The t-shirt wrapped bundles in the hands of each student were far from the traditional, hide-wrapped bundles. But for the inaugural group of MAGPIE program students, the bundles they received last June represented a collection of the program's unique learning and experiences.
Introduced during the second semester of the 2019-20 school year, the MAGPIE (Manifest Academic Growth and Promote Indigenous Excellence) initiative saw more than two dozen grades 10 to 12 students from schools across the city come together at Nutana Collegiate.
"I wanted to come to this program because I figured it would be a space meant for me," said Tiana McCabe, a Grade 11 student from Bedford Road Collegiate. "I figured MAGPIE would be an opportunity for me to feel like I belong somewhere and actually feel like I can be my authentic self. I look at (the teachers) the same way as my parents; the way they are walking with us is the same way our parents would. They walk side-by-side."
Indigenous learning and culture are the program's foundation and traditional methods of instruction and learning are transformed to introduce or re-engage Indigenous youth in their culture and build a community of learners. The half-day, semester-long program provides an integrated experience that meets curricular outcomes and offers students the opportunity to earn credits such as cultural arts, leadership and Indigenous studies that count toward graduation requirements.
"What we wanted to create with our MAGPIE program was to be able to experience those opportunities, to come back to our society's teaching... and being able to incorporate that into the classroom," said teacher TJ Warren. "A lot of what we do is based on identity components, and so the program began with instilling a lot of identity, being culturally cognizant and being able to preserve that component of our societies and the ongoing translation and transmission of our traditions through language."
The high school credit program grew out of Saskatoon Public Schools' Indigenous Ensemble, an extracurricular program that engages elementary and high school students in traditional and contemporary music, song, dance, arts and language of Saskatchewan's First Nations and Métis people.
The MAGPIE name carries special significance. Often considered a nuisance bird, it's a parallel to how Indigenous youth are seen by some people in the wider community. However, in the same manner as the magpie, Warren and co-teacher Candace Gadwa say Indigenous youth are intelligent and adaptive. Their students are motivated by opportunities to grow in the learning and experiences provided through a program that both students and teachers call family.
That close community, and the ability of both students and teachers to adapt, was illustrated just six weeks into the program when in-person learning was discontinued as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite having to learn from a distance, the majority of students remained engaged in their learning and celebrated success by receiving their bundles.
"They all came here for different things," Warren says, "but when they are here together, they are all here for the same reason."