Nanaimo District Secondary School (NDSS) has hired an Aboriginal Elder, Penny Seward, becoming the first public school in the district to do so.
Seward is tasked with educating students about her culture, teachings, and ways of learning, much like the Elders at VIU who provide counselling, support, and guidance to all students.
“So many will benefit from her cultural background and her rich history of the traditions and values of family,” said VIU Elder-in-residence, Geraldine Manson.
As a retired crisis counsellor, when Seward saw the job posting on the district’s website, she was attracted to the special opportunities it offered.
“I just love my culture—it’s me,” she said. “And I love teaching it to the children.”
After starting in January, she has had teachers ask her to visit their classes to discuss the subjects they are studying in an Aboriginal context as a way to compare and contrast cultures and their lessons. For example, in a science class, Seward spoke about the Aboriginal explanations for the shifting of the Earth’s crust; in a French immersion class, she connected the importance of learning new languages to her own experience learning her traditional language, as she is currently attending classes each week to deepen her knowledge of it.
“I consult with other Elders in the community about our stories and teachings so I can bring it here in a good way,” she said. “I’m more or less an experiment for this position, and I think we need an Elder in every school.”
VIU currently has nine Elders working, with five in Nanaimo, three in Cowichan, and one in Powell River. Now that NDSS has hired one, many hope for the trend to spread. “[Seward’s] teachings come from Elders of the community, many who are no longer there, and she practices these teachings in her home and other facilities,” Manson said. “I would certainly like to see this flourish in other schools across School District 68.”
Seward explained that noticing people’s differences and finding alternate ways to teach and learn is crucial. “We are all connected and need to understand each other,” she said. “If we understand each other, our spirits can work together. If I don’t understand you, and you don’t understand me, that’s where the bullying and prejudice can start.”
NDSS Vice-Principal Bob Brooks explained that Seward’s position helps connect staff and students to Aboriginal culture by collaborating and thinking of ways to view the world through an Aboriginal lens. “It focuses on how to be patient, take time to pause, and give thanks,” he said. “It’s an organic evolution. It’s a job you can’t just define, as we don’t want to have too many pre-conceived ideas, because it’s a learning experience for all.”
Penny’s position is site-based, which means she can work with all programs at NDSS, including the Tier 3 alternative learning programs and Aboriginal Education department. She works with the Ravens Lelum Teen Parenting Centre, a program for young parents to fulfill academic goals, teaching a life skills program that uses a canoe metaphor to talk about real-life problems and situations.
She also teaches this canoe metaphor to the other staff and students to speak about encountering new things and working together to find solutions; when people don’t know how to paddle, you put more people in a canoe to find balance and direction. “The Coast Salish are canoe people,” she said. “We are all in one canoe pulling together and working towards our destination or goal.”
Having gone to high school at NDSS herself, Seward said she was a bit nervous to return, but has found a great amount of support and positivity, as the teachers have been very eager to make connections with her culture. “And the students acknowledge me; they know me,” she said. “To make that connection makes me happy; it’s very uplifting.”
To learn more about VIU’s Elders or to contact one, visit viu.ca/aboriginal/elders.
Read also: VIU Services: Shq’apthut