My family chose the same summer vacation spot for 25 straight years. It was right on Okanagan Lake and for two weeks we would rent a tiny cabin along with fifteen other families. During this time, it would not be inaccurate to describe my twin brother and I as amphibious: We spent many hours of each day swimming, windsurfing, waterskiing, paddling and snorkelling. Okanagan Lake is known for many things but snorkelling is not one of them; there was little to see beyond a muddy bottom and the odd carp which would immediately dart away when approached. But each day, we spent hours snorkelling usually in search of the golf balls our friends would drive into the water. Sometimes, we were contracted to find a lost pair of sunglasses.
Despite a delusional fear of sharks, I developed an extraordinary comfort with water. It may be that my dad was an Olympic swimmer or it may be that my brothers and I grew up on Okanagen Lake and within reach of Howe Sound, my experiences as a child have had a profound influence on how I live my life: where I have chosen to live, who I choose to spend time with, and my understanding of my interests and abilities.
I share this because my experiences as a youth have shaped my identity. The stories of my childhood that I tell myself, and others, help me understand who I am and what I believe in. Our experiences become the stories we tell and our stories shape our identity.
For several years now, BICS, along with all other BC public schools, has created an Aboriginal Education School Plan. The plan’s purpose is to ensure our school, including each of our classrooms and the culture of our school generally, is a welcoming space for aboriginal students and also provides programming – both in content and approach to learning – that teaches students about the First Peoples of Canada. As West Vancouver Schools are on the traditional territory of the Skwxwú7mesh stelmexw (Squamish People), there is a particular emphasis on learning about the Skwxwú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation).
Our plans have often focused on storytelling and that is the case again this year. One of the First People’s Principles of Learning is that, “learning is embedded in memory, history and story,” so this seems like a natural focus. Another principle of learning is that “learning involves exploration of one’s identity,” and so, our focus for our 2015-2016 Aboriginal Education Plan is for students to create and share stories with others that relate to their identity.
It is our hope that through composing personal stories, in the form of writings, illustrations, dances, or some other medium, students will come to understand three key ideas.
First, that our experiences become the stories we tell ourselves. Second, that our stories, along with our sense of belonging and place, shape our identity. And finally, that some people have the courage to share their stories with others while other people have the courage to carry their stories alone.
Students will likely have little difficulty pulling events from their past that they think are likely to affect the rest of their lives: witnessing a Sea Lion off the coast of Tunstall Bay is likely to encourage a student to look for something similar each time they look into the ocean. When a moment like that happens, a nature lover is “born” or transformed. A student may wish to create a story about their experience performing in our school’s upcoming Winter concert, and perhaps developing an identity as a performer.
And of course personal stories of experience often connect with something bigger. The opportunities we are privileged with often relate to the cultures we belong to. This aligns with the new curriculum’s Personal and Social Competency. The Competency notes, “Students who have a positive personal and cultural identity value their personal and cultural narratives, and understand how these shape their identity.” A goal of this Competency is therefore that students understand how personal and cultural narratives shape their identity.
The last understanding I noted, “That some people have the courage to share their stories with others and other people have courage to hold their stories alone,” relates in particular to the residential school system. For decades, many survivors of residential schools carried their stories alone, or shared them with just a few people. Others tried to share but often found unwelcome audiences. In recent years, more and more people are willing to share their stories – with families, with friends, and even publicly. It is truly a remarkable act of courage to do so.
Our hope is that through developing sensitivity to the difficulties in telling personal stories, our students become a receptive audience to learning more, when developmentally ready, about the residential school system. As young children, they are ready to learn a little of the experiences that children of the same age experienced not so long ago. But learning about residential schools will be a long journey and our goal is for students to become reflective members in that journey.
And all of us, storytellers and story receivers, have been shaped through the years, subtly but profoundly, by what we have not experienced. I personally have never experienced hunger, or disconnection from my family or my culture. I will continue to reflect on how this has shaped who I am and how I think of myself in the world. Storytelling – writing my own stories and listening to others– will help. We are grateful to work with members of the Squamish Nation and members of the community of Bowen Island in doing so.
The BICS Aboriginal Education Plan is here.