Best Practices in Public Education Across Canada: The Urban Aboriginal Education Project – Lakehead District School Board

Lakehead District School Board is located in the Thunder Bay area of Ontario. With a student enrollment of just over 13,000, the board consists of twenty-five elementary, four secondary and one adult education centre. Lakehead District is one of the boards that participated in the Urban Aboriginal Education Project, an innovative provincial pilot project in the area of aboriginal education. Other participating boards were Simcoe County District School Board and the Toronto District School Board. 

Supported by the Ontario Ministry of Education (Aboriginal Education Office), in collaboration with Lakehead University and the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, the goal of the project was to develop innovative approaches to meet the needs of First Nation, Métis and Inuit students living in large urban centres.

See this video for more information on the engagement opportunities and research developed by Lakehead University and Lakehead District School Board through the Urban Aboriginal Project.

The CSBA interviewed Cathi Siemieniuk, Director of Education as well as Sherri-Lynn Pharand, Superintendent, to explore the extraordinary resources and opportunities developed by Lakehead District School Board for this project.

CSBA: What opportunities has the Urban Aboriginal Education Project provided to the school district?

LDSB: Lakehead District School Board established an Aboriginal Education Advisory Committee (AEAC) in 2003, with the mandate to provide advice to the Board on all matters related to Aboriginal Education.  This committee has been instrumental in laying the foundation that enabled the UAEP to be successful and provided guidance, advice and direction for the project.

The UAEP has provided an opportunity for Lakehead District School Board to work together with our community in order to identify and address key priorities in Aboriginal Education.  This project provided the following opportunities within our district in the following four main areas; Aboriginal Student Supports, Staff Supports, School Supports and Community Supports.

Student Supports:

Cultural Programming

Students of Lakehead Public Schools have participated in cultural learning activities such as Powwow’s, Fall Harvest and in-school cultural learning.  This opportunity to build positive relationships among schools, community and families has allowed Aboriginal students to feel proud of their Aboriginal identity.

Aboriginal Role Models

The intention of the role model program was to have Aboriginal artists, cultural and traditional teachers and Elders visit schools and classrooms.  The key partner for this program was the Learning Through the Arts team who created an Arts program in elementary schools with Aboriginal artists.

Aboriginal artisans worked collaboratively with classroom teachers in Grades K to 7 and have facilitated professional development sessions for teachers.

Aboriginal Mentorship

The Aboriginal Mentorship program is offered in all secondary schools and is integrated into the Native Studies credit courses.  The goals of this program are to improve student achievement, empower Aboriginal youth as they gain interpersonal and communication skills, leadership, increase public confidence, and nurture positive community relationships.

Students in the mentoring program have the opportunity to volunteer as mentors or protégés to Aboriginal students at an elementary school.  In addition, the community has provided learning opportunities through workshops and student/community engagement through participation in various activities and events.

The Aboriginal Mentorship program has created spaces within the school that honour Aboriginal culture and traditions.  School, community and student relations are strengthening, along with Aboriginal students feeling an increased sense of belonging, self-respect and pride in their heritage.

Aboriginal Transitions

The Aboriginal Transitions program is offered in secondary schools by a Special Assignment Teacher (SAT).

The Aboriginal Transitions program provides in-school student supports and cultural and community connections for First Nations students who leave their First Nation communities to complete their secondary education in Thunder Bay.

In December 2009, Lakehead District School Board received approval for a new locally developed credit course entitled Grade 10 Aboriginal Transitions.  This course is focused on First Nations culture, as well as the literacy foundational skills that will enable success in other areas of the curriculum.

Special Assignment Teachers support student success in the Transitions program by:

  • welcoming and conducting tours for new students
  • supporting professional development
  • coordinating and accompanying students to community events
  • hosting guest speakers
  • liaising with students and their teachers or guidance counselors
  • contacting parents and communicating regularly with school social workers, school guidance counselors and boarding home parents to discuss student achievement and social issues
  • building public confidence and collaboration with First Nation educators to ease transitions for First Nation students
  • encouraging students to attend classes daily and helping individual students with assignments
  • linking students with social workers or guidance counselors.

Family Connections

The Family Connections Program operates within an elementary school on each side of the city.  Its focus is to provide programming for parents that helps them assist their children to be successful in school, for example; literacy and numeracy strategies, how to help with homework, dealing with bullying, drugs and alcohol prevention, parenting tips and healthy diets.

The program also hosted:

  •  community kitchens in partnership with the Friendship Centre
  • baking and craft sessions for parents learning new recipes for healthy eating/snacks and making of a craft that could be done with children
  • for the Love of Books –sessions were held for parents that encouraged them to help their children read
  • Rock, Paper, Scissors – craft program in partnership with the Friendship Centre gave parents ideas and supplies to work at home on crafts to help develop children’s motor skills and creativity
  • a guest speaker from the Friendship Centre conducted a session on self-esteem
  • U Make the Difference – nine week program facilitated by the Friendship Centre taught parenting skills on interacting with their children during play and ideas for developing communication skills in young children

Resources and curriculum were essential in providing the support to our participants:

  •  crafts – variety of books related to doing crafts with your children/ideas for parents
  • literacy – mini lending library available to parents; books are divided into ages 0 to 3 and 4+
  • numeracy – resources kept on site to help parents help their children with Math, i.e., manipulatives, tools for learning fractions, etc.  One-on-one help for parents who struggle with Math also provided.
  • Parents as Partners in Education – series of workshops put together by the Literacy and Basic Skills Program
  • Healthy Food and Nutrition Workshop – created by the Family Connections Program using a variety of sources
  • Family Connections Parent Guide Book – produced by the Family Connections program

Child care, healthy snacks and transportation were all provided.  Through our Adult Education Centre, parents can stay at the Family Connections program in their child’s elementary school and work on credits towards their diploma.  To date, we have had three high school graduates out of this program.

Elder Supports

Elders engaged students and classroom teachers in traditional teachings, while serving as role models for students in the classroom, creating a welcoming and engaging environment that is accepting for all, developing awareness among teachers of instructional methods through oral communication, and encouraging youth to further engage in school activities.

Local community Elders and Senators provided advice on various UAEP initiatives.  They provided opening and closings remarks, were available to give advice and shared their wisdom about cultural teachings.

An Elders Advisory Committee was established and includes three Elders and one Senator.

Later Literacy Program

Educational Assistants (EAs) were hired half-time to work in five schools with Aboriginal students who were not reading at grade level.  Under the direction of the Special Education Facilitator, the Educational Assistants worked one-on-one with Aboriginal students in Grades 7 and 8 to close gaps in literacy achievement.  The Educational Assistants and Facilitators received regular training on literacy strategies and cultural awareness.  Data demonstrating student improvement was collected and feedback was given to evaluate the success of the program.  Additional literacy resources were provided to each school.

School Supports

Welcoming Environments

Lakehead District School Board developed a Welcoming Environment draft document that focuses on four areas that support Aboriginal student and parental engagement:

  • Environment
  • Practices and Attitudes
  • Outreach
  • Resources and Instructional Practices

Five schools were selected based on voluntary student self identification data and received funding to participate in further developing a welcoming learning environment for Aboriginal students and parents.  Aboriginal literacy resources, posters and other materials were purchased that reflect Aboriginal culture and tradition.  Funds were also used to access Aboriginal role models to visit the school.

All Lakehead Public Schools have new signage that recognizes the traditional territory of the Fort William First Nation.

Aboriginal Content, Resources and Materials

Numerous books with Aboriginal content and perspective have been purchased for all elementary and secondary schools to support the learning experiences of all students.

Professional development sessions with the Aboriginal Education Resource Teacher and Aboriginal community members were provided to increase teachers’ comfort level to include Indigenous Knowledge within the Ontario Curriculum.

Aboriginal Curriculum Modules

A six-day Grade 10 Civics module was developed that focuses on six topics:  Residential Schools, Treaties, Challenges, Aboriginal Diversity, Aboriginal Rights and Self-Government and Terms to Know.

Teachers and secondary Chairs received professional development on the module.  First Nation and Métis community members provided guidance on the appropriateness and relevance of the module content and also served on an expert panel at the training sessions.

Staff Supports

Professional Development

Educational Learning Teams developed a First Peoples Resource Collection which includes samples of Aboriginal items, books and other resources that reflect the FNMI people.

At least two teachers from each elementary school and six teachers from each secondary school participated in a series of professional learning sessions that built capacity for culturally inclusive and effective teaching and assessment and evaluation practices using the collection.

As the training has progressed, it has become very grade specific, connecting Indigenous Knowledge to specific curriculum expectations.

Additionally, the following training occurred:

  •  the Native Studies teachers participated in the Native Studies Professional Learning Community.
  • through the English Language Learners (ELL) secondary program, FNMI books were purchased and lessons were created and tried in the ELL classrooms.
  • French Immersion teachers also participated in professional development and received Aboriginal resources written in French.
  • in partnership with Lakehead Elementary Teachers of Ontario, teachers had the opportunity to participate in an Aboriginal Culture and Oral Language workshop.
  • through partnership with the Occasional Teachers union, teachers had the opportunity to participate in three professional development sessions that focused on Aboriginal resources and literacy, student engagement, and Aboriginal culture.
  • All schools received two cultural awareness sessions that focused on the Aboriginal Presence in Our Schools Guide, welcoming environments and the Elder/Senator Protocol.

Community Supports


The UAEP project enabled Lakehead District School Board to develop partnerships with community agencies that enabled participation in a wide variety of events such as:

  • annual Fall Harvest, Spirit of Winter and Paint the Town Clean events through Community Coalition Unified for the Protection of Children and Youth (CCUPCY)
  • Northwestern Ontario’s Aboriginal Youth Achievement and Recognition Awards through various community partners
  • annual First Nation Student Welcome Orientation Event
  • Aboriginal Music Tour
  • Aboriginal Youth Empowerment Program through Thunder Bay Indian Friendship Centre
  • Life Skills Project through the Thunder Bay Indian Friendship Centre
  • Neighbourhood Capacity Building Program at Sir Winston Churchill CVI, and McKellar Park, Westmount, Ecole Gron Morgan, Ogden Community, Sherbrooke and Algonquin Avenue Public Schools
  • Beedaubin Trickster Theatre Project
  • School cultural learning days such as National Aboriginal Day (NAD committee) and cultural learning stations (Neighbourhood Capacity Building Program)

Aboriginal Parent/Guardian Advocacy Program

The purpose of Lakehead District School Board’s Aboriginal Parent/Guardian Advocacy Program is to assist parents and guardians who may need additional supports to understand education practices, policies and procedures, to resolve concerns regarding their child/children’s needs, to connect with community resources and to engage in their child/children’s education.

Staff members are also able to access a volunteer through this program to assist with open houses, student registrations, translation services and nurturing relations with parents/students.  As described in this project, an advocate can be a support person, helper, friend and/or interpreter.

An orientation manual and training have been provided to volunteers to assist them in their roles.

A vital component and opportunity within the Urban Aboriginal Education Project is the research to evaluate the effectiveness of the local projects.

The initial phase of the Lakehead District School Board’s research was carried out by Dr. Christina Van Barneveld who conducted a survey of students, parents, staff and community as a preliminary scan in June 2009.  This research identified areas of priority and provided the framework for the focus groups and qualitative research conducted by Dr. Lisa Korteweg.

The final report completed by Dr. Lisa Korteweg reports the findings and insights gathered from over 40 focus groups with both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students, staff, parents and community and makes recommendations for next steps.

Engaging in this collaborative process with our researchers really enabled Lakehead District School Board to hear the voice of our staff, students, and their families.

CSBA: What policy frameworks have guided the resources produced through the Urban Aboriginal Education Project?

LDSB: The Ontario FNMI Policy has been integral to the UAEP.  The goals and indicators have provided the framework for the work that was completed by Lakehead District School Board.

The Ontario Curriculum was the foundation for all of the resources created under the UAEP.

Lakehead District School Board’s Voluntary Aboriginal Student Self identification has also been critical to the implementation and monitoring of the project and for the communication of the results to the school board and the broader community.

CSBAHow were Aboriginal culture and values infused into the curriculum at Lakehead?

LDSB: Educational Learning Teams developed a First Peoples Resource Collection which includes samples of Aboriginal items, books and other resources that reflect the FNMI people. Teachers were in-serviced in using these materials in a cross-curricular manner while applying differential learning styles to engage all learners. Through use of these resources, respect, understanding and knowledge is developed in all learners.  Students who have had little exposure to the unique cultural, historical, political and social contributions and challenges of FMNI peoples had opportunity to develop these areas.

The first year of implementation focused on building a general Indigenous Knowledge base with the teachers who chose to self develop in this area.  At least two teachers from each elementary school and six teachers from each secondary school participated in a series of professional learning sessions that built capacity for culturally inclusive and effective teaching and assessment and evaluation practices using the collection.

As the training progressed, it has become very grade specific, connecting Indigenous Knowledge to specific curriculum expectations.  For example, all Grade 5 teachers attended four sessions over the course of the school year with professional development delivered jointly by both school board teachers and community members.  One session focused on governmental structures of First Nations, Metis and Inuit linking this to literacy and student work.  Teachers were equipped with strategies, materials and content to embed Indigenous Knowledge into their practice.  They brought back examples of student work at the following session which they moderated and planned next steps to support students.

CSBA: What lasting impact did this project have on the school community?

LDSB: Notable changes are evident in the areas of parent engagement, student engagement, and delivery and assessment of curriculum.  School environments have become a community hub with diverse and welcoming environments. Parents recognize multiple entry points for contributing to school communities.  There is a sense of place, space and belonging for all learners.  Teachers have skills, strategies and resources to bridge the gap of understanding while they experience more success for all learners by building positive relationships with their Aboriginal learners.

More information on the UAEP project can be viewed on the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association’s website.