A conversation on treaty education with the MK, Nova Scotia’s Mi'kmaw school board | Education | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST

A conversation on treaty education with the MK, Nova Scotia’s Mi'kmaw school board

“Teachers want to teach treaty education, they’re just scared to get it wrong”

October is Mi’kmaw History Month in Nova Scotia. It began with the 37th annual Treaty Day on Oct.1, but treaty education in Nova Scotia continues long after the last Halloween pumpkins are smashed thanks to Mi’kmaw educators across the province, in tandem with the provincial government.

Nova Scotia is a part of Mi'kma'ki, but the land of the Mi’kmaq is larger than just Nova Scotia, encompassing all of Atlantic Canada and parts of Maine. Understanding that this territory moves beyond provincial borders goes hand-in-hand with understanding the living treaties that govern Mi’kma’ki.

A conversation on treaty education with the MK, Nova Scotia’s Mi'kmaw school board
The Mi’kmawey Debert Cultural Centre
"A map of Mi’kma’ki, showing the Mi’kmaw homeland. The district names convey characteristics of the land. Kespe’k meanslast water or land. Siknikt signifies a drainage area. S-ipekne’katik is the wild potato area. Kespukwitk translates to the last flow. Epekwitk and Piwktuk names the lying in the water place and the explosive place, respectively. Eskikewa’kik is the skindressers’Welcome—Pjila’si territory. Lastly, Unama’ki aqq Ktaqmkuk are the foggy lands and the land across the water, respectively."

The Mi’kmawey Debert Cultural Centre is one site for Mi’kmaw treaty education. Their website says: “Mi’kma’ki is governed by the Treaties of Peace and Friendship, which Mi’kmaq Wəlastəkwiyik (Maliseet), and the Passamaquoddy Peoples, first signed with the British Crown in 1726.

“These treaties did not surrender lands or resources, instead they recognized Mi’kmaq and Wəlastəkwiyik (Maliseet) titles and established the treaties as living documents to use within a nation-to-nation relationship.”

This is what the phrase “We are all treaty people” means, because the treaties apply to all people living in Nova Scotia.

In 2015, the provincial government and Mi’kmaq in Nova Scotia created a new partnership called Treaty Education Nova Scotia. Says the agreement, Treaty Education Nova Scotia “commits to teach treaty education in all classrooms, grades and schools across Nova Scotia, not just in the Mi’kmaq ones. It also ensures that the general public and public service benefit from treaty education.” The work of this partnership is guided by four basic questions: Who are the Mi’kmaq historically and today? What are the treaties and why are they important? What happened to the treaty relationship? What are we doing to reconcile our shared history to ensure justice and equity?

Mi’kmaq Services is a branch of the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development—the EECD—that works with Mi’kmaq “as a conduit between [the department]” and Mi’kmaw communities in Nova Scotia Mi’kma’ki, says their website. Through Mi’kmaq Services, the EECD connects with communities through the Mi'kmaw Kina'matnewey Education Working Group and others.

The Mi’kmaw Kina'matnewey (meeg’-mah’ gee-na-muden-āwāy), or MK, works as a Mi’kmaw school board within Nova Scotia Mi’kma’ki. The MK shares and publishes learning resources with the EECD for grade-specific curriculum development on treaty education, land and water based learning, a Mi’kmaw-English lexicon and more. The MK is responsible for educational support and advocacy for 12 out of the 13 Mi’kmaq communities across Nova Scotian Mi’kma’ki territory, as a collective voice for Mi’kmaw education.

The Coast recently spoke with Jacqueline Prosper, who is the treaty education lead at the MK and a member of the Paqtnkek Mi'kmaw Community. She is part of a team that releases teacher resources to all schools in the province. She shared her thoughts on the importance of treaty education in Nova Scotia and continuing Mi’kmaw History Month all year round.

Interview condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

The Coast: First off, how do you define “Kina'matnewey?”

Jacqueline Prosper: “Kina'matnewey”' is a place of learning. So, Mi'kmaw Kina'matnewey is the—I don't know if authority is the proper word, but—we're definitely the educational advocates for Mi'kma'ki, Nova Scotia. Mi'kma'ki, of course, is much bigger than just Nova Scotia alone. The seven districts cover Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, PEI, Newfoundland and parts of Maine. But because of colonized provincial boundaries, we can only govern our part of the district as a province. So, we're the Mi'kmaw education authority for Nova Scotia. We're not there to dictate or direct each community's educational journey for their students. We're there to support and facilitate anything that they need and require between them and the province.

A conversation on treaty education with the MK, Nova Scotia’s Mi'kmaw school board
Mi'kmaw Kina'matnewey
Pronunciation of "Kina'matnewey" shared by Mi’kmaw Language Technician Beverly Jeddore at the MK.

And, how many schools are a part of the MK?

So, 12 of the 13 bands are defined under the Mi'kmaw Kina'matnewey. Everybody except for Millbrook. There are a couple of communities that don't have grade schools.

Do any communities have high schools?

A few of the communities have them. I think four of the five Unama'ki—Cape Breton—communities have high schools and then Sipekne’katik—Shubenacadie. I think other communities have learning spaces for high school students but not necessarily a school.

So, in thinking about the partnership that the Mi'kmaw Kina'matenewey has with the provincial government, provincial schools and the general public, is there anything specific happening this year?

Well, there's everything that gets rolled out for September. Of course, there's the Truth and Reconciliation Week that leads up to Truth and Reconciliation Day. And sort of bringing in all that information for all grades about residential schools, Indian day schools, the “Sixties scoop” and things like that. And [our resources] gear the information depending on the age.

I've worked in partnership over the last couple of years with the Department of Education developing learning experiences and supporting their work, and putting together what they call Orange Shirt Day packages. And then, of course, there's learning experiences that are geared towards Treaty Day. The Mi'kmaw History Month poster sort of opens those things up and leads into the beginning of Mi'kmaw History Month. We'll support the Department of Education and any classroom teachers that are looking to develop learning experiences to go with those.

And then, for me, I try not to focus on Mi'kmaw History Month alone. We're Mi'kmaq all year round. There are Mi'kmaw students in all schools, it's not just the community schools or in provincial schools, and not everybody self-identifies.

I taught in the public school for about nine years. I taught in a provincial school. And my biggest thing was: we're taught in the education program that school is like a second home to students. They'll spend more waking hours with their teachers and the school staff during the school year than they will their own families. And it's important for students to see themselves in the curriculum. Well, our students were not seeing themselves in the curriculum.

A conversation on treaty education with the MK, Nova Scotia’s Mi'kmaw school board
Mi'kmaw Kina'matnewey treaty education 2023
A page in the MK's treaty education learning experiences resource geared towards Grade 5 students in social studies.

You know, in my personal experience growing up in the provincial school, it was embarrassing when we'd get to the Native American section in the book, and you see the words like Indian and the word "savages" being thrown around. Those were my personal experiences.

And then I was so excited to graduate. And I was a social studies teacher. So my portfolio was teaching the core Mi'kmaw language from Grades 4 to 9. I taught social studies [Grade] 7, and I taught Mi'kmaw studies at the time, it was [Grade] 10. And there was one little section in the book [called] “Investigating empowerment.” And you're supposed to be learning about diversity and things like that, and what built the governance that we have today. And the only thing they had in there about Mi'kmaq was the power center in Millbrook.

First of all, that's only one community. First Nations people are diverse across Canada, which I realized a lot of non-Mi'kmaw students didn't realize—they just thought Mi'kmaw was Indian, Indian was Mi'kmaw, it was just: “They're in Canada,” and that was about the extent they knew about it—so, there was nothing about our governance [in those books]. It didn't represent us as a nation living with a nation.

We're always communicated like we were wards of the country, and that we were uneducated, and uncivilized and we needed to be saved when the territory was “discovered,” so to speak. And then [for me] to be able to have the opportunity to not only teach non-Mi'kmaw children about the beauty of being Mi'kmaq, but to have Mi'kmaw students be able to hear themselves being represented in a more positive manner….

And I, of course, understand how governance works. Being a Mi'kmaw woman who lives in the community, and my experience with politics was all through the Indian Act chief and councils and Grand Council and things that pertain to us directly. I didn't know or understand much about the regular provincial government. So, I had to kind of teach myself that while I was teaching it to my students. And I taught it in parity. I made sure that both [Mi’kmaw and non-Mikmaw governance] were parallel with each other, and kind of tried to communicate [ours] as being just as valid, and just as important to understand.

And how did you come to teach treaty education?

So when I first started in treaty education, I was a resource consultant. I was a part of the team that wrote the treaty education framework for curriculum writing. And that's where I found my passion. I worked on different teams while I was teaching to help revamp the Mi'kmaw Studies curriculum. And we upgraded that to a Grade 11 course, because of the content and things like that. And [I worked] on different learning experiences. So, that's kind of where I found my passion in the work. So, since I started work as the consultant and then later became the treaty education lead when my predecessor [Jaime Battiste] went off to be the MLA representative in [the Sydney-Victoria, Cape Breton] district, my work has been around developing very comprehensive resources about Mi'kmaw people and have as much Mi'kmaq involved as possible.

In working with the Department [of Education], they believe wholeheartedly that when it comes to teaching about Mi'kmaq it should be Mi'kmaq first-voice. There should always be Mi'kmaq at the table, and not as the voice of the nation, but as your contact and your connection to communities, elders, and knowledge keepers whether it's in traditionalism, cultural education, what have you. And just being able to have those supports in the classroom.

We have a signed memorandum of understanding—MOU—that treaty education is to be implemented into the provincial curriculum. So, teachers want to teach treaty education, they're just scared to get it wrong. There's a lot of information out there: some is accurate, some isn't.

But, the Department of Education develops work and their mantra is that everything is to be authentic, accurate and done with a sense of spirituality, which isn't religion. But I think that's one of the first lessons that has to come out, it has to have that spiritual connection, to who Mi'kmaq are as the keepers of this land. That's what the Wabanaki nation is, and Mi'kmaq are part of that. So, it's just answering those four treaty education questions: Who are the Mi'kmaq historically and today? What are treaties? Why are they important? What happened to the treaty relationship? And what are we doing to reconcile that relationship? So, my work is grounded in reconciling that relationship and answering the calls to reconciliation. So, this year, we've been able to release a lot of the resources that we've been working on for a while. And, boy, have I learned about publishing by way of that!

Well, I have to say, the website and the resources page is wonderful. It's super user-friendly. It's really accessible.

Wonderful. Thank you.

Can you talk about which are the newest posted resources?

Since just before the summer break, almost everything that's up there listed under treaty education was released. So, the first couple that we had put up were the land and water based resources. And then the treaty education supplementary learning experiences from Grade 4 to 9. The [Grade] 4 to 9 learning experience book, my lead before me, asked some Mi'kmaw teachers to try and develop some cross-curricular learning experiences that connect it to the treaty education framework. So, just trying to bring that Mi'kmaq-ness into as many subjects as possible was the goal. 

Why is that important?

A lot of times when you're learning about another nation, it lives in social studies. But we really wanted to take that to all subjects. So I've created partnerships with ...teachers that work in math and science disciplines, specifically… for the land and water based [education]: we had asked for a few ideas for some teachers, and then I contracted somebody who is not only very versed in literacy, and had an English degree because that's not common in Mi'kmaw people, but had a connection with the ceremony and elders, and she wrote the land and water based learning experiences. So it's got a little bit from Grades P to 12.

Of course, we had to keep the provincial schools in mind as there's not as much freedom in a provincial school to practice land and water based Mi'kmaw education. So, you want to be able to keep all of that in mind so that all teachers are able to use it. It wouldn't necessarily be the same way that community schools, who have more access to elders and knowledge keepers who have knowledge of medicines, natural plants and animals, those relationships, [would be able to teach it]. And then the treaty education resource for Nova Scotia teachers that started out as a high school document, and then the concepts that we developed were fairly heavy and required a pretty deep knowledge base. So, we decided to make that a teacher resource. And the vision behind what it grew into was that this should be accessible to all teachers. And some have asked, “Well, maybe just take ‘teachers’ off it to make it accessible to all Nova Scotians.” Because it pretty much gives some background to us as a nation pre-contact up to today. And if you want more information, the resources and all the sources of the information are listed there. You dive in as deep as you need to, but it at least gives you the accurate information to make those connections to outcomes.

I want to talk about grade-specific teaching of treaty education and how it relates to everything else in the classroom. When do public schools and Mi’kmaw community schools start teaching treaty education?

In community, I think it just kind of happens more naturally. They're Mi'kmaw in a Mi'kmaw community, so even non-Mi'kmaw teachers will always make connections with their co-workers to bring more Mi'kmaw-ness into the classroom. In the provincial schools, treaty education starts right from primary and goes all the way through. And, the province is always updating its curriculum. So, over the last five years, [the province] has been working on different grades’ curriculum. So, they've done Grades P-2, they're working on [Grades] 3 and 4, and I think they wrote a new Grade seven social studies curriculum. They're working on [Grades] 5 to 6. So, they're implementing it across the board. And, as I mentioned before, we redid the Mi'kmaw history course or Mi'kmaw studies, rather, quite a few years back. But they're all living documents. So, anything new or anything that's newly developed, that always gets added to the teacher portals, the treaty resource for teachers and the peace and friendship magazine.

A conversation on treaty education with the MK, Nova Scotia’s Mi'kmaw school board
Mi'kmaw Kina'matnewey treaty education 2023
A page in the MK's treaty education resource geared towards Grade 8 students in English language arts.

And, generally, are there some pretty large gaps between what a student in Grade 4 would know about treaty education, and Mi'kmaw studies in, say, a public school in Dartmouth versus a Grade 4 student in an MK community school?

Yeah, I'd say there'd be a huge difference just because you're immersed in the environment. They're Mi'kmaw themselves so, you know, you get that kitchen table education. You get to be home and talk about it as opposed to where, in Dartmouth, you might not have as much exposure or connection to Mi'kmaw culture and language and people in general.

But in theory, both classroom teachers have access to the same documents. Not experience or place, or people. But are teaching resources the same?

For the most part, yeah. There should be the same access to—outside of language documents—the same curriculum documents, yeah. It's the “people resources” that are missing.

The ‘people resources, yeah. And, what about the Conseil Scolaire Acadien Provincial—CSAP? Do they receive teaching resources in French?

Yes. The Department of Education can't list anything that's not in French. So, we've worked with them in partnership. Anything we develop, we share. They hire people to translate [our resources] and then our designers [make sure] that the books look the same. They're just completely translated. It can take longer for the French versions to come out, unfortunately.

But when you publish them, they're released at roughly the same time? And is it before the school year or during?

I make [our resources] available to the community schools' teachers immediately. I share their online source with the Department [of Education], they share it with translators, and then, however the tape cutting works, they get it.

And how important do you think representation is? Not just with teachers, but with all people who are working in education?

I think it's of the utmost importance. You know, it's great to make connections with teachers, but really who are the leaders in the schools and in the different regions? So, those are the people that need to be within reach and they have to kind of buy in, I guess you could call it. If the administrations and the regional representatives aren't on board, then it's hard to make those changes and, you know, convince them that they're forever learners. You know, we don't know everything, and sometimes it's just as important to unlearn something as it is to learn something new.

That’s a powerful phrase, thank you. And, what are your feelings about teaching October as Mi'kmaw History Month versus teaching Mi'kmaw history, Mi'kmaw studies throughout the year? Do you think that is something the public school system is doing?

It's starting to be more. I think there are some teachers that still sort of bring it out for October and then put it away again in November. And I think there are a lot of teachers out there that are very keen to try and incorporate Mi'kmaw ways of being and knowing in all subject matters and in all lessons. I think it's a difficult thing to do overnight. But, you know, the work and the commitment and the support is definitely there. But it's like anything else, right? Some are on board and some aren't.

It's difficult to speculate on why, I suppose. Aside from the work the MK does, what is another way to support continuous integrated learning of Mi'kmaw studies throughout the school year for teachers? And, you're right, that I think it is probably harder for public school teachers to do because they don't have, as you call them, the people resources.

I think just continuing and supporting the province's work in trying to achieve this. The Mi'kmaw Service Branch at EECD has grown just so much over the last couple of years. They've gone from two to three employees to a team of 12, which is still small compared to most divisions within the department, but you know, the executive director and directors, they're really keen about this work, they believe in it wholeheartedly. And they're really practicing, you know, their motto of accurate, authentic and connected to spirit. And then really just incorporating Mi'kmaq ways of being and knowing across the board. It's a small voice, but it's a strong voice.

And I think if we continue our working partnerships, I think we'll be able to grow that. But it takes time. Learning and developing resources, it's not an overnight thing. And if they ever decide to [get rid of this], I'm opening a Mi'kmaw publishing company. (Laughs)

Would you like to share a frustration that you've had doing this work?

(Laughs) That's a whole other article. You know: funding. Funding to support this work, and being able to find avenues to bring in more people resources. Like, the treaty education team is a small team. There's myself and my project coordinator-slash-admin who work out of MK. And then at the Office of L'nu Affairs there's the director of treaty education and a policy analyst. And then we, as a team, work in partnership with all these other organizations. So, it would be nice to see support in building and growing [our team] to be able to do this work.

And then on the flip side of that, what is the part of this work that encourages you to keep doing it?

I love this work. I think I've always believed in treaty education before it was coined “treaty education.” I believe that our students deserve to see themselves in the curriculum, and on a more positive and functional note. You know, history is a hard thing to undo the learning of—just the misconceptions. You know, taking it to a place where kids aren't fighting the fact that they're Mi'kmaw but being proud to be able to embrace their Mi'kmaw-ness in a learning environment, and not in a way of being made the spokesperson for a whole nation. And that's teachers not putting their students on the spot to be that voice, but instead they're taking the ownership to be able to learn and understand a whole other nation. To understand that we've always been a nation. We're a sovereign people. We're proud. There was nothing wrong with us when contact happened. And, you know, owning the cultural genocide that we've suffered over the years, and rebuilding relationships on a different table. And that’s a table of mutual respect and understanding.

Thank you so much. I really appreciate your time.

About The Author

Lauren Phillips, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Lauren Phillips is The Coast’s Education Reporter, a position created in September 2023 with support from the Local Journalism Initiative. Lauren is a graduate of the journalism program at the University of King’s College, and has written on education and sports at Dal News and Saint Mary's Athletics for over...
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