Preschool acclimates kids to Indigenous language, culture
NORMALLY, head-start programs pick up the slack between nursery and kindergarten, giving kids a leg up for school.
At the Andrews Street Family Centre in the North End, the program caters to the community. Parents are volunteers and everyone gets instruction in Indigenous cultures and languages.
Walk into the colourfully decorated preschool room in the morning and you might be greeted in Ojibwa with “Anniin,” the word for hello.
Pick the afternoon, and you might hear “Tansi,” which is “hello” in Cree.
“We have Ojibwa in the morning and Cree in the afternoon, and the kids get to be exposed to the culture in a positive way, so as they grow up, there will be less stigma,” teacher Dawn d’ Eschambault explained.
Language and culture are ways to open the door to new world views and history, including Canada’s colonial past with Indigenous people.
“They’ll ask why you’d make mittens out of buffalo and we say, ‘Well, there was no Walmart. There was none of this’ — it blows their minds,” d’Eschambault said, gesturing around to the room.
“We tell them people had to figure out what to do (and) you can see the light bulbs go on,” she said.
Once a client at the centre, d’Eschambault moved through the ranks of volunteers in various programs until an opening came up at the Oshki Majahitowiin head-start program.
“I love coming here every day. It may look like the same classroom, but every day is different with the kids. We bring them culture, science, drama, plays, and it helps prepare them to go to kindergarten,” she said.
One recent afternoon, 16 kids from the ages of three to five were hard at work making doggie puppets, all centred around the theme of “atim,” which means “dog” in Cree.
The United Way has funded the program since 1997, Andrews Street Family Centre executive director Dilly Knol said, and supported its growth since the start. By doing so, the charity has helped equip generations of children for school and offered some of them the gift of consistency, a place they know they can come to four days a week, from September through June, until they go to school. Twenty children attend the morning program and another 20 attend the afternoon edition.
Deborah Howard is an Ojibwa grandmother whose grandson attends the program, like her daughter did before him years earlier.
“Every kid should have a head start,” Howard quipped. Seriously though, the grandmother said, the program’s cultural components include key teachings about the Ojibwa clan systems, along with ceremonies to give children a spirit name. “It’s identity, right? You belong to something.”
Every 90 seconds, a Winnipegger walks through the door of an agency supported by the United Way, and as the charity tracked a goal of $21 million in this year’s annual fundraising campaign, the agency was profiling the Andrews Street Family Centre. The campaign formally wraps up Jan. 17.
The United Way says approximately 10 per cent of Winnipeggers live in poverty, compared with eight per cent of Canadians overall, a figure that includes one in four children.
“Funding gives the opportunity for these kids to get a head start in school, and what’s important is we meet with their parents and make sure they know they will come here and volunteer in the class, too,” Knol said. “The cultural component is an opportunity for the kids, as well as their parents: their culture, and their language… some parents have lost that.”
The program socializes the kids, teaching them how to help out and share “so that when they get to school, they feel good about themselves and they’re ready to learn,” Knol said.
Dawn d’Eschambault (left) and Deborah Howard help kids at the Andrew Street Family Centre head-start program dress to catch the bus.