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Educator draws her knowledge on her grandmother’s teachings

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When Jennifer Wabano was in Grade 3, a teacher asked her who she wanted to be when she grew up.

Wabano replied she wanted to be a teacher.

Years later, she fulfilled her wish, dedicating her life to educating people about the real history of Canada from an Indigenous perspective and as an intergenerational trauma survivor.

“I’ve always wanted to be a teacher,” she says.

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Wabano, 45, is a mental health clinician at Weeneebayko Area Health Authority (WAHA) and a cultural and treaty educator from Weenusk First Nation (Peawanuck).

She is also the lead policy analyst and educator at Omushkegowuk Treaty 9 Alliance and a member of Omushkegowuk Women’s Water Council.

Her experience includes teaching at Algoma University and Anishinabek Educational Institute, hosting cultural sensitivity and awareness training to various organizations and high schools as well as workshops on beading and sewing.

A lot of the work Wabano does is land-based and comes from her Indigenous education which she says can’t be taught at college or university.

“I got a lot of my education from my grandmother, my grandmother’s teachings. She taught me a lot about inherent laws, the clan system, the language, medicine,” Wabano says. “I carry a lot of her teachings.”

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Education is so important as there are college and university students who don’t know the history of Canada’s colonial practices and after they graduate, some of them will be working with the Indigenous population, she says.

In Wabano’s opinion, decision-making is hereditary and should be based on inherent laws, not on government policies. When a tribal organization or chief and council make a decision, it doesn’t represent all the views of treaty right holders in the Mushkegowuk territory, she says.

That’s why Omushkegowuk Treaty 9 Alliance was formed.

“The work ahead is to protect the rights of treaty right holders because we can’t have organizations of the Canadian government making the decisions for us if they’re not treaty-based,” she says.

In helping people, what’s important to her is using inherent laws such as medicine wheel concepts. As a mental health clinician, she applies a lot of the culture to programming.

Recently, Wabano helped develop a cultural detox program in Peawanuck. There were four youths who took part in a four-day sweat lodge ceremony. The funds allocated to the program allow to run it four times a year with another program slated for August.

“It was very successful, I’m really glad we were able to do it. Participants, the young people, they all came every day,” she says.

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Wabano also sat on the Timmins Indigenous Advisory Committee.

She says racism is normalized in the city and a lot of people are uneducated about Indigenous people. One of the things Wabano says she wanted to do is to make sure that organizations like the Timmins police or the hospital receive cultural awareness training from an Indigenous perspective.

“It’s not just about taking an online course for 20 minutes learning about dreamcatchers and eagle feathers. You have to take multiple (courses) and it has to be designed by an Indigenous person,” Wabano says, stressing the importance of taking area-specific training and giving space for survivors to tell their stories.

Whenever she has a hard time in life, ceremonies help her to keep going. She’s also been sober for over 20 years leading a life free of alcohol and drugs. That’s how she raised her children, too.

Wabano grew up speaking Cree and wasn’t exposed to the English language until she was about five years old. Her parents, who attended residential school, managed not to lose the Cree language.

When she puts out educational videos, she also makes them in Cree for the elders. When she worked as a cultural resource co-ordinator at the Timmins Native Friendship Centre, she did Cree language activities with kids at the daycare or age-appropriate activities like Cree scavenger hunt with teenagers.

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Wabano is also a designer. Even when she’s busy with work, she still finds time to do beadwork and sewing because it’s like healing and therapy for her.

Throughout this winter, she made beaver mitts and polar bear mitts. During the annual spring hunt, she used goose feathers to make two blankets. In 2019, she also held the first Indigenous fashion show in Timmins along with another designer.

“I can’t go without creating these masterpieces,” she says. “If something comes to mind and I know it’s going to be a masterpiece, I continue to work on it and sometimes, I’m very happy with my work.”

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