Lessons learned

Longtime advocate Lulla Sierra Johns, who survived the residential school experience, hopes an aboriginal-focused school in Vancouver will improve the grades and lives of aboriginal kids.

A half century ago, at Lower Post Indian Residential School in northern British Columbia, a nun pinned a ribbon roughly to a teary-eyed six-year-old's hair.

The nun's mean-spiritedness, underscored by years of her own poor treatment at residential school, proved too much for the young girl's 11-year-old sibling. "She was pulling at my sister's hair and was hurting her. My sister was crying so I went up and said, 'Stop doing that to her. You can't do that to her.' They weren't used to anyone speaking to them like that," recalls Lulla Sierra Johns, now 60. "She opened up her hand and just walloped me. I knew it was coming and I spread my feet apart and she just whacked me. She snapped my head to the side and I came right back and glared at her. There was no way I was going to let them see me cry. I made sure of that. I guess she could see the hate in my eyes, the anger. She said, 'Lulla John, one of these days your anger is going to get you in trouble.' It was actually my anger that got me through school."

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Johns did more than get through school. In the decades that followed, she landed management positions in the Yukon and federal governments, had four children, earned a political science degree from the University of Victoria, overcame depression, worked on land claims for the Dene in the White River First Nation-her First Nation in the Yukon-worked with the David Suzuki Foundation on a biodiversity project, and launched a business called SunDancers Conferences Inc.

Johns' steely determination to overcome obstacles that derailed some residential school students contributed to these achievements. Now she's embarking on what advocates hope will be a watershed project that transforms First Nation students' lives-Johns is helping to co-ordinate the Vancouver School Board's ambitious plan to open an aboriginal-focused school by September 2012.

She co-chairs the steering committee setting the school up with associate superintendent Valerie Overgaard. Steering committee members, who include representatives from local urban aboriginal groups, as well as other educators, met for the first time Tuesday.

For Johns, an aboriginal-focused school is an opportunity to address well-documented wrongs aboriginal students encountered over the years, and to see that future generations of First Nation students are offered a solid, culturally sensitive education. "I'm a former residential school student. I feel I got negative programming. I have a chance now to try and design something that will be honouring First Nation values, and a chance to do something good for the students that are coming up. I just want to make things right," she says.

Aboriginal graduation rates are dismal- only 30 per cent complete Grade 12 in Vancouver compared to 80 per cent of nonaboriginal students. Roughly 2,100 students identify as having aboriginal ancestry in Vancouver, which represents 3.6 per cent of the district's total enrolment.

Early last year, the VSB held public forums to decide if an aboriginal-focused school could improve results.

It's not the first time the idea was contemplated. The board considered a secondary school for aboriginal students in 1996, but a report concluded it wasn't feasible.

Finding an academically balanced student body of aboriginal students who'd be interested in, or who would choose such a school, was thought unlikely. The '96 report noted the aboriginal secondary student population was academically and socio-economically diverse, geographically scattered and too small to recruit the 300 to 350 full-time equivalent aboriginal students necessary.

Fast-forward to early 2011 when the VSB commissioned another study. A final report, prepared by University of B.C. professor Jo-ann Archibald, determined the time is now right to launch such a school.

Prevailing opinion supports a school with an aboriginal focus, according to Archibald's findings, which also suggested the school encompass kindergarten to Grade 12 and that it's a school of choice open to all interested district students, although aboriginal students should have priority.

Forum participants stressed the school should strive for excellence, focus on a quality education through aboriginal worldviews, knowledge, culture and values, and maintain high expectations for student learning and success.

Cultural diversity and creating a welcoming and safe school environment were among suggested goals, as well as encouraging parents and community groups to take part in school planning and decision-making. A handful of aboriginal-focused schools for various grades already exist in other Canadian cities such as Prince George, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Winnipeg and Toronto, but it will be a first for Vancouver.

Various locations were floated during earlier public forums, including East Side schools such as Templeton, Britannia and Macdonald, while many forum participants didn't want it in the Downtown Eastside. A few mentioned West Side sites. Nothing, however, has been set in stone.

Details ranging from location and grade configuration to recruitment and curriculum design will be sorted out in the coming months by the steering committee co-chaired by Johns. Participants invited to the first meeting include the Musqueam Nation, the Urban Native Youth Association, the Vancouver Native Health Society and the Aboriginal Friendship Centre. They're among groups that will likely offer services at the school. Johns' priority is to ensure First Nation views are heard and incorporated into the school's formation-elements absent in her own early education. Decisions will be made through consensus. "We're not just trying to do another alternative school with extra supports. We want to deliver a genuine product where First Nation philosophy and spiritual practice are infused into how information is taught," she says.

Some ideas proposed for the school during public forums include encouraging participation from parents and elders, holding First Nation ceremonies, offering opportunities for aboriginal language instruction and teaching aboriginal arts, crafts and history.

Dressed in black slacks and a longsleeved maroon shirt, Johns is a petite woman with chin-length, salt-and-pepper hair and a soft-spoken demeanor. She exudes a calm, quiet confidence while seated in the VSB lobby, despite what seems to be an impossibly tight timeline. It's Friday afternoon in late September-less than two weeks into her job as the district's Aboriginal Education Community Liaison, and about two weeks before the aboriginal school steering committee inaugural meeting, Oct. 4. A cast on Johns' right arm-the result of a late-night fall after a sweat lodge organized by her brother in the Yukon- hasn't slowed her down. Not much does.

Born in 1950 in Snag, a traditional village outside of Beaver Creek near the Alaskan border in the Yukon, Johns is the eldest of four children and spent most of her youth-from Grade 1 to Grade 10, at residential school, first in northern B.C. and then in Whitehorse. She finished high school in Victoria where she lived with Grace and Art Vickers-parents of artist Roy Henry Vickers.

"The only good thing that I would say about residential school is the feeling of camaraderie that you get with other people who go through a similar process that was very traumatic-these people who went through that system with you heard the negative comments, felt the hurt, felt the shame, felt the loneliness. You develop bonds that you never break," Johns says.

Armed with a diploma, she returned to the Yukon after high school, settling in Whitehorse where she landed a job with the territorial government. A yearlong position as an announcer and Saturday morning host for CBC Radio followed, but when a political organization, the Yukon Native Brotherhood, formed she was hired to run programs. Much of the work was administrative. "I figured out I was just as smart as the guys. I used to be able to write most of the reports and whatnot, so I asked to be moved into a different position and ended up in a community field rep position," she recalls. Later, Johns secured jobs with the federal government. "During the late '70s and early '80s, it was a time when they wanted women, they wanted minorities, and there were opportunities in the North in management. I just happened to be at the right place at the right time, so I got into a lot of management positions that had huge budgets."

Johns married Tony Penikett, former NDP premier of the Yukon, in 1974, although they split in 1998. Like most women living in an expensive northern city, Johns balanced worklife with raising four children-Carol Sam, who is from an earlier relationship and now a mother of two in Alaska, actor Tahmoh Penikett, who's appeared in Battlestar Galactica and Dollhouse, and Penikett twins Sarah, a realtor, and Stephanie, an event planner, who've appeared in the L Word.

Education, meanwhile, was important to Johns. She enrolled at the University of Victoria in 1989, earning a bachelor degree in political science in the mid-1990s. During her studies she split time between Victoria and Whitehorse. University life coincided with a bout of depression that led Johns on a "healing path" to rediscover native spirituality through counseling, meditation and talking with her mother Bessie John, whose cultural knowledge was extensive.

Beginning in 1996, Johns spent two years in Saskatchewan before moving to Vancouver where she started volunteering with the David Suzuki Foundation, which led to a contract on a biodiversity project involving 10 coastal First Nations.

Johns returned to the Yukon shortly after her mother died in 2000. Bessie John had struggled with an alcohol problem, but got sober in 1978. "My mom was just great. She went right back to her culture. She just got right into her language and did so much cultural work and always spoke from her heart. She always spoke the truth. She made a huge impact on Yukon native cultural life. All the elders knew her and respected her."

Although Bessie John didn't have a formal education beyond a few years of school, she became a Native language instructor for the Upper Tanana dialect. Respect for her achievements is immortalized in a school named in her honour-Nelnah Bessie John School in Beaver Creek, Yukon.

Johns, meanwhile, remained in the Yukon for a few more years, focusing on land claims, then settled in Vancouver in 2004.

She pauses before responding to a question about what drove her through the years. "I just had to prove myself, to the non-native community, that we were just as smart and we could do as well in all the jobs that they could offer. It was just that-a test or a challenge. That I was as good as everyone else-I just continuously had to go out and prove it," she says. "There are a lot of people who turned to alcohol and maybe got depressed and that kind of thing. But there are more than just myself that did try and make a difference."

The next few months promise a dizzying schedule of meetings, consultation and decisions, but Johns is buoyed by the prospect of making meaningful change in the education of aboriginal students. "Since contact, they've taken native people and they've tried to fit them into the western system and our numbers have never shown that it works. The big question is why doesn't it work. We've had umpteen studies, but as far as I'm concerned, the most important reasons why our children have not done as well in the school system as it's set up is because our values, our philosophy, our own way of looking at the world is not there," she says. "My goal is to try and empower our future children. We're going to regain our place in society."

noconnor@vancourier.com Twitter: @Naoibh

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