Every Monday for the last seven years, Joan ONeil has made a very familiar trip. Starting from her home in Windermere, where she works part-time at a gas station, she makes her way to her daughters house in Cranbrook. The following day, at the age of 76, Ms. ONeil goes back to school.
Its all part of the Culture cannot be programmed; it is lived program that has been a staple at Mount Baker Secondary School in Cranbrook and was recently awarded second place in the Canadian Innovators in Education Awards sponsored by Readers Digest. The project was originally created to enhance the education Aboriginal learners at Mount Baker, proving to be a vital program to the student body of 1,000, 15 per cent of which identify as First Nations or Metis.
Ms. ONeil, a Ktunaxa elder, said elders from St. Marys Indian Band initially contacted her with an invitation to be one of the elders who would attend the school as part of the initiative. While the program started as a monthly lunch between youth leaders and community elders attempting to establish cross-generational bonds, Ms. ONeil said she was always trying to push the program to do as much as possible for the students.
When it first started we werent really doing much and I thought okay come on, you want us here in the schools, lets start doing a little more than what were asked, she said.
Ms. ONeil asked the teachers if it would be acceptable for her to sit in on regular classes, watching the interactions between students and providing advice when needed. After establishing that relationship with the teachers, she began running tours of the St. Eugene Mission, a former residential school, which she attended.
As a residential school survivor, one of the messages she tries to pass along to Aboriginal students is to appreciate where they are in society today.
My experience to pass along to students is to find yourself, be true to yourself and be happy with who you are, she said. Theres so much opportunities for aboriginal students today that they can go much further into their education than what we had in our time.
Since the creation of the initiative, the district boasts a 76 per cent Aboriginal graduation rate, which is only two per cent below the non-Aboriginal rate and 10 per cent higher than it was a half-decade ago.
Ms. ONeil said that she has enjoyed being a part of the project and hopes her advice will make a difference in youth throughout the future.
I think it will make them more confident to further their education and be who they want to be. Theres nothing stopping them, she said.