Judy Whitford doesn’t have a typical nine-to-five office job.
On many days, she’s out on the land with students, connecting them with elders who share Dene legends and teach them the importance of respecting nature.
“We were able to catch some rabbits and we caught a lynx and we caught a wolverine,” said Whitford about a recent trapping camp near Behchoko with students from Yellowknife’s Catholic school district.
“The kids worked on cleaning them, learning how to skin them, learning how to properly care and respect the animals while they’re doing it. And I think that’s the really great part of having the elders out there working with the kids.”
As the Indigenous education coordinator for Yellowknife Catholic Schools, Whitford has been helping the district better “infuse” Indigenous culture into what it does.
On Friday, she’s scheduled to be recognized in Montreal for her work with a 2017 Guiding the Journey: Indigenous Educators Award from Indspire.
In its fifth year, the award honours Whitford’s “innovative practice” in education.
“We’re very proud of the work that she’s done,” said YCS superintendent Claudia Parker. “She’s been a great support for our language instructor … and she also has changed the mindset in regards to how we’re doing our cultural programming.”
Whereas students were simply sent out on the land for cultural activities in the past, Parker said Whitford has introduced “pre-teaching” and “post-teaching” to better prepare classes.
It helps instructors understand what they need to teach students about before taking part in on-the-land activities.
Whitford is tying Indigenous families into the fabric of the school community through family nights that involve beading and mitt-making.
Jigging, drumming and hand games tournaments have also been held at the district, thanks to her.
“She’s also put programs in place to celebrate our Indigenous students and their leadership …that has the older students, like high school students, helping out with cultural activities,” said Parker.
It was a number of these different initiatives that stood out to Indspire when choosing Whitford for this year’s award, according to Cherie Cohen, marketing and communications director for the organization.
“The effects of her work are far-reaching,” said Cohen, explaining Whitford has bridged gaps between Indigenous and other communities. “And she has not limited her focus to just Indigenous peoples as the beneficiaries.”
But Whitford feels she is just one “little person” in the bigger picture of what the award represents.
“It’s really recognizing the kids that are willing to do this, the elders that are willing to share the stories and the school board for being at this point where they’re ready to move forward with Indigenous culture,” she said.