Awi’nakola: Unique land-based ABE upgrading program at NIC this Fall

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Mount Waddington North Island College faculty Sara Child, Caitlin Hartnett, and Danita Schmidt explored Wadzulis (Deer Island) in August, in preparation for the new Awi’nakola ABE upgrading pilot program student camping trip.
Photo by Caitlin Hartnett

By Trish Weatherall

Published in the North Island Eagle newspaper Aug. 25, 2017

The North Island College Mount Waddington Campus has created an innovative way to learn and upgrade this September with an Adult Basic Education (ABE) pilot program. The Awi’nakola upgrading program is a land-based learning initiative designed by Mount Waddington NIC instructors Caitlin Hartnett, Sara Child, and Danita Schmidt – Awi’nakola means ‘we are one with the land and sea’ in Kwak’wala/Bakwamkala, the local Kwakwaka’wakw indigenous languages.

“Awi’nakola is not just a word,” said Child. “It’s a whole concept that teaches us so much about the land and sea, and our responsibility to take care of our natural world. It’s an alternative to traditional ABE that helps students relate to coursework in a more relevant way.  A large majority of our ABE students are First Nations, and we were looking for a way to find a better fit for ABE needs. The ultimate goal is to help them succeed, and I believe this program will do that.”

The class format integrates Kwak’wala and culture with weekly math and English upgrading and time on the land, followed by class time. The program is tuition-free for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students as an Adult Basic Education (ABE) program, as recently announced by the BC government.   Students will learn basic conversation, structure, and pronunciation of Kwak’wala, with a focus on listening and speaking the language, and learning about greetings, social interactions, household activities, cultural activities, food harvesting and other aspects of a rich and continuing tradition.

“Awi’nakola is a program unique to our campus,” said Hartnett, Mount Waddington NIC’s Campus Community Coordinator. “It’s a more holistic model of programming, including the heart and the head. It’s surprising how much learning can be related to the outdoors – there are math concepts in a fern leaf. The program will also weave topics together, so we may teach English grammar and Kwak’wala grammar simultaneously.”

The program concept came out of NIC staff and faculty dialogue around Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action.

“The program was designed by our team to zero in on the call to action to address the gap in education that exists for many adults,” said Child.

Hartnett, Child, and Schmidt have all been doing graduate work in Indigenous place-based learning fields, with Child completing her MA in Language Revitalization at University of Victoria in August.

“We have the perfect team right now,” said Hartnett. “We have so many amazing staff and faculty who are steeped in indigenous knowledge, and many others who are learning and respectful of that knowledge.”

The three travelled to Wadzulis (Deer Island) and surrounding islands and waterways with the MW NIC Aboriginal advisors in early August for inspiration and preparation for the program’s three-day camping trip.

“It was incredible,” said Hartnett. “We heard the story of how different histories and peoples were tied to the same place. Kwakiutl histories and non-Indigenous histories.”

The first week of classes, students will plan and prepare for the Wadzulis trip during which Elders and community members will teach the students place names and stories of the land. The trip is intended to connect students to the land, culture, history, and to each other, through canoeing, and food and medicine walks. All equipment and food will be supplied, with camping gear donated by Sacred Wolf Friendship Centre.

Subsequent weeks will also have an outdoor component, including possibly visiting areas like Cluxewe, Quatsino, and the Tsulquate River, followed by class time at the Port Hardy campus.

“It’s a unique adventure to be setting on,” said Child. “In the classroom, the teacher is the expert. On the land, some of the students will be the experts. Many students are older and have a huge amount of experience to share. This is an opportunity to bolster their self-esteem by drawing on their strengths.”

“It’s a very strength-based program,” said Hartnett. “We will build the understanding that we are all learners, and we are all teachers. Everyone has a gift to contribute.”

Students completing the program will receive ABE credits for Kwak’wala, English, and math, to complete secondary school or to fulfill pre-requisites for other college programs.

“Indigenization is a goal of the college. We know we need to change our way of thinking and get out of the square box – the way we have been delivering courses,” said Child. “I believe we are on the right track, and this program will be successful and has huge possibilities.”

“We also considered students’ need to juggle work and family, so the program is only 3 days a week,” said Hartnett.

Classes will be held on the land at various locations, and at the NIC Mount Waddington Port Hardy campus Monday to Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. from Sept. 6 to December 15. The College held an information session on August 21st at Sacred Wolf Friendship Centre in Port Hardy, and is still accepting enrolment in the Awi’nakola program. Register at the College or by calling Aboriginal Advisor Christy Whitmore at 1-800-715-0914 ext. 2863 or emailing

Hartnett noted that NIC still offers ABE courses in their traditional flexible format, which allows students to begin courses at any time up until March 2, 2018 in a drop-in lab format. These courses are also tuition free.