By Chadd Cawson
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
“I always question what my journey to reconciliation is,” said Faye O’Neil, an Indigenous coordinator with Southeast Kootenay School District 5 in Cranbrook. “What I do know is that the truth must come first, the truth of the past for us to move forward.”
O’Neil, born on the homelands of ?ama?kis Ktunaxa at the headwaters of the micqaqas akinmituk (Chickadee and Columbia River), was welcomed as the second virtual guest speaker for Every Child Matters-4 Seasons of Reconciliation learning opportunity. It was launched on February 15, and will run until June 25. Duncan Whittick, executive director of Columbia Basin Environmental Education Network (CBEEN) and co-founder of Every Child Matters Year-long Learning Challenge, expected 750 people to attend live, while over 1500 would tune into O’Neil’s session at a later time.
“Faye has been working for over 20 years in the public education sector, and 21 years promoting and braiding Indigenous worldviews and perspectives into classrooms,” said Whittick. “I’ve personally worked with Faye for about five years now, and as a Ktunaxa educator who is from Kyak?nuq?i?it (Invermere), she has been an incredible mentor. I’ve been able to collaborate with her, in finding ways to better support and elevate Indigenous Knowledge and perspectives into both classrooms and communities. It means a lot to be able to continue to deepen our work together through this learning initiative, as she shares her story, along with insights, ideas, and inspiration to support educators in advancing their personal learning journey.”
Jenna Jasek, a Shuswap Band member with Ktunaxa ancestry, is an Indigenous advisor for the Outdoor Learning Store and the vice principal for Indigenous Learning and Equity with Rocky Mountain School District 6. Last year she piloted Every Child Matters: 4 Seasons of Reconciliation in partnership with Reconciliation Education and First Nations University. Before introducing O’Neil, Jasek spoke about the importance of learning off the land.
“Learning off the land is so important, I believe it is our greatest teacher,” said Jasek. “It’s so important that we learn where we are from and our surroundings because the eco-systems are here for a reason, they take care of the land so that we can live here in a good way. Non-Indigenous and Indigenous educators – we all need to take steps to understand Truth and Reconciliation so that we can engage in Indigenous knowledge and perspectives in a reciprocal way.”
Jasek said O’Neil is an Indigenous Coordinator with Southeast Kootenay School District 5 (Cranbrook), sits on CBEEN’s board of directors, and among many things, has also been influential in development of The Outdoor Learning Store.
She added O’Neil has been her mentor and has taught her so much.
O’Neil said that all her knowledge is not her own, but all around her. It is in two-legged, and all, creatures with four legs or more. It is in the winged and finned creatures, the land, the air, water, and plants.
“I believe it is my duty to share this information,” said O’Neil. “I’m telling you my truth, and I’m trusting you with it.”
O’Neil spoke of her Ktunaxa lineage, which includes Chief Isadore, who was her third great grandfather, and her grandfather, Private Toby Nicholas who fought in World War II. Nicholas sadly did not return home. Both O’Neil’s mother and grandmother attended residential schools and saw the horrors of them firsthand. O’Neil opened her heart and shared her truth that while her culture was not often spoken about growing up, she felt different.
“I knew I was treated differently,” said O’Neil. “I was called names in school, there was racism by teachers, and there was racism by parents.”
O’Neil said the importance of weaving Indigenous understandings into the classrooms and a framed the big question of who is reconciliation really for? She shared many perspectives including hard hitting words of former Canadian Senate member and First Nations lawyer Murray Sinclair. Sinclair said,
“For reconciliation to work, it needs to be a consistent climb, or a bend or a weave for all. It cannot be a pick or choose option.”