by Kerstin Auer —

Raising awareness and educating youth about the MMIWG2S+ movement is a community effort, and School District 58 has been working for years from a collaborative approach. Shelley Oppenheim-Lacerte, director of instruction for Indigenous Education, told the Herald that SD58 is part of a committee comprised of representatives from the RCMP, NVIT, Scw’exmx Child & Family Services, Scw’exmx Health, and the local Union of BC Indian Chiefs Women’s Representative. Together, the committee works to provide education and awareness of MMIWG2S+ issues to students, as well as school district staff, and the community at large. 

“We look at localizing this information as well so that when we connect with people they are not thinking ‘oh, that happens way up north or back east’. It’s actually a tragedy that occurs right here in the Nicola Valley,” said Oppenheim-Lacerte. 

The collaboration of the committee yields a range of workshops and events that address the topic in the classroom and beyond. Lara Coutlee, First Nations Support Worker, sees the efforts as part of the bigger picture of truth and reconciliation efforts within SD58. 

“Whenever we’re doing our work we are trying to cover all our bases, so all of us can address things like MMIWG2S+ as an act of truth and reconciliation, by all of us learning together at the same time so we’re all on the same page, and we have a mutual understanding between Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people,” noted Coutlee.

To honour the MMIWG2S+ Day of Action on May 5, the district is planning a Zoom session for all students and educators at Merritt Secondary School (MSS). Distinguished Professor Sherene Razack from UCLA, who has studied the Canadian criminal justice system extensively and whose research and teaching focus on racial violence, is scheduled to present for 40 minutes with a Q&A session to follow. 

“Prior to that, we will be preparing more information about MMIWG2S+ in a Canadian context. and we’ll be sharing that with teachers so they can have a discussion with students in each of these classrooms before we open it up to the distinguished professor,” added Coutlee.

Preparing students for a presentation about this sensitive topic is part of a bigger support strategy; the school district ensures that counselling support is provided on site and pulls additional support from elsewhere in the district if needed. External supports from wrap-around services in the community are also provided during events, a strong signal to the students that they do not stand alone to face an issue that triggers traumatic experiences in so many families. 

More educational events are planned throughout the school year, like a conversation between advocate and activist Stephanie Harpe, expert on sex trafficking Cathy Peters, and local RCMP representative Tracy Dunsmore. The collaborative discussion within this diverse group took place several weeks ago and yielded a remarkable video that will soon be available on the school district’s website. 

“It was so nice to see these three incredibly strong women from all these different places, all on the same page and understanding one another and finding connection through all their different experiences,” said Coutlee.

The importance of standing together to create a stronger learning environment for the future community cannot be overstated. Oppenheim-Lacerte and Coutlee recently attended a conference in Kamloops organized by the Indian Residential School Survivors Society, where they were able to connect with survivors and other community members. Connections like these make it possible to bring even more educational events and speakers to the Nicola Valley, like a recent youth conference that included a self-defence workshop with Jamen Zacharias. 

Providing the knowledge and skills for youth to develop awareness and to be able to take care of themselves is one of the goals of the committee’s work. Implementing local cultural and traditional teachings provides additional tools for both children and educators. The work that’s being done in School District 58, like during the district’s summer institute in August 2022, is quite powerful. 

“My daughter, Cherish Oppenheim, was murdered in 2001 and so we provided a ceremony which involved our cultural and traditional teachings and connected with staff members so they truly gain an understanding of the tragedy and the trauma that families experience,” shared Oppenheim-Lacerte. “I’m really proud of the work that we’re integrating throughout the school district. It’s a lot of hard work but it’s important work to make a difference for our communities.”