Indigenous knowledge incorporated into sustainability plan

Burnaby school district students learn lessons on caring for the land and utilizing plant life


By Nicolette Colosimo

The Burnaby school district wants to use Indigenous knowledge as the foundation to understanding and leading sustainable practices, such as engaging students in activities like drum circles and nature walks.

Rob Smyth, the district principal for Indigenous education, said Squamish Nation elder Latash Nahanee helped the district develop a sustainability strategic plan to incorporate that knowledge into schools. 

“Elder Natash shared with us that Mother Earth can live without us, but we can’t live without Mother Earth,” Smyth said.

The sustainability strategic plan aims to use Indigenous knowledge regarding how communities care for the land and utilize plant life in respectful and meaningful ways to help them sustain an environmentally friendly life.

The inception of the sustainability strategic plan took place right before COVID-19 hit. On March 6, 2020, 150 people including students, trustees and community members had a visioning process on becoming a sustainable district.

In the fall of 2021, a sustainability working group was formed which included students, teachers, administrators and district staff. Their input as well as Squamish Nation Elder Latash Nahanee’s feedback led to the final development of the plan on Feb. 22nd, 2021.

Since the pandemic hit, Burnaby school district has created 15 outdoor learning classrooms and 11 garden spaces.

Indigenous learning hub creates opportunities for drum circle events

Smyth said Stride Avenue Community School, an elementary school in Burnaby, has recently been approved for a new building with an Indigenous learning hub. He said the present school has no space allocated for elders and community members to gather together.

“This is a real opportunity for us to host and to lead events and to continue our learning journey just through welcoming and honouring the elders of the land,” Smyth said.

Smyth said the Indigenous education team has arranged for many schools in the district to be involved in drum circles at their respective schools, so building the Indigenous learning hub provides a chance to unite all the schools together to share drumming, storytelling and song.

“There has been a lot of interest to learn local drumming, protocol and song,” Smyth said. “[The Indigenous learning hub] would be a natural opportunity to bring us together.”

Plant walks provide students with valuable knowledge

Smyth said the Indigenous education team has done many plant walks, in which students explore medicinal properties of plant life. 

“When you take plant walks, you understand the use of plants, and the respectful use of the resources of the land,” Smyth said. “That is an important aspect of learning about the land that we’re on and the plants that provide so much for us.”

While creating the plan, the Burnaby school district consulted with the district student council, which represents students’ concerns to district staff.

Student’s voices empowered

Ryan Chiu, a Grade 12 student at Burnaby North and member of the district union advisory council as well as the Burnaby youth sustainability network, said students are increasingly supportive of integrating Indigenous knowledge and willing to listen.

“I don’t think we’re at that point where we feel like Indigenous knowledge is fully incorporated,” Chiu said. “We’re still more kind of in a space where we’re listening to other Indigenous students, and Indigenous elders to have knowledge, not only for the sustainability plan, but towards our own learning initiatives, as well.”

Chiu said he is excited that Indigenous viewpoints are becoming a bigger topic in the district.

“Indigenous people know the land, and have their ways and their culture of protecting it,” Chiu said “It is important that we’re not essentially colonizing the beliefs in the ways that have protected these lands for such a long time.”

Chiu said it’s critical to keep listening and learning with an open mind.

“There’s so much that non-Indigenous students don’t know about Indigenous culture,” Chiu said.

Indigenous worldview compulsory in curriculum

Smyth said it is mandatory for educators across the district to include the Indigenous worldview into the curriculum. 

“In our strategic plan, we do mention the First Peoples’ principles of learning, and that’s a really beautiful guiding document for teachers to have,” Smyth said. “Educators can unpack that, and incorporate those principles within their classroom.” 

Chiu said the Burnaby school board has included a lot of Indigenous viewpoints and the curriculum has been changed to reflect more Indigenous experience.

Trustees in full support of grounding the plan with Indigenous knowledge

Jen Mezei, Burnaby school district chair, said the sustainability strategic plan encompasses a lot of the goals and priorities of the board in a more holistic way. 

“Embedding Indigenous ways of knowing, embedding diversity and inclusion, embedding how we’re looking at engaging with our partners, and really empowering students’ voices,” Mezei said. “To me, those are such important pieces of how we work together as a board. When we can embed our priorities into the work that we do as a board, all of those pieces fit together.”

Smyth said while developing the plan, he had a powerful experience working closely with stakeholders across the district who expressed support in incorporating the Indigenous worldview.

“That warms my heart to hear that others are interested in that work and understand how we need to ground the work with Indigenous knowledge and through the guidance of the local nations here.”


Rob Smyth, the district principal for Indigenous education, discusses how the Burnaby school district is utilizing Indigenous knowledge in the sustainability plan. Smyth explains how the Indigenous education team engages students in plant walks, in which students explore medicinal properties of plant life.

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