Lessons from the land

·3 min read

In nature’s classroom, bundled up around a hole drilled into the frozen Red River, the roles of student and teacher flip.

Last weekend, the Parenteaus set out for what would prove to be a successful ice-fishing trip in Selkirk — not because they caught any channel catfish nor walleye, but because Carter Parenteau, 9, beamed as he taught his mother how to angle.

“Out there, you don’t even think about all the worries of being in a pandemic. That’s probably the best part for me, and for Carter, too,” Anna Parenteau says, recalling the family field trip.

Sunday marked Anna’s first time ice fishing so Carter showed her the lines; the fourth grader explained that because they were using frozen minnows, she needed to jiggle her rod to lure fish to the bait.

“It’s his element, when he’s out on the land,” she says.

The ability to connect and reflect on what it means to be Anishinaabe has proven to be one of the only constants for the Parenteaus this year, as COVID-19 continues to pause outings to school, ceremonies and swimming lessons.

It feels good to be able to uphold treaty rights and observe how the land is ever-changing, says Jason Parenteau, an experienced ice-fisher, who has been organizing cultural activities for Anna and their two sons all year.

The family braced for pandemic pivots in early autumn, but had always planned to ensure Ojibwe lessons were at the forefront of Carter and 17-year-old Josiah’s education.

Their cousins, the Kennedys and Patricks were also involved, until the recent breakup of their home-school bubble, owing to the second COVID-19 wave.

The families are uneasy about the prospect of returning to school — let alone their original 2020-21 academic setup.

They have learned first-hand how painful it is to lose a loved one during a pandemic and be unable to attend a funeral, community feast and gather around a drum.

Three relatives from Roseau River First Nation died after contracting the virus.

In recent days, Anna’s father, an elder and traditional wellness worker in Roseau River, received his first vaccine dose. While she says she’s excited for him, safe family gatherings are still a long way off.

Anna, Jason and cousin Dawnis Kennedy, however, are also hesitant about the vaccine rollout, citing the government’s history of non-consensual experiments and forced sterilization on Indigenous people.

Kennedy says she had hoped the families were being overprotective when they mapped out a home-school plan last summer and expected a vaccine would bring normalcy.

Now, she is unsure what it will take for her to feel safe about Kenny, a third grader, returning to Ojibwe Immersion at Isaac Brock School.

In September, the boys called their home-school bubble “fake school.” The nickname later evolved to “our school.”

Kenny and Carter, who would have been in a Grade 3-4 split class together if they were in school, connected with their teacher and classmates on video calls during the optional two-week remote-learning period after the holiday break.

Their families’ shared priority is staying connected to Ojibwe programming at Isaac Brock, so they have opted for home-school lessons and check-ins with Ojibwe teachers rather than fully participating in the Winnipeg School Division’s virtual English program, thus far.

Kennedy’s son has been asking about when they can return to “our school” again. She doesn’t know the answer, but she says she looks forward to the day they can gather again.

Learning on the land affects the boys’ self-esteem and how they carry themselves, she says — for the better.

Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press