After living in Metlakatla for 13 years, Debbie Leighton-Stephens was forced onto a bus to take her away from life as she knew it.
“I was getting on a bus with hundreds of other students the same age as me being shipped to the Lower Mainland to go to school. It was scary,” Debbie recalled, with the memory of families breaking down in tears still clear in her mind.
She was one of the many Aboriginal children apprehended by the Canadian government after it began to close residential schools, being relocated and put under the care of non-aboriginal families that were mainly Caucasian.
“It was all part of a plan to break up our aboriginal way of being,” explained Debbie, a proud member of the Ts’msyen Nation.
But the experience didn’t break her. Debbie has spent the last two decades empowering young people with their culture and creating a sense of understanding in non-aboriginals through her work with School District 52’s (SD52) Aboriginal Education Department (Ab Ed).
When she attended school, the goal was to assimilate Aboriginals, with their history and culture being ignored. But today, Debbie is pleased to be part of the reason that’s not the case.
“In my day (aboriginal education) was limited to multicultural day,” she said, adding it’s become an integral part of the work being done in SD52.
“Prince Rupert is one of the lead districts in terms of aboriginal education … we’re very well-known across the province and beyond. That’s due to the work of many people over many years … I feel honoured to have been in this position to help move that work along.”
For the first seven years of her schooling, Debbie and her siblings ferried to Prince Rupert from Metlakatla, returning home to their parents in the afternoon.
Despite being away from the North Coast and her family in high school, Debbie stuck it out and graduated from New Westminster Secondary. Many who were apprehended didn’t finish school, instead returning home to their families.
When Debbie returned approximately 35 years ago, she landed her first job in the education field as Metlakatla’s home-school coordinator. Shortly after she became a childcare worker at Conrad, where she was noticed by a teacher who encouraged her to become one.
A year later that opportunity arose, when a partnership between SD52 and Simon Fraser University (SFU) allowed Debbie to get post-secondary work foundation for a teaching certificate, and after spending summers attending the SFU campus, Debbie earned her General Studies Degree.
Debbie taught at Pineridge and Conrad in the mid-1980s before moving on to coordinate the aboriginal family resource program, and then later the Sm’algyax Language program for Prince Rupert classes.
While she isn’t a fluent Sm’algyax speaker, Debbie said she was lucky to have people who were helping during the program’s development. Fifteen years later, the Sm’algyax curriculum has been finalized for Kindergarten to Grade 12 classes, and has been qualified as a second language for students entering university.
Her contributions only grew when she became head of the Aboriginal Education Department, a position she held for five years while also earning her Master’s Degree in First Nations Education. Eight years ago Debbie became the first district principal of aboriginal education in Prince Rupert, and around the same time the department moved into Wap Sigatgyet on Ninth Ave. West. Debbie said Wap Sigatgyet, meaning “house of building strength”, was pivotal in the department’s achievements because it elevated the focus and importance of aboriginal education in SD52.
“We’ve have a committed, strong staff here that really works together to make a difference,” Debbie said, making note of the department’s many partners in the community, region and province.
“Our doors are always open. It’s about learning and building strength together,” she said, adding it’s key to honour what everyone brings to the table.
The department’s Aboriginal Education Council, comprised of members from SD52, its board of education, representatives of communities within the district and community partners, work to implement programs and services for learners of aboriginal ancestry, while also increasing all learners’ knowledge, awareness and understanding of aboriginal people’s history and cultures.
And huge strides have been made. Since the Aboriginal Education Partnership Agreement was signed in 2001, significant gains in aboriginal learning achievements have been recorded, including improvements in literacy and graduation rates.
This has been attributed to initiatives, programs, educator workshops and assistance provided by the Ab Ed Department that Debbie was heavily involved in.
She is happy there is now aboriginal learning content in every grade level.
“Understanding aboriginal history and culture isn’t just for aboriginal students and communities. All our programs and services are provided to all students in the district. We live together. We need to know and respect each other, and work together,” she said.
And that’s precisely what Prince Rupert’s annual National Aboriginal Day event is all about. Debbie has been involved with organizing the event since the beginning, with the 16th annual event taking place on Saturday.
“It’s important to celebrate who we are as aboriginal people and to celebrate it with the whole community to build those connections and relationships,” she said, adding it gives her a sense of pride seeing everyone come together on the day.
“It’s about helping our kids feel proud about who they are.”
Debbie has also helped organize community events on residential school reconciliation, promoting literacy to young learners and on developing understanding of Ts’msyen history and culture. All of Debbie’s contributions to Prince Rupert cannot easily be named.
But this July Debbie has decided to retire, along with her husband Frank who is retiring from his position with Aboriginal Head Start. The couple will move to the English Bay area of Vancouver to be closer to their only son and their grandson who is almost four.
Debbie said it will be difficult to leave her job, her seven siblings and family, as well as her friends. But living near the water in Vancouver is helping her cope with the idea.
Debbie will continue with some of her work down south, and plans to visit Prince Rupert to help support programs and the department she has loved being part of for all these years.