As a child on the west coast of Newfoundland, Kristen Pittman grew up hearing family stories of her great-great-grandfather John Stevens. Stevens, a Mi'kmaq guide, worked with JP Howley (noted geologist, curator, author) surveying the colony as part of the Geological Survey of Canada.
"I grew up knowing I was Mi'kmaq, and I was very, very proud," says Pittman, who was born in Toronto and raised in Corner Brook. "I was very lucky to have grown up in a family immersed in Mi'kmaq culture and beliefs. Quite lucky, because that was lost in a lot of families around Newfoundland."
Those rich, childhood experiences helped fire Pittman's passions for Mi'kmaq and First Nations culture, and create a desire to help others in her band reach their full potential. Something Pittman now gets to do every day as Team Lead - Education & Training with Qalipu First Nation. And it's through this role, and a monumental new partnership between Qalipu and the provincial government, that Pittman has the opportunity to help indigenize Newfoundland and Labrador's curriculum, impacting students across the province.
"We're a bit unique with Qalipu First Nation because we're landless," says Pittman. "So, in order to change or alter the curriculum for any of our members, we need to have these partnerships."
- Born: Toronto, ON
- Raised: Corner Brook, NFLD
- Education: Bachelor of Science, Psychology: Memorial University of Newfoundland
- Career: Initially with the Federal Government, Pittman joined Qalipu First Nation as a client services officer in 2012, transitioning to Team Lead of the Education and Training department in 2019.
- Off the clock: Married her husband (a mental health nurse), in 2012, and had a daughter in 2016.
- Pittman teaches drum making, practices drumming with her daughter, and encourages her budding interest in jingle dress dancing.
Established in 2011 under the Indian Act, Qalipu First Nation is unique in that it's a Nation without reserve land that boasts a membership that hovers around 22,000, spread across 67 traditional Newfoundland Mi'kmaq communities, making it one of the largest First Nation groups in the country.
When the province released an education action plan in June 2018 identifying identify indigenous education and the enhancement and understanding of indigenous knowledge, history, culture, practices, and experiences as one of nine areas of focus, the partnership seemed an obvious fit. Now, deep in the initial stage of the project, Pittman, her team, and their partners are preparing for the big job ahead.
"Our main focus, if we're going to do this, we want to do this right," she says. "Because not often do we get the opportunity to change the curriculum Province-wide. We don't take that opportunity lightly."
Pittman notes the importance of building identity, for young people, especially indigenous youth, to their future success.
"You know, when we go into the schools, we do see a loss of identity. A loss that has happened throughout generations in the province," she says. "Identity is really essential, especially with youth trying to figure out who they are and where they fit. And having that anchor to their community, their culture is really beneficial to self-worth."
But the changes, when they come, will be beneficial for students from all backgrounds by helping create a better understanding between Indigenous and settler communities.
"To get that indigenous lens strongly on our curriculum, so students grow up either knowing their own identity or knowing and appreciating the identity of others in their province and their classroom," Pittman says.
The project also aims to fix existing historical inaccuracies.
"There's been a lot of misinformation in textbooks," Pittman says. "We see that all the time, when in the schools. So we want to have it [the cuuriculum] historically correct."
As a mom to a four-year-old girl raised with pride in her Mi'kmaq culture, Pittman's interest in decolonizing the education system hits even closer to home.
"I want her to go to a school where she is represented in the textbooks and lessons," she says. "I don't want her to feel like she's an anomaly. I want her to realize she is not alone and to have a sense of identity and community within her school."
Robyn McNeil is all about her kid, her cat, her people, good stories, strong tea, yoga, hammocks, and hoppy beer