Merritt’s own Aboriginal Head Start program participated in the province-wide open house initiative this past weekend, welcoming residents of the Nicola Valley in to learn more about their programs and approach to early childhood education. The Herald attended the event and spoke to organizers about the importance of Indigenous knowledge in education.

The Aboriginal Head Start Program is based in the Nicola Valley Institute of Technology’s Merritt campus, and run by Conayt Friendship Society, along with the NVIT and the Nicola Valley and District Métis Society. Since opening in June, spots at the daycare facility have quickly filled up. While spots may be full, Conayt staff said there’s more outreach to be done.

“It’s been a positive response, but it’s also not reaching as many people as we’d like it to,” said Darby Collier, program coordinator. 

“We want to create a community of knowledge keepers, with people coming in and sharing what they know about the land and different teachings that have been passed on through generations.”

The open house event was a part of this effort to engage the community and build a network, and saw a number of people flow through the space throughout the day. Metis elders shared stories, traditional hand drummers played, and bannock was shared with attendees. Tours were offered of the newly renovated and upgraded facility, which features a traditionally designed playground by Metis artist Pat Calihou. 

Conayt’s Head Start program offers 28 spaces of full-time programming for children who are not yet school aged, including separate programs for younger children aged 0 to 3. Certified Early Childhood Educators (ECE) facilitate the programming, which is offered free of charge for Indigenous children, and includes meals. The activities often focus on traditional practices and cultural learnings. 

“We do our best to teach the children about what’s relevant in each season,” said Collier.

“During the summer we did fishing, and the children got to explore salmon. We purchased salmon for the families and sent them home, and we also let them learn about the life cycle of the salmon.”

Children attending the daycare are taught basic n?e?kepmxcin (Thompson) language skills along with their seasonally relevant culture teachings. Presenters are often brought in to teach students about local Indigenous culture and traditions, which Collier noted has previously been lost through oppressive government policy.

“It [the culture] is kind of lost, because with the residential school system, a lot of early learning was taken away from each nation and tribe,” explained Collier. 

“I feel like the Aboriginal Head Start is kind of giving the power back to the people. We can start this at a young age, and we can have the elders and the knowledge keepers come and instill this in young children so they have those skills that will last them a lifetime.”

Collier told the Herald that watching the children learn something new, including the questions and overall curiosity that arise as result, is her favourite part of the job. The Aborginal Head Start Program is currently in search of Early Childhood Educators (ECEs). The program is currently at full capacity for children, but could take on more kids with additional staffing.

For more information on Conayt’s Aboriginal Head Start Program,, or call 250-378-5107.