About 50 participants in an environmental conference at Mount Allison University got a lesson in the cultural meaning of making direct eye contact yesterday from Noel Milliea, an elder from the Elsipogtog First Nation.
Milliea told his audience of teachers, environmentalists and officials from the provincial departments of education and the environment, that Mi’kmaq children are taught to avoid looking directly into someone’s eyes.
“We believe making eye contact is looking at someone else’s spirit,” he said. “Mi’kmaq students who avoid eye contact are doing it as a deep sign of respect.”
Milliea noted, however, that non-indigenous teachers often interpret avoiding eye contact as a sign that a student is hiding something and therefore, can’t be trusted.
It was one example he gave of what he called “Indianness,” a perspective that considers the relationships among all things in an indigenous society that is matriarchal or mother-centred.
“We recognize the sacredness of Mother Earth,” he said, adding that people should treat the Earth with the same respect they show for their own mothers who gave them life.
Earlier, during an interview, Milliea said the indigenous perspective on climate change stresses the need for balance while a non-indigenous one sometimes values the immediate profits that can be made from exploiting the Earth and its resources.
“Climate change in an aboriginal perspective, it’s about sustaining what we have, not just short-term, but for seven generations,” he said.
He added that recent floods and wildfires are warnings of worse disasters to come.
“At the rate we’re going, there’s the inevitability of a major crisis happening,” Milliea said. “It’s something that we really can’t avoid if we don’t have really serious change.”
The conference, sponsored by the New Brunswick Environmental Network, also heard from Quinn MacAskill, a grade nine student from Marshview Middle School who helped organize local climate strikes in March and September.
Millions of students from all over the world left classes to hold rallies and marches as they pressed their demands for governments to do more to fight climate change.
MacAskill received a standing ovation after her presentation in which she called climate change the defining issue of our time and spoke of the need for implementing a climate curriculum to teach students about it.
She said climate change could be taught and discussed in all school subjects, not just in science classes.
“Teachers have the ability to shape the future,” MacAskill added.
During an interview later, she reiterated her call for schools in Sackville to be more supportive of climate strikes.
“Teachers that I know have expressed their support as a person, but then as a teacher, they’re not allowed to encourage it,” she said.
“But there have been schools that have completely closed down and told the students to go out to the local climate strike or at least not penalized students for going to the strike, which would be really incredible if that could happen here,” MacAskill added.
Green Party MLA Megan Mitton told the conference we need to listen to young people about climate change.
She said that they have the most to lose because their futures are at stake.
Later, she said that in chatting with teachers at the conference, she heard that their students are increasingly feeling stress and anxiety because governments aren’t doing enough about climate change.
“It’s very upsetting for a lot of the youth because they’re wondering what does their future hold if we don’t take action and they’re not seeing enough action from adults,” Mitton said.
“There’s not enough mental health resources to support students and frankly to support the general public,” she added.
“I’m hearing that educators want support on a [climate] curriculum, but also on the mental health side, on the eco-anxiety side, so that we can be healthier as we’re trying to address these big challenges.”
Mitton said that the New Brunswick government should be doing more to fight climate change.
“I firmly believe that the Higgs government doesn’t have a strong enough climate plan and that they don’t understand the urgency of what the scientists are telling us,” she added.