PAQTNKEK – Tanya Francis, education director for Paqtnkek Mi’kmaw Nation, told The Journal that the community has been thinking about opening a school for more than 20 years and, this week, they did just that.
The first day students arrived at Paqtnkek Education Centre for classes was Oct. 18, although classes have been held for the 22 students attending the Primary to Grade 3 school in the Elders Centre since mid-September.
Francis, along with Paqtnkek Education Centre Principal Danielle Gloade, spoke to The Journal on Monday, just as the first day of school at the new facility came to an end.
Students arrived excited and ready to explore their new school, Francis said. “When I got here, the kids were all coming in and they looked pretty happy; some were running to their class.”
Gloade added, “The students … seemed really excited to finally be here.”
And, after all this time, those who worked towards bringing the idea of a school to Paqtnkek were excited, too.
Over the years there have been community consultation sessions, a vote – which at the time went against the proposed school – more discussions, funding applications, construction estimates, COVID-19 interruptions and, finally, the school.
Most of the funding for the private, non-profit school has come through Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey, an organization that states its mission is "to actively promote excellence in Mi’kmaq education, interests and rights for our communities and to facilitate the development of lifelong learning.”
Additional funds have been supplied by Paqtnkek, and also through funders such as Jordan’s Principle .
“We are a non-profit, so we are constantly looking for different grants and things that we can apply for so that we can supply our students with the best supports that they deserve,” said Gloade, adding that the school has also received funding from Nourish Canada in support of the breakfast program this year.
While the Paqtnkek school was already on the drawing board, the need for it was highlighted when in March of 2018 racist graffiti was found on school property at East Antigonish Education Centre Academy, a Primary to 12 school that many of the community’s children attend in Monastery.
Francis said of the incident, “There was an equity audit done, there were focus groups done with parents, and with students themselves … This was just a few years ago and it just hit a nerve and I think we probably worked harder to get where we are now.”
Students at Paqtnkek Education Centre will, “get language class(es) with a fluent Mi’kmaw speaker, they also get outdoor education as well,” said Gloade, noting that these components adhere to the Treaty Education Framework, intended to provide direction for the meaningful integration of Treaty Education into Nova Scotia curricula which includes four main aspects: The Mi’kmaq, Treaties, Relationships, and Reconciliation.
While most of the people working at the school are Mi’kmaw, Gloade said, “As Mi’kmaw people, it’s important that we have diversity as well. So, we didn’t hire people based on ethnicity, it was based on their love of the children, their belief in our Treaty Education Framework, and their willingness to grow with us as a school. We also found that it was important to have Mi’kmaw representatives in the school so the students could see themselves reflected in the school as well.”
Gloade said any family interested in having their child attend the school would be welcomed, “Mi’kmaw culture is infused in all of our courses and classrooms, and we welcome any student that would be interested in coming here so that they can see and become a part of our school. And really, if you think about it, that would be like a form of reconciliation as well.”
During the grand opening ceremony for the school on Oct. 15, a wampum belt, created by Mary Lafford, was presented. It’s a representation of the Indigenous experience of residential schools in the past to this day, when Paqtnkek took the education of community children into their hands.
Francis said, “A wampum belt is significant in our culture… This is part of our Truth and Reconciliation, one of the calls to action; we’re taking our own education back.
“A lot of Indigenous people went through so much trauma during those days of residential school and day schools, and it is something that is dark to us, even though it is still there by intergenerational trauma that our people still have today; we’ve pretty much went to hell and back…We’re leaving residential school in the past and we’re focusing on healing now with our own school,” she said.
Gloade summed up Paqtnkek Education Centre’s ethos, stating, “Our school, we really want to teach our children the right path. By suspending children and things like that, you’re not really showing them how to be the best that they can be. And we don’t want our children to feel like they are thrown away. Our goal is to work with the children and their families and help guide them on the right path…It’s important that we’re there with them, that they know that we support them, that we love them, we care about them. That’s what the most important thing is and, I think, the public school, for a long time, has gone away from that – they really are focused more on the business aspect and ours is really focused on the heart.”
Lois Ann Dort, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Guysborough Journal