A new fledgling school in a small Canadian erstwhile timber town is rapidly becoming an icon in Canada for re-building First Nation people’s identity.

Gagige Kiizhik Gakinooamaawadiiwig-amig Gakinooamaawasowin (Kiizhik School) in the provincial town of Kenora, Ontario, that has a population of 15,000, is re-igniting the Ojibwe language of the Aanishinaabe people.

Kiizhik School opened its doors in September 2015 with 15 children from Kindergarten to Year 2 after negotiations by the Bimose Tribal Council in Kenora with provincial education authorities to open the first school of its kind.

It was an historic event as Kiizhik School proudly opened a page of ancient history to become an Indigenous immersion school teaching Ojibwe using an Aanishinaabe sound chart, holding vibrant pow wows, interacting with the Aanishinaabe community and integrating the Ontario mainstream curriculum.

Ryan White, Kiizhik School’s bespectacled founding Indigenous principal, said he believed that language is best learned when it is linked to culture.

“We want to go past surface learning and learn about the culture of who the Aanishinaabe people are,” he said.

“Our students are immersed in their language the whole time so that they learn it naturally.” 

While students learn their ancestral language using words like “Boozhoo” (hello), “ni-maamaa” (my mother) from a teacher using phonological sounds, a cultural expert provides social and emotional support to build a context that children love.

Kiizhik School models a practical approach that has schools in Manitoba and Ontario closely watching its every move to see how a small school tackles giant national, historical and cultural issues involving commitment to Indigenous education and reconciliation.

The 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, published in December, is a blueprint that directs schools and universities across Canada to create centres of excellence for Indigenous education, research, languages and culture with Kiizhik School leading the way as a model.

“This country is in a process of transformation as education has gone from being a tool of division to one of reconciliation,” Wab Kinew, associate vice-president for Indigenous relations at the University of Winnipeg said.

Kiizhik School fires the imagination of Canada as it provides a practical example of the Commission’s directions for ensuring that the education system will dedicate itself to expanding access, participation and academic success to Indigenous people in student-friendly ways.

Children have instruction in literacy and numeracy using English and everything else is in Ojibwe at Kiizhik School.

An Ojibwe phrasebook for children and parents uses words to show that there are no extremely different sounds in the language for an English speaker.

“It is so important that our students have access to the Aanishinaabe languages, but also the cultures and traditions that, unfortunately, our public schools are not able to provide,” Andy Graham, the Bimose Tribal Council’s director of education in Kenora said.

“We’re finding that the success rate of our students who are in the public systems are not as good as non-Aanishinaabe students and we want them to have even more success,” Graham said.

Trevor Greyeyes, editor of the First Nation publication Voice, is an active campaigner for educating Canadians on Aboriginal immersion in education of the type that Kiizhik School models.

“One gains a sense of identity in learning one’s own native language and world view that exist only in that language and culture,” he said.

“It gives the child a sense of belonging to his or her community, sharing ideas and speaking their language.”

Teacher, Anna Tsentouros, said she found the classroom unique as students created a school community where they could take risks and feel safe.

“Each day we are asking questions, listening to others and sharing our ideas as a momentum for learning,” she said.

Parent, Michelle Kavanaugh, said that the exposure to cultural roots at Kiizhik School had a huge impact on her family.

“My youngest loves it and it has also been a positive influence on my eldest son, bringing him out of his shell,” she said.

The name for Kiizhik School was determined at an Aanishinaabe ceremony and symbolises the sky, cedar and learning lodge, all of which hold cultural meaning, director Graham said.

The school holds pow wows as a reflective time where friends and families meet. They watch children dance, share ideas provided by elders and make plans.

As visitors cross the threshold into Kiizhik School they enter the Aanishinaabe people’s world with colourful pictures of buffalos, bears, wolves and eagles looking silently down on them.

Principal White explains that many traditional values of the Ojibwe people are as relevant today as they were in the past. They include respect for parents, living creatures and the environment because the Ojibwe people believe that humans live with nature.

“Like any other new school we’ve had our ups and downs but the parents and families have been really supportive,” White said.

“In 10 years I’d like to see Kiizhik School become fully immersion from Kindergarten to Year 12.”

If space allows and a tuition agreement can be reached with public and Catholic School Boards, the Bimose Tribal Council will accept non-aboriginal students and those from other First Nations.

Kiizhik School has taken a giant step on its journey to achieving an ancestral dream.

1. Ryan White Principal of Kiizhik School. 
2. Ancient symbols of the Aanishinaabe people that adorns the foyer of the school. 
3. Ancestral values of the Aanishinaabe people that guide the curriculum.