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Immersion school in Ontario reversing effects of assimilation through outdoor curriculum

Joana Leamon
Buffalo Toronto Public Media

The Everlasting Tree School is an immersion school located on the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario. Operating since 2010 the curriculum is taught in Mohawk and outdoors.

The only four walls the children see are when they go inside for lunchtime.

Co-Founder Amy Bomberry teaches seventh and eighth grades at the school grew up on the Six Nations Reserve in Ohsweken but didn’t have the exposure to her own language and culture and didn’t want that for her children.

“It was appalling to me that I had grown up here and I hadn’t learned the truth about our history," Bomberry said.

A history that involved the forced migration of the Mohawk from their ancestral lands in New York State to the reserve located about a hour and a half away from Toronto.

“I didn’t want that experience for my children so that is what really sparked me to be involved in ensuring that my children were learning their language and culture, but I also took on the responsibility to ensure that they were learning," said Bomberry.

Wahsonti:io Hill teaches kindergarten and said teaching at the school is about reversing the effects of colonization and residentials schools, which were intended to assimilate Native children into white society.

“Here, we bring a more gentle approach for the younger children. We want them to have a really beautiful, soft, gentle start to education to allow them to unfold into little human beings before they are taken into the academic stream," Hill said.

Hill said the academic part of the school’s focus is allowing the children to maintain their innocence and be who they are: something that was almost taken away with the Mohawk Residential Institute School.

"So here in Canada, the oldest residential school, the oldest Indian boarding school is in Brantford Ontario, it’s only 20 minutes away and most of our community members have attended there," said Ni'karonhya'a Dawn Martin who also teaches at the school.

Older than Canada itself the Mohawk Institute Residential School was founded in 1837 and operated for over 100 years only closing in 1970.

Martin said teaching at The Everlasting School is about reversing the breakdown of family and the way of life the Mohawk lived before forced assimilation.

“Some people still don’t believe that we are human beings deserving of life and that this way of life is what we want," said Martin.

"We just want to get back to the land, we just want to have these skills, we just want to have a slow, peaceful life eating good foods," Martin added.

There are seven elementary schools that are federally funded and one privately funded high school on the Six Nations Reserve.

Because the schools receive federal funds there are restrictions on how many hours of indigenous language can be taught.

“Within Canada we have French which is a mandatory second language that most students have to study. The only thing is we substitute that for an indigenous language," said Martin.

"Here on our reserve the seven federally funded Canada run schools grade 1 to 8 they usually get at least one hour of language a day but here we’re trying to do the language all day.”

Everlasting Tree School doesn’t receive provincial funds the school and relies on donations, fundraising, and parent fees.

“Parents were paying $20 a week for our food program and that was to buy the supplies and groceries needed to prepare the food so that we can ensure that the children were getting those meals because it’s a big part of who we are, it’s what makes us unique," said Bomberry.

Parent involvement is one of the reasons the school has been able to thrive without support from the provincial government.

"In the beginning the parents were very hands on. They were cutting wood, building the foundation for the school, helping to put the yurt up, helping us get furniture. They were cooking the food and bringing [the children] lunch.

In 2018 the school was able to negotiate with Indigenous Services Canada, the entity that has fiduciary responsibility for the First Nations for funding for the children that attend the school.

Bomberry said she believes the school is a part of the healing journey for the Mohawk.

“The language contains who we are, our culture is all interwoven with the language. So to truly know and understand that it is a living language it gives the children the thought process and the world view of our ancestors, she said.

"It strengthens our identity of who we are.”