This past spring I had the opportunity to deliver a Forest and Nature School Practitioners’ Course in partnership with Kenjgewin Teg at M’Chigeeng First Nation, on Mnidoo Mnising Manitoulin Island. Leading up to this course we had been working with the Executive Director, Stephanie Roy, and were diving into delivering our year-long certificate course to supporting educators and early childhood educators deliver transformative programs in nature. No small task, and as I headed on reserve, I had a pit in my stomach about how many unknowns I was about to face.
“Who am I to go into an Indigenous community and speak to the value of learning on and connecting with the land? How can I facilitate a course AND make room for tough conversations about culturally-relevant practice and systemic oppression? What if I make a mistake and mess this whole thing up?”
I slept well that night, but woke up restless in anticipation of the unknown. I met my co-facilitator, Sonja, as well as three new facilitators, Carly, Chloe and Pat, who were shadowing the course, to set up our site and prepare to welcome participants, who were coming from Manitoulin, as well as all across Ontario, and Quebec, with about half identifying as First Nations, Inuit or Metis.
Slowly participants arrived, likely facing similar questions of their own. We opened the course with two elders, Josh Eshkawkogan and Roberta Oshkabewisens, welcoming us to the land, and speaking about the value of children and youth connecting to nature. Often, in other courses, the welcome would take less than an hour, this time, it brought us to lunch. In this welcome both Josh and Roberta shared wisdom through messages aligned with the principles of our course. Josh shared his own experience and said, “I don’t teach from a piece of paper, I teach from my heart.” Then, he went on to give examples of what this looks like in his own spiritual teaching, perfectly describing what we were asking of educators in the course, to trust in a process of learning that involves heart, that involves moving away from directed activities and lesson plans. Roberta shared the value of only speaking from her own personal experiences, and that we must strive to understand that we can only be an expert in our own stories. She provided us with a lens into what it means to be culturally and humanistically sensitive when working in diverse groups. Her words conveyed the value of emergent and child-directed learning, where we empower children to have a voice in their play and the learning process, and how we use storytelling to deliver curriculum.
I was blown away at how intuitively and well-aligned this welcome was with the content of the course. I was also challenged by how long the welcome was, how unpredictable our day now seemed when looking at our timelines and course schedule. I could see on the faces of some participants that perhaps they, too, were challenged by the time dedicated to this. I saw, and later heard, questions about the value of straying too far away from our schedule. I wondered if participants would be making the same connections that I was making, and if they would value the process and what was being offered. I wondered if, as a facilitator, there was a need to speak again to the points that Josh and Roberta made, given they were so eloquently stated already. I wondered, even, if I needed to be there in the first place.
Day one came and went like a tornado. I went to bed that night feeling humbled, grateful but confused. I was facilitating a course, yet I was feeling the need to spend time observing, listening, learning, and committing to building trust in this new community. I was being quieter in delivering the course than ever before, and I was both enjoying this, and struggling with knowing my role and what was needed. Day two was more of the same, resulting in more straying from our schedule, less speaking and direct facilitation by our staff, and more opportunities for participants, in particular our Indigenous participants, to share their experiences and wisdom.
That same day we moved further out onto the land, hiking up the bluff to do a sit spot and to explore play theory. Tensions in the group were growing, and while there, in the middle of facilitating a session, a few local participants observed hawks flying overhead. Very abruptly, a few people murmured that there must be a nest close by and that the group needed to move right away. Awkwardly our group started to pack up and leave the bluff before finishing our session. For some of our Indigenous participants, this was a natural, important response to their observation, and even in the context of the course it was reflective of place-based learning – being attuned to seasons, weather, and animals, and then supporting children to be stewards of the natural world. In spite of this, there were rumblings from many about who made the decision to leave, who was actually leading this course anyway, why didn’t the facilitators intervene and at least finish the session?
We ended that day deciding to play, feeling the need for lightness, and open-ended experiences for everyone to walk away, create something, run, hide, do what they needed. We brought out various loose parts, including pulleys, baskets, tools, and ropes. We also introduced the concept of natural loose parts that could be found nearby, that can support play. Once the group started to play, a few participants shared that they were feeling a negative visceral effect to seeing ropes in the course, and that this was a trigger for them and perhaps others. They went on to explain and share stories of loss, of the high suicide rates by rope in so many Indigenous communities. We had never, in all of our courses, been faced with this reality. So we put ropes away, and had a few individual conversations and check-ins with people in the evening and next morning. The course that day ended on a low note. I was gutted. Saddened by the real pain so many experience in their daily lives, but also feeling so underprepared to manage the complexities of the course. That night Sonja and I debriefed, we had no answers, we decided to sleep on it, and connect in the morning.
Day three was National Aboriginal Day. We had heard that many were feeling resentful that the course was being held during such an important week, that they wanted to be with us, but felt torn about missing the cultural celebrations. Chloe, a new facilitator who was shadowing the course, a Metis woman from Yellowknife, had an idea that we should start the day giving every Indigenous participant the opportunity to speak about what National Aboriginal Day means to them. We decided that this was a time for sharing, listening, venting, and the role of our non-Indigenous participants during this time was only to listen.
The stories were emotional, funny, heartbreaking, uncomfortable, beautiful. I wept hearing the complexity of experience, emotion and pride. After this, I decided to vocalize the tensions that were growing and some of the questions I was facing as a facilitator. I spoke about the lessons I was learning from our elders and Indigenous participants, and the connections between these teachings and our course content. I named the frustration in how we were straying from the schedule. I spoke of our individual and collective responsibility to listen, then listen more, and how we were engaging in a process of building trust, and that was exactly what we must do in a Forest and Nature School setting with children and families. I invited everyone to be open to this process, and mentioned that in a context such as this course we must also sit with tensions, shame and discomfort that come up. The conversation was cathartic, and resulted in a change in the remainder of the week.
The end of that day, we had a cookout on the beach, where we made a moose stew and cedar and blueberry tea. The spring sun beamed over us and many of us swam while the food cooking over the fire. We started the cookout by reading a story, with an eagle flying directly over us. Many spoke about the symbolism of the eagle, how it is synonymous with strength, courage, wisdom, honesty, power and freedom. This made a lot of sense to us. There was magic in the air that night.
I’d like to say that the remainder of the course went smoothly. What I can say instead is that it was transformative, not in spite of the challenges, but because of them. On Thursday we were invited to a sweat lodge, on Friday we were invited to a pow wow. We did take the time that week for conversations and ceremonies, and we covered all of our course content, with so much additional knowledge and wisdom that we never could have anticipated.
I learned a critical lesson, about who gets the first and last word? Not me. There were so many moments in the course where I had the impulse to speak first or after an Indigenous participant or elder spoke, despite the fact that so much of our content was already being covered by the cultural and land-based teachings that were being offered. I learned to sit with not having to have the first or last word, and the value of modelling this through a Forest and Nature School lens.
I would like to say ‘miigwetch’ (thank you) to all the amazing people who have contributed to my learning, to elders Josh Eshkawkogan, Roberta Oshkabewisens, Lindsay Morcom who introduced me to Kenjgewin Teg, Stephanie Roy, Carrianne Agawa, Chloe Dragon Smith, Tracey Coates, all the participants in our Manitoulin course, and so many others who have been supporting myself and the Child and Nature Alliance in our understanding and commitment to Reconciliation. A special thank you to the staff at KT for reading and supporting this blog post and the reflections articulated within.
About the Author
Marlene Power is the executive director of the Child and Nature Alliance of Canada. She is an avid outdoors-person, social activist, environmentalist, and an advocate of children’s right to play in the natural world. She attributes her resilience, creativity, love of nature, and environmental values to the freedom she was given to roam during her childhood. She learned so much by growing up connected to the beauty and nature around her in outport Newfoundland. She currently spends her days roaming the woods and streets with her dog, and her two children, Hazel and Emry.
The Lawson Foundation Guest Blog Series
The Lawson Foundation is pleased to share updates from our grantees through this guest blog series. It provides an opportunity for our grantees to share stories from the field, lessons learned, as well as put forward thought provoking policy ideas.