Dream catcher

Nicole Bell had a vision: a new kind of school where aboriginal kids could learn about their culture, no matter where they live. Her make-it-happen attitude can show all of us what it means to reconnect with our roots.

Nicole’s life lesson learned:

You can’t save the world, but you can change one small part of it.”

The school day begins not with the persistent clanging of a school bell but with the gentle rattle of a native shaker. The students, ranging from kindergarten-tiny to nearly full grown, arrange themselves in a circle on the floor. Sitting on the floor beside them are their four teachers, including the school’s founder, Nicole Bell. There’s no “O Canada” or loudspeaker broadcasting announcements, but there is plenty of ritual: the kids light a candle and burn sage (for girls) or sweet grass (for boys), hold tobacco and give thanks, among other traditions you would never find in most public schools. None of the teachers grew up with these ancient traditions—certainly not Nicole. She’s the 36-year-old powerhouse behind this school, called the Anishnaabe Bimaadiziwin Cultural Healing and Learning Program, in Burleigh Falls, Ont., just north of Peterborough. Nicole has been chosen as a Chatelaine Soul Model for her remarkable vision: as a young adult, she began to form a clear picture of the kind of learning environment and the kind of life she wanted to create for herself, her family and her community. And she’s done that. While there are aboriginal schools on reserves across Canada, there are very few in off-reserve areas. Nicole’s unique school—designed for children of native heritage living in this largely non-aboriginal community—sets the mainstream curriculum in a context of aboriginal values, rituals and traditions. As Nicole says, “We think it’s the best of both worlds.”

With her hard-won insight into dual identities, Nicole was the perfect person to head up the school. Raised in the Ottawa Valley, she’s the product of a German Catholic mother and an aboriginal father. In an all-too-common scenario, her Algonkin father had been taken from his family as a young boy to be raised in a series of non-aboriginal foster homes. Still, he knew how to fish, hunt, pick food from the forest and show respect for the land, and he passed on these skills to his three children. But Nicole, the eldest, yearned to learn more about the aboriginal half of her identity. She didn’t begrudge her Roman Catholic-school upbringing, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing.

Nicole had always planned to be a teacher until a pamphlet in her high-school guidance office caught her eye. It featured a dark brown silhouette of an aboriginal man on a beige background. Grabbing the brochure, she saw that it was promoting the native-studies program at Trent University in Peterborough. ‘Oh my God!’ Nicole said to herself. ‘That’s it!’ She put her teaching ambitions on hold. As soon as she began studying under the Elders on the faculty, she felt an instant connection. She was home.

Soaking up the culture, Nicole went on to help found an aboriginal women’s counselling service in Peterborough, then got her master’s degree in education. She had begun to dream of starting her own school, but that would have to be in the distant future—she was busy teaching at the university and being a mother. She and her husband, Adrian Webb, an Ojibwa from Burleigh Falls, had one son, adopted a second and found out the birth mother was pregnant and agreed to adopt that child, too. Then, Nicole gave birth to another son of her own. Her life and her house was full. But the direction of Nicole’s life changed when her first-born, Nodin (“wind” in Ojibwa), started having problems at the local community school. The second grader was doing well academically, but he hated recess, when the other boys incessantly teased him for his gentle non-competitive ways. She knew a few aboriginal parents who had resigned themselves to sending their kids to school crying, but she couldn’t do it. So she began to home-school Nodin. She had started her PhD at Trent University in culture-based education, so she would sometimes take Nodin to the office with her. Meanwhile, she knew that her second son, Geezhik (“sky”), with his delayed speech and language, would quickly fall behind in a regular classroom. She started home-schooling him, too. Neither boy had any interest in returning to the public school. She asked herself, ‘Now what do you do, Nicole?’ Adrian had given up his job as a personal-banking representative a few years earlier to stay home with the kids and now somebody in the family needed to make an income. She consulted an Elder, who said, “Nicole, you’ve been talking and thinking about this school for so long. Now, it’s time to do it.” She did. She got $100,000 in startup money from the Ontario Federation of Indian Friendship Centres and the Grand River Education and Training Program, found an empty building, hired staff and, in January 2002, opened the school with 11 children. In the second year, enrolment more than doubled to 24. Now, there’s a waiting list, which is both thrilling and troubling because she can’t yet afford to hire another teacher. Those who know Nicole have no doubt that she’ll find the funding somehow. Kathleen Bell, Nicole’s mother, has complete confidence in her daughter’s ability to turn vision into reality. “It breaks my heart to say that she grew up with a profound void within herself, but she was determined to fill it,” says Kathleen.


Get Chatelaine in your inbox!

Our very best stories, recipes, style and shopping tips, horoscopes and special offers. Delivered a couple of times a week.