Life in Local #92: Nisga’a Teachers’ Union

“Things seem lighter somehow. I have a good feeling about the year ahead,” a teacher commented as the general meeting of Nisga’a Teachers’ Union (NTU) concluded on the first day of school. Others concurred. The new Métis principal of the K-12 school in the tiny district had smudged the school with sage and sweet grass and placed a cedar bow above the office door, to move good energy into their collective place of learning.

With 47 members, the NTU is one of the BCTF’s smallest locals. Worries about recruitment proved unfounded. President Rich Hotson announced all openings were filled and welcomed the newest teachers to the union. Among them, Nisga’a community member Joy Henry, fresh from teacher training, is teaching in her home village. Others came from Surrey, Manitoba, even the Philippines by way of the USA. Baljit Singh, a math specialist from India who did his teacher training in Ontario, is beginning his first teaching job in Canada; his wife, an elementary teacher, will soon join him. Two highly qualified band teachers have arrived and a retired counsellor has returned, unfazed by last night’s bear paw prints on his camper. Asked for their first impressions, all mentioned the stunning landscape and the supportive and welcoming attitudes of colleagues and community members. Union Vice-President Charity Peal values the influx of teachers from afar, noting that, “We need balance too, our kids benefit from diversity.”

An impressive totem pole regally fronts the school, raised in 1977 to mark the establishment of the school district. From the 1900s to the 1960s, Nisga’a children were taken from their homeland to residential schools, and this legacy is not far beneath the surface. Since the treaty settlement in 1998, the Nisga’a government has control over their education system, welcoming a public school in each village. Nisga’a language and culture are core curriculum, in addition to offering the best all round education. Several Nisga’a teachers are pursuing graduate degrees that focus on linking theory to culturally appropriate practice.

Within four tiny villages nested in the spectacular Nass River Valley, the NTU enjoys positive, professional, mutually supportive relationships with the school board, district officials, and the communities they serve. A unique feature of their local collective agreement is the cultural leave provision that allows teachers additional time off to perform traditional Nisga’a funeral duties. It also contains unique language that affirms professional autonomy. Last spring, they hosted a regional conference, proudly showcasing their volcanic lava beds, museum, traditional foods, medicines, and arts.

Challenges centre on adequate teacher housing. Health and safety representative, Lena Griffin, successfully advocated for upgrades to repair structures and remove mould. She expressed appreciation to the BCTF and her zonal counterparts for advice. Her photo of a massive black mould growing on the ceiling of the boy’s washroom certainly got their attention! This year she is hoping for school infrastructure funding.

Declining enrollment remains an issue, along with the need to educate youth in ways that support their career and life choices. For this year though, recruitment challenges have been resolved.

When Peal started teaching in 2001, she was concerned that no Nisga’a teachers were on the local executive. She and a colleague nominated each other for every position, saying, “We need to put the N in the NTU!” Now, a number of young, energetic, highly committed Nisga’a teachers shoulder their fair share of union positions, and are impressive role models for their students.

Gitwinksihlkw Elementary hosts ceremony for the new school yearGitwinksihlkw Elementary hosts ceremony for the new school year

The Gitwinksihlkw Elementary School year opened with a community breakfast in the village hall. Then, in full regalia, chiefs and matriarchs drummed and chanted as they led the excited children along the road to the school, where their teachers waited in front. The assistant superintendent welcomed everyone, and each clan chief spoke in Nisga’a and English, advising the children to show respect for their teachers and to make the most out of their education. Students were reminded that the village gave the land for the school because they wanted their children close to home, not to have to take a bus. One chief asked the children to imagine what their Elders had experienced every September, being taken to residential schools, far from home. “Now you have every modern technology here. It is up to you children to go as far as you can go.”

Turning to the teachers and teacher aids standing before them, one chief said, “We are here to thank you and to support you. The whole community is behind you 100%.” Another added, “This is our Nisga’a School, make sure decisions are made with parents and school district involved.”

To symbolize the community entrusting their children to the school staff, the chiefs and Elders together proffered a beautifully carved talking stick, and staff members stepped forward, placed their hands on top, and received a Nisga’a blessing. Then Principal Tanya Azak held the stick upright, thanked everyone and announced, “The doors to the school are always open to the community.” With joyous cheers, everyone flooded in and the eager children found their teachers and classrooms.

This article was written by Marian Dodds and was originally published in the September/October 2017 edition of Teacher magazine.

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