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2017 Kick-Ass Activist: Peyton Straker

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For Yellowknife’s Indigenous youth looking to learn more about their cultures, Peyton Straker highlights the importance of land-based education

Peyton Straker was a five-time high-school dropout when she took a job as an Indigenous support worker at the public school board in Yellowknife. Straker, 23 and Anishinaabe, knew from experience many of the ways the education system failed her. As a youth she felt displaced in schools where she couldn’t see herself reflected in the curriculum, and often instead of feeling supported, Straker got the message in school that she was somehow a problem.

When the job first came up online, Straker thought, “That sounds terrible, and I also am really under-qualified for that,” she says. She applied anyway, hoping to make a positive change. “Two weeks later I was starting the job.”

Straker began reading and learning about land-based education when she was 17. She completed an intensive immersion course at the Northwest Territory’s Dechinta Bush University, where she camped in a small isolated group, studying decolonization and experienced her first moose hunt. “Seeing the way that being on the land informs your decolonization process and your identity was what made me decide that that was what I wanted to do,” she says.

When the new position required bringing absent students back to school, Straker decided instead to go about creating something new. But it wasn’t easy. In her first days on the job she inquired about her budget. The response: “You don’t have one.” As the only person in a job that no one had ever done, Straker turned her focus toward getting what she wanted: money to improve cultural education for youth. Though she had never filled out a funding application before, she raised enough to buy a snowmobile and other supplies, and gave birth to the Traditional Mentorships Program.

The program’s purpose was to connect youth more deeply with land-based ways of life, and nurture cultural resilience. Run by and for Indigenous people, Straker saw it as an opportunity to create something she didn’t have when she was young. At first, she wrestled with questions about the school system: “Is a conventional colonial space really a space for decolonization?” she asked. “But whether or not I think that it’s the appropriate place, it’s where the kids are.”

Most teachers and parents were supportive. The students in the program would leave class from half a day to overnight to take part. “The teachers were not worried about them missing their book work,” Straker says. “It didn’t mean they got extra homework. It was just part of their week, and it was valued just as much as their science class.”

Although most of her students had some traditional knowledge, Straker noticed it was patchy. She wanted the program to give youth tangible skills they could use into adulthood. “The whole point of our knowledge systems is to pass them on,” she says. From trapping and fishing to Inuit games, the students immersed themselves in opportunities, including a week-long moose-hide tanning camp. “We also wanted to give the students the opportunity to see that the land isn’t far off, it’s not way out there somewhere,” she adds. “We live in Yellowknife. You walk across the street and you’re on one of the biggest lakes in the world.”

Straker was able to grow the program and hire one of her own former instructors, Kyle Enzoe, to teach. “It was an opportunity for us to also create jobs within the community for people who have knowledge that you can’t put a number on,” says Straker. “It’s very hard to get paid to share your traditional knowledge.”

Enzoe’s involvement gave the kids in grades 6 to 8 an opportunity to connect with someone not much older— Enzoe was 33—who was both deeply traditional and modern at once. Enzoe holds the most knowledge of anyone she knows when it comes to the land and trapping. At the same time, “He has Facebook,” Straker says.

Since its inception, the Traditional Mentorships Program has had a far reach. Straker often presents about land-based education at conferences. After seeing the positive changes this type of education had in her own life, she wants to do the same for others. “I’ve seen my life completely transform and change the more that I’ve fostered my reciprocal relationship with the land,” she says.

Although land-based education can seem trivial to some, without it Straker says she wouldn’t have ever understood why land matters. “I didn’t see myself within the land, and I didn’t see the land within myself,” she says.

She has seen similar transformations in others. “All of our collective issues within the Indigenous community—none of them exist without the land, and without land disputes.” Any conversation meant to further reconcilitation or create spaces for Indigenous youth must involve a land base, she says. Still, there is a lack of funding for such education.

If the government wants to make more money, Straker says, educating people puts them in a higher tax bracket, and that’s what land-based education has the capacity to do. “It can change our economy and our knowledge economy in the North,” she says.“Funding is really, really necessary, and it’s hard to get our hands on.”

Aside from her work at the school board, Straker also spends time making jewelry from animals she and Enzoe have harvested using traditional protocol. She’s also part of a collective called ReMatriate that works to interrupt culturally appropriative fashion and take back control over Indigenous women’s visual identities. Straker’s work is a powerful reminder of the importance of the land and its place in people’s lives—another reason for greater education.

First published in Jan/Feb 2017 issue of This Magazine

https://this.org/2017/01/25/2017-kick-ass-activist-peyton-straker/

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Questionable Sex Ed: What’s being taught in Manitoba’s schools

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http://outwords.ca/2014/issue-december-january-2014-15/questionable-sex-ed/

Promoting abstinence in sex education is what Candace Maxymowich, a Winnipeg public school board trustee candidate, did during her campaign, before she lost by a wide margin in October’s election. But her discussion on infusing the value of Christian-style abstinence into education begs the question: what are kids learning in sex ed in Winnipeg’s schools, and are they learning anything about same-sex and trans issues?

Among all of Winnipeg’s school divisions—some more progressive when it comes to sex ed than others—curriculum is mandated by the province. The physical education and health curriculum are the sections that apply to sex ed. The province’s website details a framework on how schools are to deal with “potentially sensitive content,” of which sex ed is a part.

Requiring a planning process that includes parental involvement, school divisions make independent decisions about sex ed, including content, how it is taught, how it’s graded and what resources are used to teach it. Not teaching it at all is an option, as the framework gives school divisions the power to decide how much depth and breadth to give the topic. There is also an opt-out for parents who’d like their children to learn the subject by another means if they disagree with what the school’s doing.

Winnipeg’s schools are many, and range from Dakota Collegiate, which is hosting an upcoming national gay-straight alliance conference in May, to others that have faced controversies over Bill 18 and over transgender students.

When it comes to sex education, what is being taught varies widely as well.

“It’s division-to-division on what kind of language they use,” says Roselle Paulsen, program director at Winnipeg’s Sexuality Education Resource Centre (SERC). She was consulted on the health curriculum when it was created and published in 2000. “There are different approaches to how people interpret the student learning outcomes. So if you see a word like ‘diversity,’ or those kinds of things, people are going to interpret them differently.”

Paulsen points to a couple of examples in the curriculum. The first, a learning outcome for Grade 7, tells teachers to “identify effects of social influences on sexuality and gender roles.” Topics like violence against women, media ads, gender equity and culture are generally covered under this topic, Paulsen says. But “Somebody who wants to take more latitude could say that when we talk about gender roles we could delve much more deeply into things like gender identity and social morays.”

It’s up to the interpretation of the school divisions. Another example is in grade five where the curriculum talks about celebrating all kinds of families—again open to interpretation. By Grade 9, sexual orientation is named explicitly. Since it’s included, Paulsen says there should be no reason for schools not to talk about same-sex issues within the context of sex ed, although some don’t. “The frustration with this sort of document, is on the one hand, sexuality education within the health curriculum is mandated. On the other hand, the department says, but each division in the province can determine, based on their own community needs, the depth and breadth of what they provide. That’s the problem.”

Vycki Atallah has also seen a wide variation between what is taught in sex ed. As co-ordinator of Klinic Community Health Centre’s Teen Talk program, she’s invited into schools to give sex ed talks when schools want more. “It can really look a lot different in different schools and communities. For some schools and communities, we’re really welcome, and come in, and some classes get multiple workshops from us; and other schools and school divisions simply don’t book us; don’t extend an invitation for us to come into their school.”

Teen Talk approaches sex ed in line with the provincial curriculum, but from an anti-oppressive standpoint, which includes education about healthy relationships, and the range of genders and sexuality. Their workshops make it clear that all types of couples are valued on an equal level and that body parts can belong to people of any gender, says Atallah.

She says Seven Oaks School Division and Winnipeg One are among the most progressive on these fronts she’s worked with.

Anastasia Chipelski, who works with service providers who talk to teens about sex in her capacity as health educator at Nine Circles Community Health Centre, says she doesn’t think the majority of teens are learning their sex education in schools anyway. The teens her clients are in contact with are way ahead of any adults who are teaching them about sex. “Who knows where the teens are learning it from?” she says. “They’re not learning it in schools.” One guess she has is they’re getting information from well-informed peers.

Perhaps one piece of the puzzle is that the curriculum schools are teaching needs updating, says Paulsen. “Everybody agrees that it [does],” she says. “Things have changed a lot.”

“We have a spectrum of how people identify and their attractions, and all of those kinds of things.
If we’re going to be inclusive and comprehensive and provide a safe space for all students, then it is time to be realistic and pragmatic, and let’s not pretend that this isn’t an issue.”

Published in OutWords Magazine, Dec 2014


–Larkin Schmiedl is a freelance writer living and working in Vancouver, B.C. He loves to write about social and environmental justice.

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