, which strives to create a new relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples, as well as within the students themselves. Sewell emphasized the significance of working together to create spaces in the learning environment to include Mi’gmaq culture. “It is confusing for our youth to hear many different Indigenous stories or history from mainstream textbooks and the media. We have to tell our own stories.”
Gopit (Beaver) Clan Members at their Mawiomi (gathering grounds) on Pabineau First Nation. L to R: Gopit Clan Mother Constance Sewell. Pabineau Cultural Education Program Elder and Gopit Clan Elder Gilbert Sewell, and Gopit Clan Youth Member Ava Sewell.
SAY Magazine would like to acknowledge the tremendous support of the Pabineau FN community in preparing this article. We thank Chief Terrence Richardson, and councillors Carolyn Fraser, Susan Motty and Jim Richardson for their contributions to the photography in this article. Wela’lieg!
Terra Kerani MacPhail (Métis) is a content creator and strategist. She can be reached with story ideas at email@example.com.