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Land-Based Learning as Alternative Climate Action: An Example From Misipawistik Cree Nation

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Youth participants in Misipawistik’s Land- Based Learning Program discussing community engagement initiative ideas during a leadership workshop. Photo credit: Danielle Cherpako
Article
December 16, 2019

“The land isn’t broken. It is our connection to the land that is broken and must be repaired.” 1

In the last week of June, I embarked on a four-hour drive to visit Misipawistik Cree Nation, a community located near Grand Rapids, Manitoba. The purpose of the trip was to visit and learn more about the organization I had partnered with over the summer, Misipawistik Cree Nation, and their land-based learning program: Misipawistik Pimatisiméskanaw. Their program brings youth and Elders together in an outdoor setting to learn about Cree culture and connect with the land, while providing a cultural credit for the youth’s high school transcripts.2 

I had already met with land-based educators in urban school divisions to discuss the benefits of their programs, which were mostly science-based. While most discussions focussed on the mental health benefits and the improvement of high school drop-out rates, one educator highlighted another benefit of land-based education that I had not considered.3 

She said that in today’s climate crisis, youth often learn at a very young age that the Earth is extensively damaged — well before they have a chance to develop a connection to the land. When youth participate in these land-based programs, they are given a chance to use their imagination — to discover the magic of playing in a forest or swimming in a lake. She said that this connection cannot be taught but must be developed through interactions with the land. She argued that this is the connection that will inspire the next generation of youth to protect our lands and waters. In Misipawistik, I felt this connection. The land-based learning program took place in an outdoor clearing, located at the end of a long, winding gravel road. The camp area was well-equipped with wooden structures often used for camping, a large tipi in the middle, a fire-pit, and wooden picnic tables. The clearing was fenced in by forest, and at its edge was Lake Winnipeg. Becky Cook, the Program Coordinator, explained that the youth sometimes swim there.

The edge of the Culture Camp, showing Lake Winnipeg peeking through the trees. Photo credit: Danielle Cherpako

Becky showed us the surrounding area and shared the history of the land. We heard other snippets of the story throughout the week from Elders and other residents. In the 1950s, Manitoba Hydro had started construction of a dam and created a settlement of white workers.4 The Cree residents became the minority population on their own land. They discussed the abuses that occurred, the opening of residential schools in the area, the desecration of burial grounds, and the social issues that arose from the introduction of alcohol, colonialism, and western individualism. However, most stories focussed on the destruction of the land. 

The term “Misipawistik” means “Rushing Rapids,” they said, but the rapids had died with the construction of the dam.5 The Elders talked about the joyful sound that the rapids had made, that could be heard from anywhere in Misipawistik. The younger generations talked about a loneliness they felt in their hearts because they would never know these rapids. Becky discussed the effects of the dam on the sturgeon population, and how the dam had disrupted her peoples’ ability to live off of the land.6 

This picture shows where the Grand Rapids used to be. There is now very little water flow as a result of the Hydro dam construction. Photo credit: Danielle Cherpako

While the land is damaged in many ways, it still holds its beauty, just as the community holds its resilience. Each morning when we arrived at the camp, I was filled with a sense of peacefulness. The youth in the camp helped by tending the fire and bringing tea to the Elders. They excitedly told the Elders about their lives and what was happening at school. The Elders gave the youth lessons about how to interact with the environment according to Cree teachings, and the importance of education and caring for family.

Elders and youth sitting in a circle during the certificate ceremony on the last day of the camp. Photo credit: Danielle Cherpako

It was clear that the camp is a special place of learning and connectedness for both the Elders and the youth, and I believe that the outdoor space instilled a sense of comfort and safety. This feeling cannot be easily described. As one of the Elders said, “It is a spiritual connection.”

Youth participants in Misipawistik’s Land- Based Learning Program discussing community engagement initiative ideas during a leadership workshop. Photo credit: Danielle Cherpako

The Elders value this spiritual connection and know what is best for their lands and waters because their ancestors were the stewards of the land long before them, and they passed down this knowledge. People who are Indigenous to Canada have the right to protect these lands, which have been mistreated through centuries of settler- colonial activity. 

During the rest of the summer, Elders and youth in Misipawistik worked for the Guardians program, a Canada-wide initiative that empowers communities to patrol and protect the ecological integrity of their lands. Programs like these recognize the need for Indigenous control over Indigenous lands and education, especially in the context of the climate crisis and reconciliation. I encourage all readers to take the time to learn about land-based learning more through the links below, and to recognize the many innovative, Indigenous-led initiatives at the forefront of climate action in Canada. 

Related links: 

Notes:

  1. A variation of this statement was said to me by one of the educators who participated in my research project. They have asked to remain anonymous. 
  2. Elders are highly respected, older individuals in First Nations, Metis, and Inuit communities. They often provide guidance to younger people because their age and experiences have earned them the right to pass on their knowledge, including cultural knowledge. 
  3. Russ Walsh, David Danto, and Jocelyn Sommerfeld, “Land-Based Intervention: A Qualitative Study of the Knowledge and Practices Associated with One Approach to Mental Health in a Cree Community,” International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, (2018), 1- 15. 
  4. James B Waldram, “Native Employment and Hydroelectric Development in Northern Manitoba,” Journal of Canadian Studies 22, no. 3 (1987), 62-76. 
  5. Martha McCarthy, “Thundering Waters Stilled: The Grand Rapids of the Saskatchewan,” Manitoba History no. 15 (1988). 
  6. This 2017 report lists the sturgeon population in the Saskatchewan River as an endangered species.