Preschool ac­cli­mates kids to In­dige­nous lan­guage, cul­ture

Winnipeg Free Press - - CITY | BUSINESS - ALEXAN­DRA PAUL alexan­[email protected]­

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.

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