THE LAND IS THE CLASS­ROOM

Canadian Geographic - - FEATURES - Pho­tog­ra­phy by Pat Kane with text by Michela Rosano

A glimpse into life at the Dech­inta Cen­tre for Re­search and Learn­ing, a North­west Ter­ri­to­ries school that pro­vides In­dige­nous con­nec­tions to the land

A glimpse into life at the Dech­inta Cen­tre for Re­search and Learn­ing, a North­west Ter­ri­to­ries school that pro­vides In­dige­nous con­nec­tions to the land

CLASS IS IN SES­SION, but Jonathan Kon­is­tea isn’t at a desk. In­stead, he’s watch­ing two Dene el­ders build a birch­bark ca­noe near the shore of a rip­pling Blach­ford Lake. Nearby, his class­mate Peter An­drews is scrap­ing a moose hide stretched across a wooden frame, pre­par­ing the skin for tan­ning. A third stu­dent, Melaw Nakehk’o, joins them, a shovel in her hand, and starts clear­ing pine nee­dles and brush from the group’s camp­site. Wel­come to stu­dent life at the Dech­inta Cen­tre for Re­search and Learn­ing, a school where the land is both the class­room and the most im­por­tant teacher. Lo­cated 90 kilo­me­tres east of Yel­lowknife at the Blach­ford Lake Lodge & Wilder­ness Re­sort on Yel­lowknives Dene First Na­tion ter­ri­tory, Dech­inta pro­vides north­ern In­dige­nous land-based learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ences for univer­sity stu­dents. The first post­sec­ondary pro­gram of its kind in Canada, Dech­inta opened in 2010 and has since seen about 300 stu­dents pur­sue cred­its to­ward their un­der­grad­u­ate and mas­ter’s de­grees at the Univer­sity of Al­berta, Mcgill Univer­sity and the Univer­sity of Bri­tish Columbia. With guid­ance from a team of el­ders, pro­fes­sors and com­mu­nity lead­ers, stu­dents learn prac­ti­cal skills re­lated to In­dige­nous cul­ture and study ways to ad­dress the chal­lenges fac­ing Canada’s North and its peo­ples, in­clud­ing ex­plor­ing top­ics such as col­o­niza­tion, de­col­o­niza­tion, rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and racism. The in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary cur­ricu­lum is de­liv­ered in 12-week semesters, dur­ing which stu­dents spend much of their time on the land, ei­ther at a tra­di­tional camp in Clock­wise from above: Paul Macken­zie steers his boat away from Blach­ford Lake Lodge; Jonathan Kon­is­tea chops fire­wood; Macken­zie (left) teaches Peter An­drews and Crys­tal Camp­bell how to build a toy birch­bark ca­noe; Melaw Nakehk’o clears brush from a lake­side camp.

the wilder­ness or on the lodge prop­erty, where they do course­work in sub­jects such as bo­real ecol­ogy, Dene self-de­ter­mi­na­tion and In­dige­nous law. Stu­dents’ fam­i­lies also stay at the lodge through­out the se­mes­ter, tak­ing part in in­ter­gen­er­a­tional learn­ing — a key to Dech­inta’s suc­cess. “We found that the num­ber-one bar­rier for peo­ple at­tend­ing post-sec­ondary and be­ing suc­cess­ful in the North was not be­ing able to af­ford child care and not want­ing to take chil­dren out of their cul­tural con­text,” says Erin Free­land Bal­lan­tyne, one of Dech­inta’s founders and cur­rent dean. “Be­cause of that, we have a day­care through a land-based chil­dren’s school. So if you have one kid or five kids, you bring them.” The de­mand for places such as Dech­inta is grow­ing. His­tor­i­cally, Canada’s ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem has not been a pos­i­tive place for In­dige­nous stu­dents or teach­ers, says Free­land Bal­lan­tyne. “If we want peo­ple to feel that they’re in a space where they can learn, they have to feel safe.” Pat Kane is a Yel­lowknife-based pho­tog­ra­pher who cov­ers Canada’s Far North. Michela Rosano is Cana­dian Ge­o­graphic’s as­so­ciate edi­tor.

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