THUNDER BAY, ON ----- March 5, 2012 ---- Biwaase’aa, a program that has been successful in transforming the lives of Aboriginal children in Thunder Bay for the past eight years is facing closure due to funding shortages.
Program Manager Paul Francis explained that since 2004 the program has received a substantial share of its funding from the Federal government’s national Urban Aboriginal Strategy, under the auspices of the Federal Interlocutor, a branch of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development. However he said that, as of March 31, 2012, they have been advised that this funding will no longer be provided. Francis said that both short-term funding from April – June 2012 and long-term funding is required to keep the program alive.
Biwaase’aa has been designed to service urban Aboriginal children and families in Thunder Bay. Since 2004 Biwaase’aa has been working in Thunder Bay’s elementary schools to support Aboriginal student success. A team of Aboriginal Youth Outreach Workers currently work in seven elementary schools: McKellar Park Central, Ecole Gron Morgan, Ogden Community, Sherbrooke, Westmount, Our Lady of Charity and St. Ann schools.
Filling the gap of the Thunder Bay Indian Friendship Centre’s Little Beavers program, Biwaase’aa went one step further, taking the program inside the schools to the urban Aboriginal children. Also benefiting from the program are non-Aboriginal students who are welcome to participate in Biwaase’aa programs. Francis explained, “Biwaase’aa is for everyone and with this approach cultural understanding takes place at an early age”.
One example of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children working together is the Little Eagle Singers. This initiative was started over three years ago by former Youth Outreach Worker Rob Spade, working with about 20 boys and girl at McKellar Park Central School. The students give up lunch and recess to practice and also practiced after-school to learn the many teachings of the drum. The Little Eagle Singers is now led by Youth Outreach Worker Touchan Fiddler who continues to provide the daily guidance and support required. To date the Little Eagle Singers have performed at many community functions such as the re-opening of City Hall, the Folklore Festival, the Chiefs’ meeting, the International Day for Elimination of Racial Discrimination Breakfast and the Special Convocation for Phil Fontaine’s Honorary Doctor of Law degree from Lakehead University. The Little Eagle Singers will also be the Special Honorary Drum at the Annual Lakehead University Native Student Association Powwow this coming March 16th-18th.
“You have to have respect to be able to drum on the drum. It is not just given to you, it’s a privilege, you have to earn it” - member of Little Eagle Singers
At Ecole Gron Morgan School, Youth Outreach Worker Ryan Gustafson has a big task with over 700 students. However, as he explains, he is up for the challenge.
“I have been going into one class per day to do cultural presentations on the four sacred medicines, four colors and four directions”, he says.
In addition to that Gustafson facilitates the Roots of Empathy Program to the grade 1 and 2 classes, has mentored a high school student placement through the Work and Learn program as well as completed hand drums and teachings as part of his mentorship program with students at Ecole Gron Morgan.
(Picture from Aki of Ryan in Roots of Empathy Program)
Nathaniel Moses, who has been with the Biwaase’aa from the beginning and has helped build the program, has been at Sherbrooke and Ecole Gron Morgan and now works in Our Lady of Charity School. Moses stresses the importance of teachings not found in the text books. He says, “As a First Nation traditional dancer and drum keeper of Dark Cloud, I utilize these as tools to teach in the classroom and mentor all students in Our Lady of Charity School.”
Moses teaches Our Lady of Charity students on Dark Cloud drum he carries as part of his in-school mentorship and role modeling.
At Sherbrooke Public School with over half the student population identifying as Aboriginal, Youth Outreach Worker Sarah Wright finds many ways to empower the students. Wright has taken the lead and started a student council to develop leadership skills in the students and also delivers a girl power group. Wright is also active in the classroom sharing traditional stories and supporting students with literacy on a daily basis. Wright has also been busy organizing a powwow which will take place March 9th. First organized in 2004 by Biwaase’aa staff, the powwow has become an annual event.
Biwaase’aa is supporting the framework laid out by the Ministry of Educations “Aboriginal Policy Framework, 2007” across seven schools daily. In addition Biwaase’aa delivers nutritious snacks and lunch program, along with the after-school program.
Paul Francis said that the name Biwaase’aa speaks to that early part of the day when the sun is coming up and there is a feeling of hope in people’s hearts.
“The Biwaase’aa program has an outstanding record of providing Aboriginal people in Thunder Bay with hope for the future, “ he said.