Celebrating Indigenous Excellence

Feature Stories

The respect and honour of the Ojibwe language:  Anishinaabemowin, and the Anishinaabek: Ojibwe traditional knowledge, culture and spirituality, are at the centre of Dr. Gail Lafleur and Don Couchie’s desire to inspire Indigenous youth. They have always worked to empower Indigenous students to reconnect with their identity, language and heritage.  

Both from Nipissing First Nation, Donald Wilfred Couchie and Gail Sarah Lafleur met at an Indigenous Traditional Gathering, while she was working on her master’s degree at Brock University.  

It wasn’t always an easy journey.  Lafleur was the first person in her family to graduate high school, university and graduate school, becoming the first Indigenous person to graduate with a PhD from Brock University.  Couchie left school in Grade 10 due to discrimination.  He spent years trying to make a living playing music and working odd jobs before he started driving a truck.  At the encouragement of both Lafleur, and his sister Carol, (one of the first Indigenous registered midwives in Ontario) and after decades on the road, he completed his high school equivalency, graduating with Honours.  He went on to pursue a BA in music in university, take Ojibwe language courses, completing the NLIP (Native Language Instructors Program), attending teacher’s college, and graduating with a BEd with Honours. 

Family is very important to Lafleur and Couchie.  For Lafleur, it was her mother who stressed the importance of education.  “I know my mother had wanted to be a teacher, but when she was in school, she told me that only one person from each family was allowed to go to high school, and her youngest brother went,” Lafleur recounted.  Her mother always stressed the importance of education as a way to move beyond the struggles of life, and because of the Indian Act, as an Anishinaabekwe: Ojibwe woman, she was denied that.

Couchie was also surrounded by a supportive family, who helped introduce him to the Ojibwe language.  His father, uncle and aunt all spoke Ojibwe and his great-grandmother only spoke Ojibwe.  “I didn’t get to hear (his great-grandmother) for very much of my life, but I consider myself very, very fortunate to be in her presence and listen to her speak,” Couchie said.  His father also instilled a strong work ethic in him, “I remember his words, he said ‘you always just do the best you can, whatever it is you do’”.  

Lafleur has held a number of roles in education.  Prior to her current position as an Indigenous Student and Cultural Facility Advisor at YRDSB, she worked in her Nipissing First Nation community to support Indigenous youth, worked in supporting employment opportunities for FNMI: First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples, and also taught in elementary school and post-secondary education.  She missed the opportunity of working with elementary and secondary school students.  She shared her appreciation of working with Andrew McConnell and Donna Ford, the First Nations, Metis and Inuit team and the Inclusive Schools and Inclusive School and Community Services teams at YRDSB, “chi-miigwech--many thanks for the opportunity to be able to support Indigenous youth and equity at YRDSB,” she said. 

Couchie credits his many teachers who have empowered him to teach language in a classroom setting.  He looks back especially fondly on his experience learning from Ojibwe Language Teacher Alex McKay.  “He showed me how deep our language is,” Couchie explained.  “Alex not just told me, but showed me how deep it is and how rich it is.”

Couchie and Lafleur have both witnessed quite a few changes to the ways Indigenous students experience education.  Lafleur works to support FNMI students, and she believes in the importance of her role and presence in the schools.  She understands that Indigenous youth need cultural, social, and academic supports to achieve success: for balance and wellness of mind, body, spirit and emotion.  Couchie notices students engaging more with their language as well as dedication from people in the Board to supporting the work.  Couchie is appreciative to work with Jodi Johnston who oversees the Anishinaabemowin Program.  “YRDSB is a very good place,” he said.  

While they see positive changes like these, they would like to see more.  Lafleur would like to see permanent roles in providing Indigenous support for Indigenous youth as well as the continuation of hiring of Indigenous teachers, curriculum consultants and Indigenous language teachers in schools.  Couchie would like to see it go even further, with the implementation of Ojibwe language learning from pre-school to PhD, outside of the regular school system.  “We need that for the survival of our culture and language,” he explained.  

While most of their time is occupied by their professional responsibilities, Lafleur and Couchie also make time for their other interests.  For Lafleur, that includes being in nature, going for walks, practicing meditation, spending time with friends, going to powwows and learning more about Indigenous Traditional Knowledges and Languages.  She hopes to one day publish her doctoral thesis “Ojibwe Elders’ Experiences of Peace: To Teach Our Well-Being with the Earth.”

As for Couchie, he pursues his lifelong love of music and learning more about language. During the system shutdown, he has also learned more about photography and videography (a necessity due to the system shutdown), something he has found he also enjoys.  Always working to share the teachings of the Elders, he works with the William Jones’ Ojibwe Texts translations as a way to bring our Elders’ voices back to life.

Lafleur also sees Couchie as a mentor and teacher throughout their relationship. She has an appreciation of Couchie as an Elder, Knowledge and Language Keeper and Cultural Carrier.  Lafleur looks forward to continuing their work together in Indigenous education in the years ahead, sharing “The understanding of the history, culture and language of Indigenous people supports the education of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians towards a path to reconciliation.” 

Jodi Johnston and Pamala Agawa have been working together in Indigenous Education building learning opportunities in YRDSB since 2015.  

Johnston is an Anishnaabe-kwe from Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation, YRDSB’s partner in education.  She grew up in the area and came back to teach in YRDSB in 2007.  She spent numerous years in Indigenous education in various capacities before becoming the Regional Anishinaabemowin Language Coordinator for schools in Georgina in 2015. Johnston is an Auntie and has also been an outdoor education teacher leading canoe trips for almost two decades.  She credits much of her success to the mentors she has had throughout her life who have given her opportunities to grow and lead. 

Agawa is an Anishinaabe-kwe from Batchewana First Nation located just outside of Sault Ste. Marie. She spent eight years as a subject head in alternative education at Huron Heights S.S. before becoming the First Nations, Métis and Inuit (FNMI) Education Coordinator and most recently joining the Keswick H.S. staff as a vice-principal. Agawa is a mother to three girls and volunteers as the head coach of her daughter’s rep hockey team in East Gwillimbury and is moving to Central York Girls’ Hockey Association for the 2020-21 season.  She has been employed with YRDSB since 2001.  

Although the two educators did not start working together officially until 2015, it was their commitment and dedication to centre Indigenous youth and their voices in all the work they lead that has become the foundation of their relationship. Together, they co-authored a three-part Additional Qualification course for First Nation, Métis and Inuit Education through YRDSB, which was accredited by the Ontario College of Teachers. They also have co-instructed part one and two and are excited to teach the specialist in the 2020-21 school year. Both educators deeply value their personal and professional relationships.  More than anything, they are good friends.  “We are a sisterhood first and always,” Agawa said.    

Their friendship and working partnership has been fostered over several years. Johnston was one of the first people Agawa sat down to speak with when she was hired as the new FNMI Coordinator.  “I think Jodi has taught me to take chances, to take risks, because they benefit our kids.  We are both very student-centred and child-centred in our work,” Agawa said.  She also credited Johnston with helping her find her voice and having the courage to “speak up for ourselves and our families.”  The teaching and sharing is mutual.  “Pam has a fantastic way of leveraging her position to create change and she has been one of my biggest mentors in YRDSB,” Johnston said.  Together, they’ve worked to create continuous and lasting learning throughout the board.  

An example of this continuous and lasting learning was at YRDSB’s Quest Conference in 2019. The 2019 conference focus was on Indigenous Education and Equity.  Agawa was selected to co-host the event with Dr. Avis Glaze.  “That experience was such an honour to share space with Avis. I have always admired and respected her leadership and to stand beside her and share space with her is something I will never forget,” she explained.  Johnston was also provided space to showcase the Red Dress Project with Elena Kontozis, an initiative that brings awareness to missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. “I think with such a huge Indigenous focus (at Quest), one of the takeaways was how important Indigenous voice is,” Agawa said. “Reconciliation is about moving aside and giving us space to speak, lead and teach. This involves decentering dominant ideologies and centering Indigenous voices and peoples.”

Agawa and Johnston are passionate about co-creating learning opportunities for Indigenous students to reclaim their language and culture. Johnston teaches Anishinaabemowin, something she is very passionate about.  “For Indigenous people, language is one of our historical losses and the foundation of our culture,” she said.  To help students reclaim their language and build understanding about Indigenous Peoples, all students can now take Anishinaabemowin as part of their education pathway in place of French or alongside it at both the elementary and secondary level. “Knowing your language is so important to who you are as an Indigenous person.” Johnston said.  The late Barbara McDonald from the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation said, “Language is our culture. Everything we do is in our language.’”

Since the pandemic caused school buildings to close in March, leading language and land-based learning online has been difficult, but Johnston hasn’t shied away from the challenge.  For Anishinaabe People land-based learning is essential and is part of how Johnston instructs Anishinaabemowin classes. Moving to an online learning platform has meant that she has had to change her platform for teaching and how students connect with the land. She responded by creating a website with Vivian Outdoor Resource Centre Outdoor Education Teacher Georgina Marucci.  The website helps students connect to the land through language and land-based learning opportunities.  Whether they want to watch nesting birds, learn the names of different plants and animals in Anishinaabemowin, learn about First Nation water issues, or listen to read alouds about Indigenous Peoples and their stories, the website has resources for them to do so.  

Agawa has also been working from home during the closure. In addition to her regular duties as a vice-principal, she is co-hosting an on-going webinar series focusing on anti-racism learning with Paul Gorsky, Debbie Donsky and Kike Ojo-Thompson called #4BigQuestions about Racial Justice in Education. She is also currently a co-host with an anti-racism book club for teachers with Colinda Clyne from Upper Grand District School Board, reading Arthur Manuel’s Unsettling Canada through VoicEd radio.  Together, Agawa and Johnston are supporting this work by co-hosting an extension of the book study that is exclusive to YRDSB staff to support their learning and they have over 70 participants.  

As the two educators work towards wrapping up the current school year and planning for September, one thing is for certain; they will continue to focus their work on building and nurturing relationships in Indigenous Education. “Relationships with Indigenous Peoples are not something we call on when we need something, but something we value and continue to feed, nurture and provide space and voice for their work and expertise,” said Agawa and Johnston.

For more information, check out YRDSB’s video featuring Jodi and Pam!

Lauri Hoeg, in addition to her role as the first Indigenous trustee at York Region District School Board, she is also an artist, a Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation band councillor and an advocate for First Nation education. She identifies herself as an Anishinaabe woman from Georgina Island First Nation where she lives and works.

Hoeg lives on the east side of Georgina Island, where she hosts her art studio Eagles In The East Studio.  She enjoys creating many different types of art, however, in recent years she has been focused on Woodland art.  She’s worked with other Indigenous educators such as Pamala Agawa and Jodi Johnston to help teachers learn how to teach about Indigenous art in a good way and avoid appropriation.  When asked what her advice would be for someone looking to avoid appropriation, she said “I think my advice would be to do your homework… It’s very much a feeling.  Even me, as an Indigenous person teaching art, I know when something doesn’t feel right.”

Education is a topic that is very close to Hoeg’s heart.  She worked as Georgina Island’s education manager for 22 years. During that time she championed band control of education and the on-reserve school moved from being the Georgina Island Indian Day School, a federally run school to a band operated school renamed Waabgon Gamig First Nation School.  Building on her Indigenous education administrator’s training, she has continued learning and returned to school to earn her B.A in Public Administration and Governance from Ryerson University and First Nations Technical Institute in 2012.  She looks back on the experience fondly, “I got to meet and spend time with other Indigenous people who are working in their First Nations to promote self-governance,” she said. 

She was quickly able to apply her learning as she ran in the Band election, a democratic vote that elects four council members and the Chief of the First Nation.  She was elected, and served two two-year terms before the terms were extended when the First Nation adopted the First Nation’s election act. She will wrap up her first four-year term next spring.  In her role as band councillor, she has held portfolios such as: education, culture, recreation, hunting and fishing, and childcare.  

From 2016-2019 Hoeg sat as a board member and treasurer for the Kinoomaadziwin Education Body; an administrative body for the Anishinabek Education System. The Georgina Island  community voted “Yes to the AES” in 2015 and signed on to the largest education self-government agreement in Canada governing 23 Ontario First Nations. 

While she called being appointed YRDSB’s first Indigenous trustee “exciting” working with YRDSB is nothing new for Hoeg.  She worked with former YRDSB Director of Education Ken Thurston to implement the First Nations Liaison Committee, a group that meets twice a year with board representatives and First Nation representatives to discuss Georgina Island First Nation’s concerns and advocate for their children.  

Hoeg attended and graduated from Sutton D.H.S. herself, so she knows first-hand how to advocate for students in YRDSB.  After seeing growth in Indigenous representation in the system, and seeing Indigenous educators improve First Nation content in curriculum and programming, she hopes “Indigenous students can be more empowered to be able to achieve their full potential.”

In a rare spare moment, Hoeg enjoys creating her own art and studying plant medicines, in fact, she recently received her herbalist certificate.  She’s a big believer in being connected to the land and caring for our well-being by addressing all aspects of ourselves. These are the First Nation teachings of the Medicine Wheel. “What’s important to me is that we have balance in our lives,” she said.  

Hoeg is also co-editing a book called The Chippewas of Georgina Island: A People of Stories.  The book is a collaborative effort between many members of the First Nation and is due to be released next year.  

A YRDSB Story: Indigenous Education