To bring electives to a small community school, thinking outside the box is mandatory.
For Boston Bar Elementary-Secondary School, with five and a half teachers leading 53 students from kindergarten to Grade 12, it means skipping electives during the day-to-day classes.
“Normally, you would have different electives happening all the time, all-year round in school,” said Jenelle McMillan, First Nations support worker at the school. “Our school is a little bit different, being that we’re a K to 12, and we don’t have as many teachers with like a Red Seal so that they can do the shop classes, or people with the experience or the knowledge to do other things.”
Year round, students complete their core competencies as well as physical education and one hour of First Nations learning a week. Then four times a year, students get to choose from a smattering of electives which they take for four half days.
Electives have included regalia making, woodworking, small engine repair, the barista trade, history and McMillan’s March moccasin-making class.
Students sit hunched over their supplies —beads, leather cut into shapes ready to be assembled, string and scissors. They are concentrated on their work, but still find time to chat and joke with each other.
Grade 12 student Kaitlynn Rogers has just started assembling her moccasins, she still has to gather and sew together the leather peices and the beaded top, called a vamp.
“Art is my passion, because it takes me into this magical fantasy world,” she said. Beading and sewing moccasins is the latest of her forays into the artistic world.
“It’s harder, it’s harder to get through the layers,” she said, comparing to the sewing she is used to: dresses, Halloween costumes.
“They’re learning all sorts of skills, right: hand-eye coordination, they’re learning about patterns and shape recognition and they’re also learning what they’re abilities are,” McMillan said.
Many started out with intricate designs for the beaded tops of their moccasins, now most opt for a simpler design. This is also teaching them, McMillan said, their own abilities and the focus, concentration and effort that goes into making a beaded vamp. It builds character, she adds.
“In traditional skills, we took a lot of time and put a lot of pride in what we did,” McMillan said.
“Our elders didn’t tell us. We had to watch and it was done in silence. So you had to already be willing to sit for hours.
We also teach that, in our culture, the first that we make of anything, is gifted away. And so it’s really hard for some of the students, ‘well why, this is the most amount of work we do, why would we give it away?’ and it’s for that exact reason., because you have that attachment to it.”
Each camp involving traditional Indigenous skills begins with history. The class explores how the practice of making moccasins has evolved and changed as contact and colonization became a reality for Indigenous communities.
Modern day capitalism and international trade also enter into the learning: the beads used to be bought mainly from the Czech Republic, now many are mass produced in China and sold in dollar stores here.
Despite mass production, the moccasin camp is an expensive one to run: each pair of moccasins costs $65 in supplies alone. Student pitch in by fundraising, selling band-aids to make up the difference between the small budget given to electives and the cost of running the course.
“If we were only doing this as part of our regular budget, without fundraising, students would only be making little moccasins that you hang in your windshield, because that would be affordable,” said McMillan. “It’s well worth it for them to have that opportunity to learn.”