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Education (6-12)

Chiefs call for action after teacher questions Fredericton school’s powwow

May 24, 2024

Leaked email cites ‘spiritual’ nature of event, likens it to a priest holding a prayer vigil with communion

Sseveral students of various ages dressed in traditional Indigenous outfits dance in a school gym.
Fredericton High School hosted a powwow on Tuesday. (Morgan Suhonos)

CBC Indigenous: Indigenous students at Fredericton High School and First Nations leaders feel disgusted and discouraged after a teacher allegedly opposed a powwow held at the school earlier this week.

St. Mary’s First Nation Chief Allan Polchies Jr. shared an email Clifford Cull sent to fellow staff about the May 21 event.

In it, the science teacher criticizes the school for hosting the powwow during instructional time. He claims he contacted Education Minister Bill Hogan and confirmed “these type [of] spiritual meetings are not endorsed” by the department.

Cull likens the cultural celebration that includes traditional drumming, dance, arts, crafts and food, to “having a priest come into FHS and do a prayer vigil with communion and the stations of the cross.”

“There is an expectation for there to be a separation of state and ‘church,'” the email says.

“I am asking that if there is to be a powwow at FHS it be done during non instructional times such as lunchtime or after school.”

‘How dare you’

Polchies reacted with, “How dare you Mr. Cull!”

“Our people have been here from time immemorial. We share our beautiful culture as treaty people. Education is the healing path forward.”

A man with short, grey hair and wearing a blue shirt with a yellow, beaded necklace stands in front of an orange poster.
St. Mary’s Chief Allan Polchies Jr. and the other Wolastoqey chiefs say powwows are ‘not merely spiritual or religious gatherings and to classify them as such is uninformed and offensive.’ (Jeanne Armstrong/CBC)

Polchies and the five other chiefs of the Wolastoqey Nation subsequently issued a statement, saying the email “undermines the cultural significance of powwows, which are vital expressions of our identity, pride and community for our youth.”

They contend such comments reflect broader issues of systemic racism in the New Brunswick education system that “fuels misunderstandings towards First Nation people.”

“It is concerning that these views are still present within the educational environment and raises alarms about the social-emotional safety of Indigenous students.”

The chiefs are calling for immediate action from the Anglophone West School District, the New Brunswick Teachers’ Association and Department of Education to address the situation “in a manner that protects Indigenous students from further harm.”

This would include a thorough examination of the policies and practices that “perpetuate anti-Indigenous racism,” cultural safety and anti-racism training for all non-Indigenous staff, and a public apology “from the involved parties, reaffirming their commitment to creating a supportive and inclusive educational atmosphere.”

Teacher responds

Cull, who is currently absent from school, told CBC News “an in-house email was leaked … or stolen.”

“It asked some questions about the powwow,” he said in an emailed statement.

“There is an active investigation into how the NBED email was stolen.”

Cull did not respond to questions about whether it’s part of a larger investigation into him. But he denied allegations he tore down posters advertising the powwow and denied he has been suspended.

He’s off sick with a bad ankle, he said, declining further comment.

Posts ‘very damaging,’ says student organizer

Grade 12 student Purity Moore, who helped organize the school powwow, is leader of the girls’ drum group and a member of Kingsclear First Nation, described the situation as “very damaging.”

“It’s very discouraging as a student to know that there’s educators in the building that feel that way about your people,” and would compare a sharing of culture to a religious prayer vigil, she said.

“As an educator you’re supposed to create an open and comfortable [environment] for students of all cultures, all ethnicities, all races.”

This is particularly important because many Indigenous youth grow up feeling ashamed of that part of themselves, said Moore, 19.

“I think that openly sharing those views as an educator further pushes those children that are ashamed of themselves into a corner.

“And being able to do things [such] as powwows shows younger youth that they can be proud of who they are.”

A group of girls seated around a traditional Indigenous drum, drumming and singing, with dancers in traditional Indigenous outfits in the background.
The Fredericton High School girls’ drum group performed at the powwow, including Purity Moore, in the black T-shirt on the right, who was one of the organizers. (Morgan Suhonos)

About 60 of the school’s roughly 2,200 students are Indigenous, said Moore.

Although many people were talking about the email and posts on the day of the powwow, it didn’t spoil the event she and other organizers had worked on since September, she said.

It was beautiful being able to “have that sense of community and share culture,” she said, estimating about 400 people attended and have been supportive.

“Everyone is like backing us up and like kind of acknowledging that this is wrong and that these kind of opinions and this kind of stuff, you know … doesn’t have any place at Fredericton High School.”

School district taking information ‘very seriously’

The education minister told reporters Friday he had no first-hand knowledge of the situation and would leave steps forward in the hands of the superintendent of Anglophone West.

But Hogan said he completely supports Truth and Reconciliation and powwows being held at schools.

“I think, you know, it’s an integral part of our history that we need to celebrate and to not expose the students to it or have them participate in some aspects of it in school, then that’s a detriment to their learning.”

WATCH | ‘It’s an integral part of our history that we need to celebrate’

Education minister supports high school powwow: 1 day ago, Duration 0:49

Bill Hogan says the cultural event at Fredericton High School is something all students should experience.

Click on the following link to view the video:

Principal Jason Burns declined to comment, directing inquiries to the district.

The district is “aware that there are emails and posts circulating on social media” regarding the powwow, said spokesperson Paul MacIntosh.

The district adheres to the department’s Positive Learning and Working Environment policy, he said, noting “any behaviour in violation of this policy is addressed immediately.”

“We are taking information that has come to our attention very seriously,” MacIntosh said in an email. He declined to elaborate.

MacIntosh did say that powwows are “encouraged and supported” across the district as a way to “share, celebrate and learn about Indigenous teachings and culture.”

Two smiling teenaged girls seated at a table with Indigenous jewerly on display.
Indigenous arts and crafts, such as jewelry, were on display at the high school’s second annual powwow.(Morgan Suhonos)

“It was a wonderful celebration of Indigenous culture and community,” he said.

“Our school district, schools, and leaders within value the relationships we have fostered with the six Wolastoqey Communities that trust us with their children for public schooling and welcome the opportunity to celebrate and learn about Wolastoqey culture, history, and world views.”

Peter Lagacy, president of the New Brunswick Teachers’ Association, said he’s aware of online postings about the Fredericton High School issue.

Asked whether the association would support Cull if he faced any disciplinary action, Lagacy said only that it supports truth and reconciliation.

David Coon, the Green Party leader and Fredericton South MLA, said he believes the person who wrote the leaked email is just “uninformed” about powwows.

“They’re important cultural events, and it’s a great opportunity to really make the requirement that’s now in the Education Act around ensuring that all students gain an understanding of our relationship with First Nations and Indigenous peoples in this province, to make that come alive, you know, off the pages, through exposure to such a cultural event,” he said.

“And of course it also no doubt helps create a sense of pride for Indigenous students.”

Bobbi-Jean MacKinnon · CBC 

With files from Savannah Awde