Loving Mercy
Teaching in Indigenous communities
6 min. read
March 1, 2016

For many years, Redeemer was known, fairly or not, as a “Dutch school.” As it has grown, however, Redeemer has become much more diverse, not just in its students and faculty, but also in its curriculum and in the communities its graduates impact. One area where this can be seen is in education, where our graduates, armed with their Ontario College of Teachers designation, are entering the public as well as the Christian school systems.

From right next door to about as far away in Ontario as you can get from Ancaster, Redeemer graduates are teaching in a number of First Nations communities. Christina DeVries ’11 has been teaching on the Six Nations reserve in Oshweken, about 25 kilometres from Ancaster, for five years. Starting with her first education class at Redeemer, she was very intentional about wanting to teach in an Indigenous community. “One of my professors at the time, Dr. Mary Ashun, challenged us to consider what part of education touched our hearts. I chose to learn more about education about Canada’s First Nations.”

After making her decision, DeVries attended events on the Six Nations reserve and completed one of her teaching practicums there. She further prepared for work on the reserve by completing an AQ (Additional Qualification) course in teaching First Nations, Métis and Inuit children. Shortly after graduating, she accepted a post at one of the five schools on the Six Nations reserve.

Brooke Palahnuk ’13 and Erin Taylor ’13 are also working in a First Nations school, but their commute is a bit longer. Eenchokay Birchstick School, on the Pikangikum First Nation reserve, is a four-hour flight from Thunder Bay, Ontario. Several other Redeemer grads–Julia Wybrow and Sarah Mork, how also graduated in 2013, and Jarret Vandonkersgoed ’06 and Amy Klumpenhouwer Vandonkersgoed ’08–have also taught at the same school. “Jarret and Amy gave a presentation to students in the education program on teaching in Northern Ontario First Nations school,” says Taylor. “That really piqued my interest and led me to investigate the possibility of working there.” The school’s familiarity with Redeemer grads helped them to secure a job there. “The current principal continues to talk about Redeemer as an excellent candidate pool for teacher hiring. There is a lot of respect for Redeemer grads as teachers. She says that they come prepared and they demonstrate upstanding character.”

The opportunity for students to teach in First Nations communities near and far has also driven some new initiatives in Redeemer’s education department. In 2013, Phil Teeuwsen, Assistant Professor of Education, explored Aboriginal culture and history in his Teaching Social Studies course. Throughout the course, students discovered different aspects of Aboriginal literature and art, including a visit to the Woodland Cultural Centre, and the former Mohawk Institute Residential School in Brantford, Ontario. At the conclusion of the course, those Redeemer students led gifted students from public, Catholic and private schools across Hamilton through workshops that focused on Aboriginal arts, media and stereotypes, land claims and resources, recreation and sports and oral storytelling.

“Redeemer’s liberal arts education allows prospective teachers to broaden their horizons and gets them thinking in different ways.”

Teaching in First Nations schools has its own opportunities and challenges, many of them related to working what is for the most part, a very different culture. This is especially true for Erin Taylor and Brooke Palahnuk, who live in a remote community. “Moving to Pikangikum has opened our eyes to how other Canadians live,” notes Palahnuk. “We have seen the importance of having activities for the kids and youth to engage in after and outside of school, providing a safe place for the kids to hang out after school instead of them being on the streets unsupervised.” Over the past two years, they have, along with fellow Christian teachers, run a youth program to share the truth of Jesus through exciting and interactive activities. “Friday Night Live is very intentional about sharing the Christian message,” says Taylor. “Through it we are starting to build meaningful relationships with the youth.”

DeVries’ involvement with First Nations communities also extends beyond the classroom. She is involved with several volunteer activities focused directly in Aboriginal communities. She is also influencing her own culture, in part by serving on the Canadian Aboriginal Ministry Committee of the Christian Reformed Church. “Having experiences working directly in First Nations communities has allowed me to share stories I have heard from First Nations peoples about the truth of the past, the realities of the present and the hope of the future,” she says.

It is not just education students working alongside First Nations communities. Phoebe Mitton graduated from Redeemer in 2010 with a degree in history. While earning an MA at Carleton University, she interned at the Ministry of Indigenous Affairs and Northern Development. Her experiences there eventually led to a position as a policy analyst at the ministry with a focus on aboriginal education. She sees her role as preparing the way for others in Indigenous communities. “Every day,” she says, “I wrestle with the question of how to provide the support First Nations students need to graduate and access the same opportunities that have had such a profound impact on my life.”

All these alumni involved in Aboriginal communities speak of the way Redeemer prepared them not just for their work, but their role in impacting individual lives and the structures of our society. Beyond the professional preparation of the education program, it was the sociology classes that enlightened them about other cultures, the psychology classes that prepared them for some of the personal issues individuals on reserves face and the social science classes that provided an appreciation of the history and worldview of First Nations in Canada. “Redeemer’s liberal arts education allows prospective teachers to broaden their horizons and gets them thinking in different ways,” notes DeVries. “In this way, graduates are able to be better teachers when they take time to extend their thinking to understand Indigenous culture, traditions and beliefs.”

The ongoing work of repairing the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada is often marked by the idea of reconciliation, of finding a way to heal the pain caused by centuries of violence and neglect. It is a road that is hard and long, but for Redeemer graduates such as these, it is also one of hope. “The centrality of Christ’s restorative work in my experience at Redeemer,” says Mitton, “has helped me to recognize, especially in my approach to working with First Nations communities, the importance and possibility of reconciliation.”

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