Fort Chipewyan Community High School’s Land-Based Learning Education Program

The Fort Chipewyan Community High School (FCCHS) home of the Trailblazers started in 2020, during the early stages of the COVID-19 global pandemic and began as a modular-based education program (from Alberta Distance Learning).

Right before the COVID-19 global pandemic was declared in 2020, the community of Fort Chipewyan declared its own emergency, an “Education Emergency” in 2019.

The Education Emergency was due to a lack of graduates and low results in provincial testing in the public school division. The need to continue education during the pandemic on top of an education emergency, drove community members to take a new approach to education.

With some people being put into isolation and everyone else being ordered to remain at home, indoors for the pandemic lockdown, we had to create new ways of continuing education. Following COVID-19 protocols, the community began a home-based approach to education.

The community’s First Nations leadership got together and implemented a new education strategy. The Mikisew Cree First Nation’s lifelong education expert, honorary Elder, former Chief Rita Marten, was transitioning to Culture and Language Director, so the MCFN needed a new Education Director. The MCFN hired the former principal of the Athabasca Community Delta School ACDS, as she experienced the former school division actions, that forced the community into an education emergency. With keen insight, full support and a directive from two First Nation Chiefs and Councils and one Metis Local Board, newly hired Education Director Kerri Ceretzke-Mercredi launched the Fort Chipewyan Community High School.

With no actual classrooms, divisional staff, or school, she started by hiring a team of mostly local community members with families deeply rooted in the community’s history and formation, along with a couple of certified teachers. They started with a modular-based outreach program with Frank Spraggins High School in Fort McMurray. Since the pandemic had ordered much of the population to remain at home, essential services were only allowed, which of one was education. Most urban schools started with Zoom video conferencing as their basis to deliver education.

The community of Fort Chipewyan is naturally located in an isolated location which gave the FCCHS the basis to start their home-based outreach program. This started with paperback modules and a pandemic-safe home delivery system which was simply a pick-up and drop-off point for students and school staff.

The FCCHS didn’t have an actual building so they didn’t have a gym. With COVID-19 restrictions the FCCHS started an outdoor education program. Since the community’s inhabitants are entirely year-round land users and occupiers, they naturally started with a seasonal-based, educational approach. Families and friends who remained in contact during lockdown, went out on the land to continue practicing their traditionally inherited rights to hunt, fish and trap year-round. The FCCHS accommodated each family with an education package pertaining to their life on the land. The FCCHS then began sending students, teachers, community staff and land users out on the land to begin their Land Based Learning Program. Each season offered an approach that was directly land-based, with fall moose camps, winter trapping camps, spring migration camps and summer fishing camps. Land-based learning became one of FCCHS’s core activities and starting points.

The FCCHS has seasonal, intergenerational and place-based educational model, which honours culture, land and who we are as a community. Its hybrid teaching model includes daily in-class modular-based teaching, along with online Zoom classes.

In the first year of 2020, FCCHS’s aim was 30 students with possibly seven graduates. They finished with 12 Graduates and 120 students. In 2021, they had over 270 students and 42 Graduates. In the third year in 2022, they had 21 graduates and over 250 students. In total, FCCHS earned 7,250 credits and had over 80 graduates. Prior to the Education Emergency, Fort Chipewyan has never seen four or more Alberta Education Grade 12 graduates at the same time for over two decades. The community is proud of the students past, present and future.

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Mike Mercredi
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