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New education director brings fresh outlook

Courtesy Watsenniiostha Nelson

A decade ago, as soon as Watsenniiostha Nelson handed in her final project at Kiuna College, it dawned on her what she wanted to do with her life.

Through her assignments at Kiuna, a college rooted in a First Nations perspective, Nelson became convinced that putting culture at the heart of curriculum is the key to giving young Onkwehón:we the best chance to graduate and go on to a post-secondary education, whether that be in academics or vocational studies.

“It really opened up my mind,” she said. “If we did this more, do you know how many more kids we’d have that would be interested in school?”

Leading the community’s education system has been a long-held ambition for the 29-year-old Kanehsata’kehró:non. But she never expected it to happen so quickly.

“I honestly did not think this job would happen for at least another 20 years,” said Nelson. “It’s still all new, and I’m still in shock a little over the fact I hold that title.”

Nelson spoke to The Eastern Door on her way to class after a full day of work in Kanesatake’s education system – she is currently in her last semester at McGill, where she is pursuing a Master’s degree in educational leadership.

“My first two days I was like ‘Oh my God, what did I get myself into? Am I ready to do this?’ I had to keep telling myself ‘Yes, there’s a reason they hired you,’” she said.

“Now it’s just excitement.” 

She believes an education director who still knows what it’s like to be a student can be an asset as she takes the helm of the Kanesatake Education Center (KEC).

“​​I feel it has really given me a lot of insight into what direction we should be taking for the students,” she said.

She also noted that her lived experience will help her enact a specific kind of vision for Kanesatake schools. “Being Mohawk, I understand what the needs are for our students,” she said.

While she acknowledged Kanesatake classrooms already work hard to incorporate a cultural foundation considering the available tools, she plans to find ways to take this even further. 

She hopes to prioritize language and culture in schools, perhaps even finding a way to one day follow Kahnawake’s lead in setting aside the standard Quebec Education Plan (QEP) for a curriculum customized to fit the needs of local students.

While she believes the QEP has a lot to offer, it does not centre the language and culture Kanehsata’kehró:non are intent on strengthening.

“I think just taking education into our own hands is what we need as a community,” she said, adding that she would like to learn from what Kahnawake has accomplished.

Her intention to reach out to administrators in Kahnawake’s education department reflects the collaborative approach she hopes to bring to all aspects of her role.

“I very much want to take this in the direction of being very team-led and a collective way of thinking. I don’t want to be like, ‘Oh, just because I’m the director, I’m going to do this,’” she said. “That way of thinking does not work.”

Nelson was planning to meet this week with Ratihén:te High School principal Kimberly Simon and Rotiwennakéhte Ionterihwaienhstáhkhwa elementary school principal Deborah Rennie to learn more about their own visions for the school system and find middle ground.

Nelson’s position had been vacant since last summer, when Scott Traylen retired from his positions as KEC director and Ratihén:te High School principal. 

It’s the first time both school principals and the KEC education director have all been women and Kanehsata’kehró:non, Nelson noted.

In addition to working closely with colleagues, Nelson wants to build relationships with parents and ensure they have the opportunity to be involved in the education of their children.

“Not to say that they’re not right now, but I feel like we could take it to a whole other level of where they’re really inclined in their children’s learning, and just building that community as well, because they’re part of that community. They’re a stakeholder in education,” she said.

Local parent Karahkwiiostha Etienne, whose daughter goes to the elementary school, was pleased to learn that a new education director had been hired.

“That’s great news,” she said.

Etienne has known Nelson for most of her life, with the two having met at elementary school themselves.

“She’s very smart and motivated. I think she’ll do great,” Etienne said.

Nelson’s father is Jeffrey Nelson, who is renowned as the community’s most prolific coach, even starting up a competitive girls’ volleyball team at Ratihén:te this year. He believes Watsenniiostha has a lot to offer in her new position.

“She has the same kind of love for these kids in the community as I do,” he said. “She’s got the educational background, and she’s got the love, and she’s from Kanesatake. You can’t ask for anything better than that.”

To Watsenniiostha, the most important benchmark is the success of Kanesatake youth.

“I want to make sure that we’re building the confidence in our students to be able to accomplish whatever they put their minds to,” she said. 

“They’re going to get their confidence from learning who they are.”

gmbankuti@gmail.com

This article was originally published in print on February 2, in issue 33.05 of The Eastern Door.

Marcus Bankuti, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

Marcus is an award-winning journalist and managing editor of The Eastern Door, where he has been reporting since 2021 on issues that matter to Kahnawake and Kanesatake. He was previously editor-in-chief of The Link and a contributing editor at Our Canada magazine.

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Marcus is an award-winning journalist and managing editor of The Eastern Door, where he has been reporting since 2021 on issues that matter to Kahnawake and Kanesatake. He was previously editor-in-chief of The Link and a contributing editor at Our Canada magazine.