Nurturing Future Leaders in Esgenoôpetitj

Nurturing Future Leaders in Esgenoôpetitj
a pencil crayon drawing of blurberriesEsgenoôpetitj First Nation, a Mik’maq Nation located in northern New Brunswick, is taking a holistic approach to preserving cultural heritage and fostering self-sufficiency, particularly among its youth. Through an array of programs spanning traditional knowledge transfer, land-based education, gardening, and nutrition literacy, the community is reclaiming ancestral practices and championing food sovereignty. These efforts not only address immediate food security concerns but also empower youth to become stewards of their heritage, equipped with the skills and knowledge needed for healing, growth and a prosperous future.

Traditional Knowledge Inspires Youth Leadership

fishing coats and wader pants along with fishing poles on the wall

Fishing poles, wading pants, and coats line the walls of Esgenoôpetitj First Nation community area as the community engages in traditional gathering methods, which is particularly inspiring to youths.

Building on their successes from last year, Esgenoôpetitj First Nation continues to make remarkable progress in passing on traditional knowledge and skills to the next generation. Bobby, a Mik’maq Elder and youth group leader, has played a pivotal role in this journey by leading fishing and hunting excursions designed to strengthen connections among youth while bolstering self-esteem. In turn, Bobby’s programs also teach vital traditional practices and life skills which allow youth to reclaim heritage lost through generations of Residential Institutions (Schools).

When we connected with Bobby last year, he shared how students enjoyed learning alongside their peers about moose hunting, practicing their skills in handling a gun, moose calling, and conducting traditional thanksgiving ceremonies.

This past year, despite some challenges, the land-based teaching program was able to harvest a moose and hand out meat to community members in need since community members felt confident in the skills learned from the program.

While the community is grateful to be able to rely on knowledge-holders like Bobby, they recognize the need to develop and empower more community role models to preserve these cultural and traditional teachings. Esgenoôpetitj First Nation looks forward to bringing on more teachers and passing these skills onto youth to become the next experts and teachers of the Nation.

Reconnecting with the Land

a woman stands in front of a greenhouse garden structure

Helen proudly shows off the gardens in Esgenoôpetitj as the community continues to re-establish Indigenous food systems.

Helen Joe, a band councillor and coordinator of Esgenoôpetitj’s Brighter Futures program, has big hopes and dreams for her community: “Teaching [the youth] right back from smudging, sweats, like ribbon skirt making, that's gold to us. Teaching them how to hunt, fish, and do traps. My grandpa used to do that but it’s very rare I see people doing it all now. We need to bring that back before we lose people to teach it,” she tells us.

Helen also works to sustain the community’s food sources through local gardening initiatives. She was skeptical about whether families would be interested in setting up home gardens but was pleasantly surprised to find that there was quite an appetite among community members to grow their own produce.

When we first started giving out the community garden beds, I was expecting about 50 people to want them. But I was wrong! Within the first hour of posting on Facebook, we had over 75 requests. With some extra material from the original order of supplies from the winter months, the carpenter made an extra 25 garden beds. So, this time I did a raffle to award one per household. And still the response was overwhelming! In total, we gave away 100 garden beds (with soil) to our community members” she says.

Complementing this initiative, students at school are engaged in planting their own seedlings in the classroom, which they later transfer to either the school garden or their home gardens. This hands-on experience is not only teaching valuable gardening skills but also fostering a deeper connection with the land, enabling children to be able to identify and harvest the foods they grow.

Integrating Nutrition Literacy

a woman stands in a kitchen with two boys, cooking

Beverly teachers her students Miles and Landon on the importance of preparing your own food

From land-based education to cooking classes taught by Beverly in the local school, children in this community are learning a well-rounded set of valuable skills. Cooking classes not only promote nutrition literacy but also empower children to make healthier choices at home, which is especially important for those with parents working long shifts. This past year, 66 students were trained in nutrition and food utilization.

Students like Miles and Landon, both in Grade 7, enthusiastically embrace the school cooking classes and tell us that this class is their favourite part of the school day. They love experimenting with new ingredients, creating innovative new recipes for special occasions, and sharing their creations with their friends and families. Landon even shares that he hopes to become a chef when he’s older.

Beverly shares that the classes are not just improving students’ confidence in the kitchen but exposing them to healthy food options they would otherwise not have access to. “They are trying foods they might not normally eat and are surprised they like it! It’s important as many of these children don’t have enough to eat at home, so they’re at least eating good, healthy meals here at school, and ones that they’ve prepared themselves,” she explains.

The community also recognizes that the potential of these programs goes beyond feeding students. Getting children involved in the kitchen extends farther than just nutrition and is integrated into their academic curriculum. “Some of the children struggle with math and fractions, so recipe reading is a great way to practice math while making something delicious,” Beverly says.

The community initiative to nourish young minds does not stop in the schools but remains active through meal distribution to families in the community; 400 community members received food at community and special events last year.

Holistic Approach for Youth and Culture

two boys stand smiling with their arms around one another

Best friends Miles and Landon enjoying cooking together and learning new recipes

In Esgenoôpetitj First Nation, the journey towards Indigenous food sovereignty is intertwined with fostering youth leadership and land stewardship. The program has inspired 411 children through the preservation of traditional knowledge, blooming home gardens, expanded nutrition literacy, and new educational curriculums. Youth are not only nourishing their bodies but also nurturing their minds and spirits. With the unwavering support of CFTC’s donors, Esgenoôpetitj is sowing the seeds of a prosperous and sustainable future for generations to come.

Original artwork credit to Sarah Cronier, CFTC's Senior Officer Indigenous Programs & Partnerships.