As Fort Qu’Appelle’s Bert Fox high school recently opened its Indigenous cultural room, principal Julie Stiglitz was honest in tracing the educational history of the area.
“Just down the road in Lebret, a residential school was torn down and it closed in the ‘90s. Many of the parents of the students we educate now went to school in Lebret and went through the residential school system,” she said. “That's a very real, everyday reality.”
She and knowledge carrier Phillip Brass spoke with the Leader-Post about the circular, four-door cultural room and what it means for the school’s kids.
“For the Indigenous plains cultures, everything was done in a circle,” said Brass, who’s a member of the Peepeekisis Cree Nation east of Fort Qu’Appelle. “When you sit on the ground in a circle, it’s a structure that’s conducive to communication and consensus-making.”
Brass was a consultant and ceremony helper in designing the room, which can hold 35 to 40 people at full capacity. As a designer, he made sure the space would function to teach First Nations teens about their communities’ cultural and spiritual ceremonies.
Some of the areas covered are to be medicine, food, crafts and language. Daily ceremonies are to include talking circles and smudges.
Bert Fox is “70 per cent Indigenous population,” Stiglitz said. “The Truth and Reconciliation Commission asks us to put back what the education system took out as a part of colonization, (and) directly through residential schools.”
The Encyclopaedia of Saskatchewan states there were 20 residential schools in Saskatchewan. Across Canada residential schools left a legacy of physically and sexually abused students, while stamping out their cultures and languages.
Lebret’s Industrial School (also called Indian Residential School) closed in June 1998, though by that time the Star Blanket Cree Nation operated it under the name White Calf Industrial School.
Brass said the Treaty 4 area around the Qu’Appelle Valley encompasses different linguistic groups, hence the need to build four doors facing four directions — north, east, south and west — into the room. Those groups are Cree, Dakota, Nakota and Saulteaux, he said.
The room’s design mimics traditional ceremonial lodges made of poplar trees by lining its walls with poplar wood.
Brass also acknowledged Fort Qu’Appelle’s immigrant community, how Filipino kids at Bert Fox are eager to learn about First Nations topics.
“I find most of them really enter into the conversation with a lot of curiosity,” he said. “They don't have any prior history, that tension of that very difficult relationship between settler Canadians and Indigenous peoples.”
He said Filipino students are more open to having “difficult conversations sometimes. And they do also have their own colonial history in the Philippines, with brutal treatments under the Americans in the 1890s.”