Belinda Daniels wins the Canadian Teachers’ Federation 2015 Outstanding Aboriginal Educator Award

By Kate Hawkins

There’s nothing Saskatchewan teacher Belinda Daniels enjoys more than taking her students beyond the four walls of the classroom, to teach outside.

“It’s a very calming effect out there. You feel connected, you feel centered,” she said.

“You feel a sense of groundedness and you do really get that feeling that you’re nourishing your learning spirit… My mind becomes so clear and everything feels so crisp. You definitely don’t feel like that in a classroom.”

Daniels teaches Cree, Indigenous studies and Canadian history at Mount Royal Collegiate secondary school in Saskatoon, one of the few areas in Canada that offers a bilingual Cree program.

She enjoys teaching Cree because it helps reconnect her students to their heritage and gives them a sense of identity.

“Our language is the essence of our being, it’s who we are,” she said.

“That’s what they’ve taken away from us, was our language, and look at how much chaos and destruction and identity crisis it’s caused, because you can see it now… A lot of our young people have an identity deformity, which comes from the loss of not knowing our languages.”

Daniels decided to pursue a career in education while working in a high school as a clerical accountant. A teacher at the school approached her and suggested that she was capable of becoming a teacher herself. Daniels took the advice of her colleague and came to learn that teaching really was the right path for her.

“My job doesn’t feel like one, so I believe that I was born to be an educator, without a doubt.”

Aside from now working fulltime as a high school teacher, Daniels teaches at the University of Alberta in the summer at their Canadian Indigenous Languages and Literacy Development Institute and at the University of Saskatchewan throughout the year. She is also a PhD candidate in the disciplines of anthropology, history and education at the University of Alberta.

Among her accomplishments are the Cree language summer camps that she founded and continues to coordinate. At the nēhiyawak land and language camps, Daniels teaches basic Cree (nēhiyawewin) and nēhiyaw traditions, including picking sweet grass, fishing and tracking and skinning rabbits.

“The idea came from a master’s project, and that was about me wanting to reconnect with my heritage language, and the land that I came from,” Daniels said.

“I wanted to reconnect to that because I felt something was amiss within me, I wanted to learn to speak Cree from a nēhiyaw world view.”

Although Daniels didn’t grow up speaking Cree, she did grow up hearing it and so was quickly able to perfect the intonation and rhythm of the language. She said that thanks to Cree language programs, Cree use in urban settings is becoming more and more common and students are interested in learning it.

“I enjoy teaching Cree as a second language because I get lots out of it too. It helps me be consistent; it helps me be dedicated to my own language learning,” she said.

In the future, Daniels has big dreams for Cree speaking people in Canada.

“My focus has always been on language preservation and development… if I were to think big, I would want to have bilingual education in all sectors of learning,” she said.

“And if I were to think really big, that our language would one day be an official language in Canada.”

(Kate Hawkins is a journalism student who has worked as a communications officer with the Canadian Teachers’ Federation during the summer of 2015)