Dream catcher

Nicole Bell had a vision: a new kind of school where aboriginal kids could learn about their culture, no matter where they live. Her make-it-happen attitude can show all of us what it means to reconnect with our roots.

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Living with gratitude

From the outside, you would never know it was a school. It’s a modest, yellow-frame single-storey structure with a Coke machine, now filled with juice, out front—the last vestige of the place’s long-ago incarnation as a small grocery store. There’s no plastic play equipment—just a wooded area with trees, shallow caves and forts that the kids have built with branches.

Inside, this one-room school is a hive of work, play and laughter. Some children are enjoying story time; others grab hockey sticks as they head outside for recess. The high-school students have just unveiled their culinary creations: steaming trays of fried bread, to be topped with a chili mixture, grated cheese, fresh tomatoes and lettuce.

Having registered the program with the Ministry of Education as a no-fee private school, Nicole has developed a unique curriculum that meets ministry guidelines and still supports aboriginal teachings such as the “Seven Grandfathers,” or seven values: wisdom, love, respect, bravery, honesty, humility and truth. The school operates year-round, with two-week breaks every three months, because the curriculum is organized around the four seasons and the four quadrants of the medicine wheel. There’s always a connection to nature. In winter, the children might study outdoor storytelling and the moon; in spring, they might focus on new plant growth and making maple syrup.

“My favourite things are lots of native things, like the Circle and the medicine wheel,” says kindergarten student Tonya Leah Watts. When asked why she likes them, she responds with the wisdom of a six-year-old: “I have no reason. I just like them.”

Things don’t always run smoothly: one boy bangs his head, another doesn’t want to listen to the story, a girl complains that she feels left out. Nicole is seemingly everywhere at once, her dark waist-length hair swinging as she calmly deals with every crisis. Every child has a 20-minute session once a week with counsellor Dorothy Cameron where she lets the kids talk, listen, meditate on the wind or just be themselves—something she was denied during her nine years in a residential school. “Nicole has a beautiful dream,” she says. “A lot of our people share that dream, but she took the initiative to lead the way.”

Teacher Arnie Hein, whose mother is Matis, says that working at the school has helped him rediscover the importance of living life with respect and gratitude. This year, the school showed its gratitude to the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, an arm of Natural Resources Canada. “When we took a field trip to Ottawa, Nicole found out which government building the people who fund us work in, picked up a huge bouquet of flowers and took all the kids up to meet them,” he says. “They were not only touched but also, I think, a little bit in awe.”