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High school student project on Indigenous culture endorsed by Alberta school division

It was only supposed to be a final project for grade 12 Strathcona-Tweedsmuir student, Sophia Shepherd. But the 17-year-old’s Aboriginal Studies assignment became so much more than homework.

“I didn’t know how much the land was integral to their way of life.”

Her genuine interest in Indigenous traditional ways of healing and their intimate connection to the earth inspired an e-book, Traditional Indigenous Healing & The Land.

“I feel there is such importance in reconciliation and in order to reach that point we need to educate ourselves and a big part of that is understanding their culture and understanding the land and respecting that,” Shepherd said.

It comes at a time when proposed curriculum in Alberta is under scrutiny for missing the mark — including a lack of focus on indigenous issues.

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“I stand by the belief we need to learn way more than taking it out,” Shepherd said. “When I was growing up we learned a little about residential schools but never about how rich and diverse their culture is and we need to incorporate more of that.”

Her Aboriginal Studies teacher, Ashley Provencher, was so moved by the careful, sensitive way her student navigated the project.

“It’s amazing to see a Grade 12 student take it so seriously and come away with powerful knowledge and experience from the assignment and to have the maturity to acknowledge people that have gone through health care system treated unfairly,” Provencher said.

She said Shepherd’s project validates the value of the course, it resonated with her other students as well.

“They said: ‘I’m going to take this course with me for the rest of my life. It’s changed my mind on things’.”

“They talked to their parents about it and, for me, that is the goal of any Aboriginal education. To change perspective, one student at time,” Provencher said.

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One Alberta school division endorsed her work: the Pembina Hills school division is now showcasing the book to its students.

“The book has the content we wanted to explore and because it was written by a current student, we could use it to compare the experiences with Indigenous ways of knowing that today’s young people have to the experiences we had when we were her age,” said Assistant Superintendent of Pembina Hills, Mark Thiesen.

Yvonne Poitras Pratt is a Metis woman and director of Indigenous education at the University of Calgary’s Werklund School of Education.

“I’m incredibly proud of the work she’s done.”

“This student is showing us that there’s no going back,” Poitras Pratt said. “Once you’ve reclaimed the identity and teachers having eyes wide open to colonial truths of our past we are not going backwards.”

Shepherd hopes it will further bridge the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.

“I know they’re facing so much in society and intergenerational trauma and regardless of who I am, I think it’s an issue for our country as whole we need to stand up for them,” Shepherd said.

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