For Indigenous students at Tommy Douglas Collegiate, last year's absence of extracurricular activities due to the pandemic made it difficult to share in their culture.
This year, students at Tommy Douglas and other collegiates are getting the opportunity to reconnect with culture and each other through the Indigenous Resilience and Well-Being Program.
The program, offered with the First Nations, Inuit, and Metis Education Unit, provides sessions with Indigenous mentors who share their lived experiences with students in conversations about responsibility, perseverance, and healthy choices.
The program, which was offered at Tommy Douglas in December and is being held at Aden Bowman during February, took its inspiration and direction from students, said Don Speidel, Saskatoon Public Schools' cultural resource liaison.
"We came and sat with the students one day over a noon hour and gathered some ideas on what they would like to hear and see," Speidel said. "People said, 'what if you brought us some motivational-type speakers, people who are leaders in the community.' "
That feedback led to four, weekly after-school sessions with a wide range of influencers who shared their stories and perspective with students while speaking to realities that face Indigenous people in the wider community.
Deidra Evans, community coordinator at Tommy Douglas, said the sessions were a starting point to revitalize the school's Indigenous Cultural Connections group after a year's pause and the accompanying graduation of many students who had been part of the group prior to the pandemic.
"It is something we know our school community benefits from. Students like having connections to their culture and way of life incorporated into their western education. Our Cultural Connections group is Indigenous focused, but open to anyone to join," she said.
"They were so grateful to have the different speakers. Some students zoned in on the message from certain speakers, maybe because they share a similar experience in their own life."
Among the presenters were Andre Bear, a law student who is also active with Indigenous organizations; Laryn Oakes, a member Indigenous Enterprise dance troupe that performed in New York last November; Chante Speidel, an Indian Teacher Education Program (ITEP) student and Saskatoon Public Schools' graduate; and Indigenous educator Chris Scribe. T.J. Warren and daughter Omiyosiw, a student at Marion M. Graham Collegiate, danced in the school's common area to raise awareness about the program.
"These are people doing great things, but also people who had their own story of trials and tribulations just to try finish school — now they can share their story," Speidel said, noting the program offered opportunities and discussion that might not be available during school hours.
"This was really to support students from a holistic place but also from an authentic Indigenous lifestyles and engagement kind of place so young people can see Indigenous people doing and sharing good things with them."
Evans said participation ranged from 15 to 30-plus students per session, depending on other afterschool activities. The opportunity to listen to presenters, share a meal, and have conversations afterward brought students of different ages and experiences together to build community within the school.
"The population at Tommy Douglas is diverse. We have lots of interest in learning more about culture. Many students identify as being Indigenous and having our cultural connections group is something they want," she said.
"We have some Indigenous students who are part of this group, and they brought their non-Indigenous (friends) because they wanted them to understand and learn more about their culture. It was so nice to see how proud they are of their culture."
The program also provided inspiration for some students to look beyond school for cultural connections, such as the dance performance that sparked one student's memory and interest in dance.
"She (the student) remembers going to powwows when she was young, and she wants to get into jingle dancing," Evans said. "So it is also about connecting these students with other people in our community and helping facilitate that. Yes, we have a speaker, but it's really much more than that."
Speidel said the welcoming atmosphere and support from staff and students at Tommy Douglas bodes well for February sessions at Aden Bowman and other collegiates.
"We have been resourced by the (Saskatoon Public Schools) foundation and some other granting groups so we can go out and take a resource team and go to schools and share these opportunities."