After more than a decade, Connie Wyatt Anderson recently stepped down from the executive board of Canadian Geographic Education. For two years, Wyatt was the Manitoba representative, before taking on the mantle of chair. One of the projects close to her heart was the Vimy Ridge Giant Floor Map, which she helped create. As a high school teacher, she taught geography and history for 22 years at Oscar Lathlin Collegiate, on the territory of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation, adjacent to The Pas, Man. Although Wyatt is taking a break from the classroom, she’s busier than ever—writing new educational content for a children’s book called Pisim Finds her Miskanow in support of Rocky Cree language preservation; teaching a Canadian regional geography course for Brandon University; and acting as a lead facilitator of education for the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba.
On teaching with a land-based approach
I spent a lot of time looking at our geography here in The Pas and Opaskwayak Cree Nation. Traditionally, and today, the Cree people have a very close relationship to the land—they’re a land-based oral culture—so there isn’t a divide between the land and who you are as a people or an individual. Teaching on a Cree reserve, I had access to Cree speakers and Elders. People would come in and talk about local names for flora and fauna, everything from traditional food preservation to being out in the bush with an Elder. My school is quite small, and we had our own trapline and so if I was talking about sustainable resource development, I could just run down the hallway and grab a beaver pelt.
I taught human geography too. We did a unit on urban geography and I developed a whole urban tour of The Pas. If you’re learning about the central business district and zoning transition, why wouldn’t you use your own community? We literally went to town and looked at how the business district had changed over the years. One of the things about geography is that it’s so ubiquitous, it’s underfoot. You take it for granted. But when you learn the tools of a geographer you see it completely different. The kids talked about it for the rest of the year, just things they had never seen before. It was like painting with colour for the first time in your life.
On teaching in an Indigenous classroom
It made me consider some of the textual materials that I used, because teachers rely heavily on textbooks. Geography wasn’t as glaringly bad as history, but it made me cognizant. You’d see texts that would call First Nation people “our Indians” (I started teaching in 1992) and you’d see parts of textbooks that talked about Indigenous Peoples in the past tense, which irritated the daylights out of me. You’d read the words “the Cree were.” I’m standing in front of a class entirely made up of Cree kids. Why would they say “were?”
In the 25 years that I’ve been teaching there’s been a complete about-face. There’s more of a concerted effort to include Indigenous perspectives as part of a Canadian narrative. When I first started, Indigenous perspectives were that inset box in your textbook, and they were well-meaning but cheesy. I saw that slowly start to disappear and now I’m seeing Indigenous perspectives and ways of knowing as part of our knowledge as Canadians.
On feedback she’s received from her students
I want my students to have a sense of wonder and to understand that learning is recursive. In 15 years, you’ll be standing somewhere in this country and it’ll come back to you, something that you learned in geography. I had a kid email me about three years ago—she had seen hoodoos for the first time in her life. I used to draw them on the chalkboard all the time and she Facebook messaged me: “Ms. Wyatt I finally saw a hoodoo in real life!”
The University of Manitoba has a program where every faculty awards a student and that student has to go back through their schooling and award a teacher. Last year, one of my geography students picked me. It was absolutely humbling. They have to stand up and read a speech to the person they picked. She said something that made me almost tear up: “Every Indigenous student in Canada should have Ms. Wyatt as a teacher because I felt like a Canadian leaving the classroom.”
On her role as a lead facilitator for the Treaty Relations Commission
I’ve been all over the province training teachers on how to incorporate an Indigenous lens, such as recognizing the multiplicity of different cultures within Indigenous communities, because history has often painted Indigenous people all the same way. I’m in Cree territory here, which is markedly different from Ojibwe, which is markedly different from Dene. If you’re going to share a landscape together, you have to get to know who your neighbours are, and in the case of Indigenous Peoples, whose land you’re on. I think reconciliation is a heartfelt conversation about getting to know where you are. I tell teachers to get to know their local geography and when in doubt, ask! When I asked, people were always so supportive and happy that you asked. I’d ask my students simple things like how do you say beaver in Cree or how many seasons are there in Cree culture? It’s reciprocal, everyone is teaching each other.