Hesquiaht First Nation Place of Learning: Not Just a School

By: Anita Bedell

Hesquiaht First Nation Place of Learning
Hesquiaht First Nation Place of Learning

The new Hesquiaht First Nation Place of Learning isn't just a school. It's a community centre, a post-disaster facility and most of all, something that community members built with their own hands, reflecting their own vision, using natural resources from their own traditional territory.

Through well-attended meetings, the community was instrumental in the design and construction of the school. In fact, more than half of Hesquiaht's members helped with its construction. “We wanted to build the school we wanted, not have one given to us,” said Cecil Sabbas, Band Administrator and Project Coordinator. “The process was exciting for us all.”

The Story Pit and totem pole
The Story Pit and totem pole donated by Hereditary Chief Andrews

Exciting. And challenging too. With no road access to Hesquiaht on Vancouver Island, supplies had to be brought in by barge or floatplane. But then this tiny, remote community tucked into the inlet by Hot Springs Cove, is used to overcoming hardship. In 1964, a devastating tidal wave destroyed the community, forcing its members to disperse to Port Alberni and Victoria. Starting from scratch, the community has rebuilt and those who remain are proud to call this place by the sea home.

Setting a Green Example

“A lot of thought went into it,” said Sabbas, when asked about the school's design and the extra consideration paid to respecting the land and harnessing its natural resources. Community members collected logs after a storm and these provided the building's support beams. The cedar throughout came from the traditional territory, milled by volunteers on a saw purchased by the community as an investment towards self-sufficiency.

Other “green” features include the use of solar-heated rainwater to power a geothermal heating system and the harnessing of wind power for natural air ventilation. “We wanted it to be simple and low maintenance. We're trying to do our part — as small as we are, as isolated as we are. We try to set a soft footprint on the environment,” explained Sabbas.

Hereditary Chief Dominic Andrews, one of the school's biggest advocates, donated a totem pole, which now stands watch over the Story Pit, where the kids hold performances and gather for storytelling. “The Big Chief has a very strong presence in this school,” Sabbas regularly tells visitors.

By the Community for the Community

Principal Atleo with students
Principal Atleo with students

Having recently moved to Hesquiaht from Victoria, Rebecca Atleo, Principal of the school says one of the first things she noticed about her new home was its good community feeling and how the school has contributed to that sense of unity. “This school is a positive for the community,” she said. “It's the best way to get the message out there — that we can do this, we can strive, we can accomplish anything.”

Part of Principal Atleo's approach to education comes from her grandmother, who said, “The best time to teach a child is when they're eating. They are swallowing the knowledge.” Now, the school's gymnasium is a place to gather, feast and learn. The community is looking forward to hosting their first potlatch there very soon.

The Hesquiaht First Nation's school project had the support of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, which provided funding of $7.5 million under its Education Capital Program and provided guidance along the way. And the Province of BC recently donated 12 computers, satellite dishes and internet access. “Government was a partner in our success,” Sabbas added.

The future is a little brighter for the Hesquiaht community. Plans are in the works for a graduation ceremony for all Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations students to be held in the new gymnasium. And Atleo is hoping that other First Nations will see what Hesquiaht has done and be inspired to start positive community projects of their own.

Investing in First Nations Education

A view of the school and the Stein Valley
A view of the school and the Stein Valley

Located outside of Lytton, BC, two and a half hours east of Vancouver, the new Stein Valley Nlakapamux School (pronounced Ing-Khla-kap-muh) opened its doors in September 2009. The new school has over 270 students from Kindergarten to Grade 12, and teaches conventional subjects like Math, English and Science alongside the local Nlakapamux (also spelled Nlha.kAPmhh) language and First Nations studies.

Classrooms are all labelled in Nlakapamux and English
Classrooms are all labelled in Nlakapamux and English

The new school is a wonderful example of what hard work and partnerships can achieve. Local First Nations worked hand-in-hand with a volunteer school board and the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada to make the vision of a new school a reality.

In an ongoing commitment to providing high quality education, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada has helped build ten schools on-reserve in BC since 2004. The department also funds 119 First Nations schools in BC.