Justin Bourque, CEO of Willow Lake Métis, teaches students at a land-based learning camp. Photo supplied by Justin Bourque and taken by Nicholas Vardy Photography

By Scott McLean, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Published Oct 25, 2021

The Fort McMurray Catholic Schools Division (FMCSD) has started a land-based learning program for students. Every school division in the Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo region now offers a similar program that teaches students hunting, trapping and outdoor survival skills from First Nation and Métis trappers and elders.

FMCSD superintendent George McGuigan said creating the program is part of meeting the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Calls to Action.  

“Number one for us, just by the nature of the community we live in and geographically where we are, we have a very strong Indigenous perspective in this region,” said McGuigan. 

“They’re very important to this community and we have to do our part in education so everybody understands the rich history and culture of Indigenous people in this region.”  

The classes are electives for high school students and worth one credit. Justin Bourque, CEO of the Willow Lake Métis Nation, is teaching the courses and said he hopes they offer a step towards reconciliation.

“The outcomes that I’m trying to teach are not only for Indigenous students, but non-Indigenous students as well,” said Bourque, who in 2017 won the Regional Aboriginal Recognition Award for trapping. 

“This is not just so in the event of an emergency they are OK, but the concepts and lessons of land-based skills are skills they can take with them for life.”  

The partnership offers three modules throughout the school year. Last week Bourque taught hunting and food preparation to students from the Northland School Division and Fort McMurray Public School Division (FMPSD). 

FMCSD students will take part in trapping and survival classes during the winter. Fishing and traditional medicines will be taught in the spring.

Bourque said he takes an approach based on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) to the courses through a partnership with Actua. Actua is a national charity that helps build employment skills and confidence through STEM-based learning.  

Bourque said part of the fall session involved building an 18-foot teepee. He also brought his computer into the woods and used it to help with a lesson on convection.

“You tie it back in to how heat works inside the teepee,” said Bourque. “There’s a number of different STEM concepts we chatted about. We got the students to engage and understand that connection between traditional knowledge and a traditional home in a teepee to how scientifically and mathematically and all of the above are supported.”  

The fall camp also included lessons on harvesting, hunting, food preparation and archery. Students also learned which type of wood was best for fires. They also learned knots for building tripods to cook over fires. 

Bourque said he hopes students take the opportunity for self-reflection and self-development.  

“If they can take anything away, the memories, the understanding and the appreciation for the teachings, that would be a success for me,” said Bourque. 

“I know similarly from my youth and being able to experience a similar type of upbringing, it’s going to be something that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.”  

This item is reprinted with permission from Fort McMurray Today. See article HERE.

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