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Carving a new path in education

Brad Baker, North Van's first aboriginal teacher, gains national recognition for advancing First Nations culture in our schools
brad baker
Brad Baker with his father Harry.

The discrimination of Harry Baker started before he was even born.

From one perspective it was baffling because he came from a family of leaders and champions.

Harry's grandfather Willy was a Chief on the Squamish Nation's Mission Reserve on the North Vancouver waterfront. Harry's father Ray, born in 1900, was a famous lacrosse player known as the Silver Fox who would go on to be inducted into the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame.

From another perspective, however, the discrimination was very simple. Harry was Aboriginal, and so he was not welcome to be born at North Vancouver's Lions Gate Hospital. Instead the family went to St. Paul's, across the bridge in downtown Vancouver. It wasn't the last time Harry would be denied access to something so seemingly basic yet vitally important.

On a recent November evening Harry, now 75, gathers with his wife Judy, daughter-in-law Gail and his own son Brad Baker. They're meeting at Harry and Judy's house on the edge of the Mission Reserve to celebrate a national teaching award Brad is set to receive at a ceremony Nov. 20 in Toronto — recognition for Brad's work as a teacher and school administrator, making life better for students in North Vancouver.

There's a lot to laugh and reminisce about, but Harry becomes quiet when talk turns to his own schooling.

Harry, in fact, almost never talks about his schooling. He doesn't talk about being forced to go to St. Paul's Indian Residential School instead of the public Queen Mary elementary that was just a few blocks away from his home. He doesn't talk much about the cruel punishments the students faced, the endless chores they had to do, the way the students were forced to march to church without acknowledging their family members as they passed them in the street. He doesn't talk about having an entire system put in place with the sole objective of changing who he was, of robbing him of his identity, of convincing him that his life as a First Nations child had no value. He doesn't talk about quitting it all by Grade 9.

He does talk about heading down to his grandfather Willy's house to learn about their Squamish culture, but Harry doesn't have much to say about why those lessons didn't always stick. What he does say, however, is chilling.

"Me and my two sisters, after school we would go down to his house and he would teach us the Squamish language," he says. "Then we'd go to school and get it slapped out of us."

Harry then goes silent again.

Those little snippets are all Brad Baker ever gets of the life his father endured as a young child. It's more then enough, however, to drive Brad in his mission to change the school system from within. Many of the elders don't talk much about those abuses of the residential schools, but they talk enough so that people who are listening closely, people like Brad, can get a picture of what it was like. He knows what went on. It's deep in his core. It's what has driven him all these years to change the education system from within, to make life better for a new generation of Aboriginal students, and for generations to come.

• • •

Kathleen Barter was a young teacher barely out of university when Brad Baker showed up for her Grade 9 English class at Sutherland secondary. Their paths have intertwined ever since, but Barter says her first impressions of the big, athletic First Nations kid remain spot on. She knew he could be a great teacher.

"He was an exceptionally endearing human being," she says. "He's got a larger-than-life personality, he is very magnetic in that people are drawn to him."

Brad graduated from Sutherland and went on to earn an education degree from Simon Fraser University. As a student teacher Brad was placed in Carson Graham and one of his supervising teachers just happened to be Kathleen Barter. It wasn't long before the supervisor was learning lessons from the student. Barter says she allowed Brad the freedom to move away from the traditional curriculum and he took full advantage. Teaching social studies, Brad changed the North American perspective from one that began when Christopher Columbus arrived to one that included a rich heritage that was thriving long before Europeans "discovered" this land.

"He brought his rich, rich perspective into that and really, from my perspective, opened my eyes significantly," says Barter. "He really brought the whole First Nations culture alive."

That was just the start. When he completed his studies Brad was hired as a teacher by the North Vancouver school district. He didn't know it at the time, but he was the firstever Aboriginal teacher hired by the district. It's a milestone that still astounds Brad given that he was hired in 1995, although his own recollections bear it out.

"I don't remember ever seeing an Aboriginal person in school except for my Auntie Val and Auntie Vanessa, who taught the Squamish language," he says.

Brad's first assignment was working with at-risk Aboriginal kids at the Eslha7an Learning Centre just off the Mission Reserve. From there he took on more traditional classes, helped create Carson's dominant women's rugby program (kicking off the careers of 2014 World Cup stars Hilary Leith and Andrea Burk along the way), and piled on program after program aimed at propping up Aboriginal students and culture in the school system. Language programs were expanded, history lessons were changed, Aboriginal literature was introduced — all through Brad's work. Just three years into his teaching career Brad created what has become one of the district's most popular and unique classes — traditional First Nations carving.

Today six of the seven North Van district high schools feature a major Coast Salish welcoming figure, all carved through the program Brad started. By the time he retires Brad wants to have one in every elementary and secondary school in the district.

The figures are so much more than just a cool project to work on or an interesting piece of art to look at, says Adina Williams, a Squamish Nation member who graduated from Sutherland this year.

Williams was in Grade 12 when Sutherland students, with Baker as the driving force, set to work designing and crafting their own pole. When it came time to raise the pole in a ceremony at the school, Brad receded into the background to watch as the students took charge. Williams, dressed in her Aboriginal regalia with a wool-woven headband and ceremonial blanket tied with a sash, led prayers and dedications, speaking both English and Squamish. For Williams it was the culmination of a high school career that finally saw her embrace her heritage, and it all began when she first met Brad Baker.

"Brad helped me realize how important it is to identify, so to say, your Aboriginal background and to be proud of it," says Williams, adding that Sutherland's pole ceremony made her feel important as a First Nations student within the school. At the ceremony she stood in front the entire student body and many other dignitaries — close to 1,000 people in all — and told the story of the pole, what it meant to her and why it was significant.

"It was probably the highlight of my time in high school," she says. "It really made me feel valued as a First Nations student. I really felt a sense of belonging within that school because of that pole."

It was all made easier, she says, because she knew Brad was right there behind her the entire time. Williams is now taking science classes at Capilano University with the ultimate goal of going to medical school. The 18-year-old is the first member of her family to attend a post-secondary institution. Brad says he sees a lot of himself in Williams, in the way she's able to have a foot in both the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal worlds. For Williams, that's high praise.

"All I can say is that I really aspire to be like him," she says. "As I sit here and look back on how I got here, I recognize that there are a lot of people who have contributed to my success, but Brad's image really sticks out to me. . . . There are a lot of stereotypes out there that make Aboriginal learners believe that their success is limited. But then you look at Brad and see that he went out and did his education. Not only did he do that, but obviously he's excelling in his role as an educator and that really inspires me to go out and do the same."

Williams shares more than just keen academic curiosity with Brad. She, too, has a father who suffered through the residential school system. Brad gives her hope she can break the vicious cycle that spins in so many families torn apart by the system.

"(Brad) took that step to further his education and come back and become a leader within our Nation to help the next generation of First Nation students to do the same," she says. "It's a big step. But to see that Brad took that big step, it's really encouraging to me because it shows that we can do it."

But Brad's role is so much more than a symbolic one, she adds.

"Perhaps most importantly is his encouragement and genuine belief in not only myself, but all of us," she says. "It sounds like such a simple thing to have someone believe in you, but he seemed to really get through to us. He allowed us to believe in ourselves not only as learners, but as leaders."

• • •

It's more than just carving out logs for Brad Baker — now he's carving a new path for the education system. He's risen to the position of district administrator, splitting his time almost evenly between working with students and working with staff across North Vancouver. There's work to be done with both groups.

Brad recalls attending a superintendent's conference last year in Vancouver where Aboriginal advocate Wab Kinew made a passionate keynote speech about First Nations education in the 21st century and the need to move forward while not forgetting the past.

After the speech a fellow administrator from North Vancouver turned to Baker and said, in front of a full table, that it was time for Aboriginals to stop talking about residential schools. "You guys have got to get over it," the longtime educator said.

Brad was floored. "If they're saying that to me in front of a group of people, what are they saying to our kids?" he wondered. "One of the biggest challenges is to have people understand, validate and value the struggles our elders went through. Some of them died from it."

Brad has not gotten over it, and never will. His father may not like talking about it, but Brad vows to never let people forget what happened not so long ago. "We're talking about recent history — we're not talking about stuff that was hundreds of years ago," he says.

"One thing I try to push to our teachers and administrators in North Van is: let's have a discussion about it, let's not hide from it. He's not going anywhere," he says, pointing to his dad. "I'm not going anywhere. . . . It's a historical piece for Canada, for British Columbia, for North Vancouver. We still have residential school survivors living in our community. We need to recognize them and validate them."

Brad's got an ally in his old teacher and mentor Kathleen Barter. She now holds the same position that Brad does as a district administrator and has watched Brad takes his message to the highest levels.

"He's exposed educators to what was going on," she says. "The personal history that he brings to all of this is amazing. That personal voice, that storytelling adds such value to what he is working on. It's surprising that some people were not aware of the residential schools and the implications of those on families in our community."

Things have changed a lot in her time as an educator and much of the credit goes to that big kid with the even bigger smile who came into her Grade 9 English class, says Barter.

"He works silently in the background, but he really has effected massive changes in the school district," she says. "I first met Brad in 1983 or 1984 . . . if you think about that, really, it's not a lot of time, and a lot of positive changes have occurred. Certainly in the school district I would attribute them significantly to Brad and Brad's influence."

That Brad's contributions are being recognized nationally comes as no surprise to those who work with him and learn from him. On Thursday he'll receive the Indigenous Educator Award in Leadership at a ceremony held in conjunction with the National Gathering of Indigenous Educators in Toronto.

"I knew it was only a matter of time before he'd be recognized at this level," says Williams. "He's a hard worker, he's a mentor to all of us students, and I'm confident when I say that there are so many others that look up to him in the same way."

• • •

Things have come a long way in a short time. St. Paul's Indian Residential School closed for good in 1958. In a couple of generations the school system has gone from actively working to erase Aboriginal culture to celebrating it and sharing it with the non-Aboriginal world. Brad lauds superintendent John Lewis for championing Aboriginal education and allowing him to engage in a process of reconciliation between the school system and North Vancouver's First Nations groups. District personnel now frequently attend events held on the reserves, showing that they too have a big stake in what's happening there.

"North Van school district is jumping into uncharted territory and they're allowing me and my team to take that risk," Brad says. "The ultimate goal is for our Aboriginal kids to be valued and validated for who they are. We as a school system need to value that we have a distinct culture here. . . . If kids feel good about themselves, they'll be more successful in school. I think our community is doing a good job with that, I think our team at the North Van school district is doing a good job with that. But we've still got 100 miles to go."

Back at the dinner table Gail, Brad's wife, cuts the issue right to the bone.

"My father-in-law was not allowed to go to public school," she says. "And now his son is the head of Aboriginal education."

Those who know Harry aren't surprised at the path his son has taken. Around the Reserve the elder Baker is known as Uncle Harry. Young Squamish Nation members feel comfortable coming to him for counsel, or just to joke around. Brad sees that — he visits his parents' house every single day — and he realizes where his own charisma and compassion come from. He also knows why he's chosen this path in life.

"I wanted to make our elders — my dad — proud of us as people," Brad says.

Hearing this, and thinking about all that his son has accomplished in his 44 years, Harry is, again, a man of few words. This time, however, it's not out of shame, or embarrassment, or anger. Instead, his eyes mist ever so slightly and he says all that his son wants to hear.

"Very proud," Harry says.

"Very, very proud."

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