mhuya Bill Cohen, a syilx professor at UBC-Okanagan (UBCO) and a member of the Co-Curricular-Making research team, sits inside of a board room at the university in syilx homelands on March 10. Photo by Aaron Hemens
When European settlement began in syilx homelands more than 150 years ago, the relationship between humans and tmxʷulaxʷ (the land) shifted from one of mutual care to a dynamic of ownership and exploitation.
Today, communities are living with that legacy, as habitat destruction, resource extraction, and urban and rural development have exacerbated the effects of climate change locally, resulting in devastating wildfires and floods across the territory.
“What we know for sure is that if the current trend continues, we’re going to have more wildfires, we’re going to have more climate change effects. We’re going to have more species, what we call tmixʷ, extinction,” said mhuya Bill Cohen, a syilx professor at UBC-Okanagan (UBCO) and a member of the Co-Curricular-Making research team.
As a result, Cohen said, Indigenous knowledge is being recognized beyond the community level for its potential to protect and preserve the natural world.
“The understanding is becoming more clear: the reason the natural world and our territories were in such a healthy state was because knowledge, imagination and pedagogy was applied responsibly,” he said.
“Now, there’s an opportunity to combine that with all of the world knowledge we have access to now.”
‘It’s in all of our best interest’
For the past three years, university educators and teachers with Central Okanagan School District 23 (SD23) have been developing relationships and learning from syilx Elders, knowledge keepers and community partners to incorporate syilx history, wisdom and land-based-education in their classrooms.
There are more than 100 school teachers — from Kindergarten through to Grade 12 — actively learning and participating in the Co-Curricular-Making research project in syilx homelands.
The five-year program, funded by a Social Sciences Humanities Research Council grant, is a collaborative effort involving SD23, University of British Columbia (UBC), Okanagan Nation Alliance (ONA), IndigenEYEZ, Kelowna Museums, Kelowna Art Gallery, the University of Alberta and the University of Ottawa.
“What we’re essentially doing is putting our minds and our hearts together to determine what kind of knowledge, what kind of curricular resources, can our collective children have access to,” said Cohen.
“It’s in all of our best interest — and it’s pragmatic — that we collaborate and figure out how to collectively take care of this place, so that we have a healthy ecosystem, healthy food security and wellness security for the future.”
Since the Co-Curricular-Making project began in 2020, participants have engaged in a number of different learning experiences, such as water ceremonies, being out on the land, captikʷł storytelling and attending a Witness Blanket exhibit a large-scale piece of artwork created by Indigenous artist Carey Newman that was displayed for four months at the Kelowna Art Gallery in 2022.
The Witness Blanket contains hundreds of different items from residential “schools,” churches, government buildings and other structures from across “Canada.”
“That coming together piece was really around an awakening of teachers in the district who recognized that they didn’t understand Kelowna as a place of heritage, but as a place of where they lived,” said Desiree Marshall-Peer, a Cree-Ojibway educator at UBCO and one of the project’s managers.
“To reconcile it, they needed to understand, who were the people who lived here? And who were the people who had history in this area?”
‘We need to get our kids out there’
The project’s facilitation team said the goal of the project isn’t to create one clear-cut curriculum for educators to follow. Rather, it’s to equip educators with confidence and a plethora of different syilx-based knowledge and teachings — with respect to protocol — so that they can share what they’ve learned with the students that they teach.
Jody Nelson, an educator at UBCO and research assistant with Co-Curricular-Making, said that the project is about creating hope for future generations.
“I think teachers really come for that reason. They want hope about the environment, about the land, about the water, for all of our children,” said Nelson.
“The curriculum is out there in the hills with the animals and the trees. We need to get our kids out there.”
During roundtable conversations on March 2 with educators, Elders, community partners and researchers, participating teachers shared what they’ve learned from the project, and how they’ve incorporated these teachings into their classrooms.
Elementary, middle and secondary school teachers talked about their journeys of decolonizing their curriculums, embracing Indigenizing, utilizing the Four Food Chiefs in the classroom, connecting students through Indigenous art, and more.
“The opportunity to embody these ideas requires teachers to trust themselves,” said Margaret Macintyre Latta, a professor and the director of UBCO’s Okanagan School of Education, as well as the project’s principal investigator.
“They have to be willing to educate and re-educate themselves on an ongoing basis. And then trust their students — trust the narratives that each student brings as a valuable part of the makings of Co-Curricular-Making.”
‘Things need to change’
Ten years from now, Marshall-Peer said that she hopes the project will allow Indigenous students to see themselves reflected in every classroom.
“I don’t want them to be feeling othered,” she said. “I want classrooms to be much more relational, and much more proud of individuals and individuality, as opposed to the one and done, or the broad brush strokes that often happen in classrooms now.”
For Cohen, he hopes to see more kids, classrooms and schools engaging in more land-based knowledge and having a deeper connection to the land.
“I’d like to hear our language more,” he said. “I hope to see a lot more collaboration and co-creating, rather than antagonistic relationships, or exclusive, intolerant relationships — much more appreciative.”
The growing interest from teachers to participate and learn through the project, he added, tells him that the relationship between the education system and Indigenous people is changing from erasure and exclusion to inclusion and collaboration.
In the program’s third year, the facilitation team is hoping to include UBCO bachelor of education students in facilitation efforts alongside school teachers, and to create a book where all the ideas from information forums will be put into one resource.
“It makes me very hopeful. It’s a big reason that I — and I think quite a few others — became educators,” said Cohen.
“Things need to change. We’re not happy and we’re not going to continue with the way things are.”
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SD67 career fair connects Indigenous students with professional mentors
During a career fair in “Penticton” last week, Indigenous secondary school students heard from 26 mentors working in different industries — giving the Youth an opportunity to learn about various professional pathways.
The event was the first-ever Indigenous Career Fair held by School District 67’s (SD67) Indigenous Parent Group, planned in collaboration with the district’s Indigenous Education Program and held at Princess Margaret Secondary School.
It aimed to bridge the gap between post-secondary aspirations and alternative career paths, and set Indigenous Youth up for success after high school.
The Youth learned about various industries from professionals including water technicians, Youth and family workers, teachers, artists and more.
Along with covering the event as a journalist on Nov. 16, I also represented my industry as a mentor, talking to the Youth in Grades 8 to 12 about my career as a freelance storyteller contributing to IndigiNews and Global Okanagan. I shared with them what it means to me to tell these impactful stories as a member of Penticton Indian Band (PIB).
Another of the mentors, Whitney Cardenas, is also a member of PIB and works for the nation’s fire department. She told me that before she became a firefighter, attended a similar career fair to explore different job paths.
Now, she is eager to encourage the next generation of Indigenous Youth who are trying to decide which career path to choose.
“I’m pretty proud of myself to be named as one of the Indigenous role models, and I’m excited to talk to the Youth and tell them why I do what I do,” said Cardenas.
“I’m here to help encourage them to know that there are options out there and how easy it is to get into these careers and how they can make a living.”
Students at SD67’s Indigenous Career Fair at Princess Margaret Secondary School on Nov 16. Photo by Athena Bonneau
As a mother of two young children, Cardenas shared her passion for building a sense of community, emphasizing the importance of involving youth in trades for real-world experience.
“I never saw myself in this position with the fire brigade but I love it. I feel it’s something that I’m going to continue doing for a long while,” said Cardenas.
Cardenas encouraged Youth who may be interested in the trades to “come as you are and experience it firsthand” — embodying the inclusive and supportive spirit at the heart of the Indigenous Career Fair.
Dustin Hyde, the District Principal of Indigenous Education and Equity for SD67, highlighted the importance of broad representation of Indigenous workers across different sectors at the event.
“There was a parent who said, ‘my daughter wants to study medicine’ and it would be wonderful if there was an Indigenous doctor here,” said Hyde, who is Métis.
“We plan to broaden our role models next year and the hope and the dream would be that we just continue to offer more opportunities.”
Christy Tiessen, a member of the Indigenous Parent Group and organizer of the Career Fair, said the group will continue to meet monthly to find different ways to encourage Indigenous youth to see themselves in different career paths aside from only the traditional university route.
“If one kid walked out of here tonight and says, ‘I know what I want to do, that’s what I’m going to do’ and now they have a passion to move forward — that’s the goal,” said Tiessen.
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For 18-year-old syilx basketball star, sports and mental health intersect
Just down the road from where sk’ik’aycin Peter Waardenburg Jr. grew up is one of his favourite safe spaces — the Westbank First Nation’s (WFN) basketball court.
The sport is more than just a means of keeping active or staying connected with his community — it’s his go-to coping mechanism to help navigate whatever challenges may present themselves.
So whenever he needs to clear his mind and ground himself, the 18-year-old will head to outdoor facility in syilx homelands and spend time shooting hoops.
“Whenever I feel down or need to feel motivated, I’ll come out,” says Waardenburg Jr., who is a member of Lower Similkameen Indian Band.
“It allows me to get away from whatever I need, to create a space for myself.”
Waardenburg Jr. was raised by a community of basketball players. His family started Syilx Basketball long before he was born — some of his earliest memories are of him watching his older brother Treyton, his older cousins and his dad play.
In addition to Treyton, his favourites included local Syilx Basketball league legends Jesse Vissia and Skye Terbasket, with his mom even gifting him a poster of the latter for Christmas one year.
“I always liked to watch and analyze more than I liked to play when I was younger. I was a little shy,” he recalled.
But Waardenburg Jr. was playing ball by the time he was five years old. Throughout his 13-year career, he’s generally played the point guard position, sometimes switching to shooting guard if needed.
At one point, he also played competitive baseball, where his time as a pitcher taught him patience and how to keep himself calm.
“That helped me later on with basketball: being a point guard and calm on the floor, kind of leading,” he said.
Basketball has introduced him to a new world of different clubs, tournaments and communities throughout North America — he’s played with the Jr. Heat Boys Basketball Club, Okanagan Valley Elite, GW Hoops, the Similkameen Men’s team, and Syilx Basketball for both the Junior and regular All Native Basketball tournaments.
He’s also represented Team BC twice in the North American Indigenous Games (NAIG) — first in 2017, where the team placed second, and this past spring, where he was the starting point guard for the team, who finished third.
In 2022, he was part of the Syilx Basketball team that won the All Native Youth Basketball Tournament, which also saw him earn the MVP award. He competed again in this year’s Junior All Native, where he was the top scorer and was named an all-star, helping his team place second.
“Basketball allowed me to stay connected, especially to culture. With the All Native and with the Junior All Native, it brings you towards different tribes and bands,” he said.
A special highlight in his career was when he played with his older brother and his younger brother on a Men’s Similkameen Basketball team that his dad coached.
“When you’re surrounded by friends and family, and they’re playing basketball, it just makes you realize how much you’re loved,” he said.
This past August, Waardenburg Jr. was named as one of three syilx Okanagan recent high school graduates to receive a Syilx Siya Bursary Award from the Okanagan Nation Alliance (ONA), for demonstrating “a willingness to dream big for themselves, their Nation, their community, and/or their family.”
Applicants for the bursary award were tasked with writing about overcoming a difficult moment in their lives. In his application, he wrote about losing his cousins to mental health challenges and how sports — basketball in particular — helped him cope.
“I definitely believe sports help with mental health. I’ve seen it help me through the roughest times,” said Waardenburg Jr., who graduated from Mount Boucherie Secondary School.
He said while opening up about loss was difficult, he has worked through many of the emotions involved with the grieving process.
“My two bros that I lost, they played a lot of basketball. I grew up playing with them,” he said.
Now, he is working his way through his first-year studies at Okanagan College’s business administration program. Waardenburg Jr. said he’s keen on promoting Indigenous sports more — he said he’d like to teach and coach other Indigenous Youth someday.
Speaking from his own experience, he encouraged those struggling with mental health to try and pick up a sport because you never know who you’ll meet that may help you down the road.
“It can also just make you realize that there’s more to life,” he said.
“Honestly, it could save someone.”
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Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc celebrates grand opening of on-reserve grocery store: ‘a source of pride’
Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc (TteS) is celebrating a new community-owned grocery store that’s bringing food options and employment opportunities to the reserve.
The grand opening for the new Sweláps Market is set to take place on Thursday at 11 a.m., and will include speeches and a ceremonial ribbon cutting. It will also feature week-long deals and prize draws, giveaways and food samples.
The Sweláps Market is located in the Chief Louis Centre, and had its soft opening on Oct. 19.
The market is owned by TteS but is open to everyone. The store displays signs in Secwepemctsín (Secwépemc language) including a welcoming of Weyt-kp above the front door.
The language also labels each department of the store such as q̓wlem (bakery) and ts̓i7 ell swewll (meat and fish).
On the market’s website, each department is listed with audio files to hear the proper pronunciation.
Sweláps translates to “bighorn sheep” and the logo represents the sheep’s horn among the mountains and North and South Thompson rivers.
The 22,000-square-foot grocery store incorporates culture into the architecture, including a Secwépemc weaving design on the ceiling and a wooden ladder outside which resembles the entrance of a pithouse.
After the ladder was carved on-site by Charles Dumont, the owner of Coyote Contracting and a TteS band member, and his son Ryder — a ceremony was held to bless the log as it was put into place.
General manager Kara Stokes spoke about the importance of having a market in the community, given that, before now, the closest grocery store was off-reserve and across the river.
The vision for a band-owned grocery store goes back ten years, Stokes recalled, with multiple locations explored before settling on the Chief Louis Centre.
Before the store’s opening, Kúkwpi7 Rosanne Casimir expressed high hopes for the store’s impact.
“This project will bring food closer to home, create employment, and further strengthen our economy,” she said in a community statement. “It will be a source of pride as leadership is fully implementing a community driven opportunity.”
Before opening, the public was kept up to date through updates and upcoming events listed on the market’s website.
A members-only job fair was held in September to give band members a chance to explore the job opportunities before opening it up to the public.
Between full-time and part-time job openings, the market employs a total of 65 people in management and frontline positions.
Stokes explained that the job openings are a helpful addition for TteS.
“That opens up the opportunity for a lot of people who live in the area to be able to work in the area,” she said.
Since the store opened to the public last month, Stokes said she has served customers of all ages and varying family sizes. The market is currently open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Sundays.
“Everybody’s been coming in and shopping and it’s really amazing to see the support from the community to be able to provide this service,” she said.
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