'Setting precedent': Spooner hired as Director of Aboriginal Education
Pam Spooner had the chance to come back to a place of personal and cultural significance. At the same time, she had the opportunity to take a job close to her heart.
Her decision to become School District No. 57’s first Director of Aboriginal Education still wasn’t an easy one but she knew it was the right thing to do.
“It feels like coming home, to my home territory,” said Spooner, who is Gitxsan, was born and raised in Hazelton and lived in Prince George for three decades before she relocated to Penticton last year to fill the role as Principal of Aboriginal Education in School District No. 67 (Okanagan Skaha). “Being able to take part in my Gitxsan potlatch system will be amazing as well. And knowing my dad (Joe Foster) is originally born in the Wetset territory, which is Wet’suwet’en – so neighbours to the Dakelh people – feels good.”
Spooner will once again be based in Prince George, which sits on the traditional territory of the Lheidli T’enneh First Nation and the Dakelh. The Dakelh territory covers a large portion of B.C.’s Central Interior and stretches west into the Hazelton Mountains, a range that also falls within Wet’suwet’en traditional grounds.
Prior to her move to the Okanagan, Spooner spent five years at Prince George’s Nusdeh Yoh Elementary School, the first Aboriginal Choice school in the province. She was Principal in her last three years at Nusdeh Yoh and Vice Principal in her first two. Earlier in her career, Spooner served for one year as Vice Principal at Prince George Secondary School, where she was mentored by Sherry Thibault.
Before Spooner became an administrator, she taught senior-level math in the district for 14 years. She worked in that capacity at College Heights Secondary, PGSS, Kelly Road Secondary and D.P. Todd Secondary.
Spooner holds a Masters degree in Education from the University of Northern British Columbia and is nearing completion of a Masters in First Nations Studies, also through UNBC. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics from the same institution, her post-secondary work toward that having started at the College of New Caledonia. Spooner’s education, experience and deep connection to this region made her the perfect candidate to become Director of Aboriginal Education in School District No. 57.
Superintendent of Schools Rod Allen used the term “transformational leader” to describe Spooner.
“She always puts the best interests of students first,” Allen added.
Allen said the Board of Education’s decision to create the Director of Aboriginal Education position “demonstrates the importance that the Board places on Aboriginal education, as well as strong and growing relationships with the Indigenous community.” Previously, School District No. 57’s Aboriginal Education Department was led by a District Principal.
Spooner sees great significance in the fact the position was elevated to the level of Director.
“Prince George making this big move and treating it and respecting it like a Director position –understanding the amount of work that’s involved community-wise, school-wise, family-wise – shows a lot and I think they’re setting precedent for the province by doing this and I’m hoping I can do the position justice so that we can prove it’s necessary across the board,” Spooner said.
“This shows huge respect for Indigenous education and the curriculum. In the community itself it’s going to be a huge public role.”
More than 26 per cent of students in School District No. 57 identify as Aboriginal. As well as being situated on the traditional territory of the Lheidli T'enneh the school district falls within the boundaries of the McLeod Lake Indian Band in the Mackenzie region and the Simpcw First Nation in Valemount.
Spooner said one of her first priorities will be to build strong relationships throughout the School District No. 57 region and beyond.
“The school district is the centre of these communities, so this is where all the work is going to happen, in education – to educate about the truths before reconciliation can happen,” Spooner said. “I also really want to focus on language and connect to the land. (In the Okanagan) I really connected to the land, found their sacred territories. The elders took me under their wings and really taught me about the importance of the land connection so I want to do the same thing here. I lived here 30 years but now coming back with a new lens and new eyes I really want to connect to the land more and the people and the stories and the history.
“It’s important to connect with everyone across the northern chapter, all the way from Haida Gwaii to Williams Lake, to really connect with the Chiefs of those territories because a lot of our kids are from all these northern areas,” she added.
Spooner emphasized that people – like waterways – are linked.
“You look at the Skeena watershed, you look at the Alaska headway which touches the Stikine River, the Nass River and the Skeena River, there are First Nations people all along those waters that we are servicing in Prince George as well so I think it’s important to really build that northern connection to help all of us,” she said.
As for teaching Indigenous languages in classrooms, School District No. 57 has already taken steps toward implementation. The plan for this school year is to start the development of a curriculum, an effort that will be led by elder and language teacher Janet Kozak and Aboriginal Education resource teacher Noelle Pepin.
Spooner sees Indigenous language instruction as an opportunity for students and First Nations as a whole to reclaim a significant piece of their history and culture. By way of illustration, she spoke about an April 2019 flag ceremony at a Penticton elementary school that had Grand Chief Stewart Phillip – who lives in the community – in attendance. The ceremony included Aboriginal students being led in a prayer and a song in their own language.
“He said when he went to residential school he lost his language, so when he saw Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, kids, speaking their language, it touched his heart so much, the respect that showed to the territory, to the people,” Spooner said. “It shows the importance of that language revitalization.
“Seeing that language being exposed in the community, the families – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – have been so happy. Their kids go home excited, talking about it.”