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‘Everyone is equal here’: Tears of joy hail opening of Indigenous outdoor classroom – Winnipeg Free Press | Gmx Pharm

As students, school leaders and community members celebrated the official opening of a new Indigenous outdoor classroom on the grounds of her alma mater, Jodi Fourre began to sob.

“These are very happy tears,” she said Thursday after an afternoon ceremony at École Secondaire Oak Park High School, which she graduated in 2021.

Fourre said she was blown away by the end result – a patio depicting the wheel of a Métis Red River cart made of sand and stones, surrounded by a circle of benches made of cream limestone and gardens full of sage, cedar and other traditional medicinals.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Jodi Fourre with her mother Audrey Four and Tasha Ising (left) said she was blown away by the end result.

During the 2018-19 school year, members of the Student Council Medicine Wheel Committee presented an ambitious project to leaders of the Pembina Trails School Division.

Fourre, a determined Swampy Cree student then enrolled in 10th grade, said she never imagined her proposal to design an outdoor area to inspire pride among First Nations, Métis and Inuit students arouse and encourage would actually come to fruition.

“We wanted a place for Indigenous students from the reserve who might not feel very connected to those around them, in a way feel very isolated – just like we all felt during (the height of) COVID. We just wanted a way for people to connect,” Fourre said, adding she hopes everyone in the community can use the space. “We are all, as we say, contract people.”

Nearly four years, countless design meetings, and $160,000 later, the department hosted an unveiling of the community educational and social space Thursday.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Ray (Coco) Stevenson, a local connoisseur, traditional singer and drummer, sang an opening and closing song for the occasion.

Ray (Coco) Stevenson, a local connoisseur, traditional singer and drummer, sang an opening and closing song for the occasion.

Senior administrators, trustees, teachers, alumni, current students, project architects and the area city council all gathered to listen to speakers celebrating the Winnipeg high school addition.

“We wanted to create a space of belonging, learning and community in Oak Park,” said Troy Scott, who was principal before becoming assistant superintendent in the department before the school’s 2022-23 year.

Scott noted that the organizers met with Indigenous teaching assistants, knowledge keepers and the Manitoba Métis Federation to learn about the importance of the land the school is located on — 820 Charleswood Rd. — and surrounding area to shape the space.

It may be less well known than The Forks, but Charleswood is a site of great historical importance when it comes to Aboriginal residence, trade and life due to the passage’s nearby location, among other local attractions, said Brian Rice , Professor of Kinesiology and Recreation Management at the University of Manitoba.

Many hunters lived in the area to be near the passage because bison migrated into the ford — the shallowest water of the Assiniboine River, said Rice, a Knowledge Keeper who is a member of the Mohawk Nation.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Jodi Fourre (left) with Tasha Ising said she never thought her proposal to design an outdoor area to inspire and encourage pride among First Nations, Métis and Inuit students would actually come to fruition.

He also spoke about the importance of the nearby Woods Trail, an influential trade route, and the various groups (Nakota, Cree, Anishinaabe, Mohawk, Métis, and Dakota) that once populated the region at different times.

One of the highlights of Oak Park’s outdoor classroom is a replica “bison rubbing stone” embedded in one of the gardens. The rock weighs about five tons.

“What the bison did in the winter was they had their thicker coats and they would rub against the rocks to get the fur off because it would make them itchy so they would scratch the fur,” Rice said rudely to a crowd of 40 viewers.

Humanities teacher Darren Klapak said the room is primarily used for storytelling during the school day.

“When the Europeans arrived, there was no written language in the indigenous culture, so they shared their history, their stories orally, orally – and that’s why I try to do that in my class as much as possible, too,” said Klapak, one Indigenous Studies course taught.

The educator said there are plans to put up signage to identify the various elements in the garden and to construct a structure around it in the future, as well as paint murals on a nearby wall.

“Reconciliation is a process. That too will be a process.”

The classroom’s central location is crucial, so passers-by will note the outdoor space, each square foot of which has been purposefully designed – from the medicinal plants to the circular shape, which organizers say indicates the teachings of the four cardinal points.

So far, local companies Viking Landscaping and Architecture49 have executed the project.

“Reconciliation is a process. This too will be a process,” said Klapak.

For Fourre, the best thing about the outdoor classroom is the seating.

“Everyone is equal here,” she says. “There is always an opportunity to communicate with everyone in the circle.”

Indigenous students make up approximately 10 percent of the K-12 student population at Pembina Trails.

maggie.macintosh@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @macintoshmaggie.ca

MaggieMacintosh

MaggieMacintosh
reporter

Maggie Macintosh covers education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Freie Presse Educational Reporter comes from the Canadian government through the Local Journalism Initiative.

Updated: September 17, 2022 — 12:32 am

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