What drew Trudeau’s attention to File Hills Qu’Appelle Tribal Council?

Vee Whitehorse scrapes a moose hide at the Leading Thunderbird Lodge. It's part of his cultural curriculum. .
Vee Whitehorse scrapes a moose hide at the Leading Thunderbird Lodge. It's part of his cultural curriculum. . Global News/Derek Putz

REGINA – For Vee Whitehorse, there’s nothing more peaceful than scrapping a stretched hide at the Leading Thunderbird Lodge on a beautiful afternoon.

“Some boys they really take to it,” he said while he worked.

“It gives them time to think to themselves, and while they’re scraping I tell them some stories about animals.”

It doesn’t seem like a classroom, but it’s how hundreds of indigenous youth have come to learn about and finally connect with their own culture.

“They learn about the creation story, and about the man and woman’s role, and the spirit of an animal. Overall, they learn how to respect an animal. And they also learn their treaty rights through this.”

Once the hide is clean and dry, he brings it into the classroom where the focus shifts to the math behind drum making.

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“They have to learn the equation for how to find circumference and diameter the core and the plain,” he explains.

“I find it better going to school there, then going to school here,” Adam Semangis, 14, said.

Semangis just finished his treatment at the Leading Thunderbird Lodge. The 12-week program counts as time served for young offenders. Semangis was happy to go there as part of his nine-month jail sentence. It’s made him reimagine school in a totally different way, and allowed him to understand what being First Nations actually means.

“Us as aboriginal people need to learn more about that kind of stuff,” Semangis said. When he was enrolled in Regina Public Schools, he described his marks as poor. But, at Thunderbird Lodge, he’s a good student.

“I think it’d be better just to go to school to there, but I can’t choose that myself.”

“When they realize and get to know their spirit, I think the spirit is what helps them to understand where they are at with their walk of life,” Whitehorse said.

That’s why the File Hills Qu’Appelle Tribal Council (FHQ) is working to give more of its students the opportunity to learn through Vee’s curriculum. They’re introducing the hands-on approach with a focus on cultural learning throughout its seven on-reserve schools.

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“Give our youth a good educational background, and good opportunities. The same as the rest of society, and I think that will benefit everybody you know?” Elaine Chicoose, FHQ Tribal Vice-Chair, said.

FHQ encompasses 11 Saskatchewan First Nations under one governing body. Members say it lets them deliver more input and results in more consultation across the board.

“There’s a lot of things at the community level that Chiefs bring to the table,” Chicoose said.

“They all have their different expertise in different areas, and I think amalgamating them all together and working together benefits the First Nations.”

“It’s wonderful because there’s so many community events,” Trevor Roszell, a team leader at Leading Thunderbird Lodge, said.

“Not only that, but we take our kids out to the community and they’re not from the community, but they feel like they are.”

He recently took his boys in treatment to the FHQ athletics dinner. There, the young offenders can meet with the players and socialize with other youth.

FHQ has decided to pour resources into youth empowerment programs, giving them teams to play on and organizing First Nation tournaments in the province. The lessons within the sports extend far beyond the field.

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“I’ve learned how to be sociable, and working together with others and learning respect,” Tianna Starblanket, a soccer and broomball player for FHQ athletics, said.

“It’s fun knowing people and getting to go places,” Ethan Blacksmith, a Standing Buffalo Lacrosse team player, said.

“There’s a lot more opportunity for kids to be engaged. Not only that, they’re given the chance to be multicultural. They’re not just with First Nations youth, they’re with all different nations of youth, and they learn they’re just as valuable as the next one.”

If any resident of the FHQ gets sick, they can access the All Nations Healing Hospital in Fort Qu’Appelle, Sask. It’s been named by Accreditation Canada in the top five per cent of hospitals in all of Canada.

“I think what really makes us different is our service delivery model,” Roxanne Boekelder, an All Nations Healing Hospital health navigator, said.

With their holistic approach to health care, elders and counselors provide just as much service to patients as the doctors and nurses.

“The physical piece of a person’s presenting problems are usually a very small part of what brings them into the hospital,” Boekelder said.

Together, they help patients achieve sustainable well-being through targeted community programs like a women’s health centre and an HIV outreach clinic.

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“It’s important that we look at the individual’s needs, as well as the home circumstances that they’re going to, and what they need when they’re discharged,” she said.

With all this innovation under one governing structure, perhaps it’s no surprise the FHQ has attracted the attention of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

He met with FHQ Tuesday, in a historic meeting. It was the first time a Prime Minister has met this way with a tribal council. Though he made no new policy promises, he did promise to keep the conversation going.

“For my part, I reiterated my government’s commitment to rebuilding those relationships, and making sure they’re based on respect, recognition of rights, co-operation and true partnership,” Trudeau said immediately after the meeting.

And what better place to talk about partnerships than in the valley where 11 different First Nations have decided they’re stronger when they put their heads together and come up with innovative ways to reengage First Nations youth, whether it be with athletic programs or culturally based curriculum.

“When they see themselves within the creation story in a way it becomes part of them,” Whitehorse said.

“There’s all different cultural values within those stories, so they start picking these values up and start to practice or realize it. And say, ok, now I see myself in a way that I never saw myself.”

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It’s certainly a lesson so many kids who have come through the FHQ have taken to heart and one that’s helped direct them down a better path.

“To show that coming from my First Nation, and showing how you can get respect and give respect to others,” Starblanket said.

“I’ll probably play sports the rest of my life,” Blacksmith said.

“I just feel happy,” Semangis said, who is recounting the creation stories to his four siblings now that he’s home.

“Being able to pass that kind of stuff on, the stuff they never learned, that my parents never learned. I just feel happy inside knowing I’m passing that kind of stuff on to them.”