Math + culture = success

The Winnipeg Foundation


Colton Stevenson
“I love math,” says nine-year-old Colton Stevenson.

What do math and a sense of cultural identity have in common? For students in the Summer Indigenous Math Leadership Program, they’re inextricably linked.

About 45 elementary and high school students spent their summer at the University of Winnipeg’s Wii Chiiwaakanak Centre learning about math and Indigenous culture through projects, field trips and presentations from Indigenous community leaders.

“My favourite part was going to the Winnipeg Art Gallery because there was a lot of cultural art there. I’ve never seen art like that before. It was very nice,” says nine-year-old Colton Stevenson, who was participating in the program for a second year. “There are a lot of new things that I learned about my culture.”

Why math and Indigenous culture? Nick Tanchuck, who together with wife Dr. Carly Scramstad, educator Sharon
Redsky and many other committed community members, developed and coordinates the program, says he first came up with the idea after realizing Indigenous students in his inner-city classroom didn’t have the same academic or cultural supports as newcomers or those from other cultural backgrounds.

For many Indigenous students learning in a traditional classroom can be difficult as they have experienced racism at school. Plus, if students struggle in math they’re often told they’re just not smart enough and should move onto another subject.

“Math is sometimes seen as a difficult or intimidating subject and so if you can have some success there it can make you feel like you can conquer other challenging and potentially intimidating things,” says Mr. Tanchuk, who is currently obtaining his Ph.D in Philosophy and Education at Columbia University.

Learning about culture can make a huge difference in Indigenous People’s lives. “A lot folks who have had success in life have drawn strength from traditional knowledge and culture and ceremony,” Mr. Tanchuk says, citing MLA Wab Kinew as just one example.

In addition to presentations by elders and community leaders like politician Robert Falcon Ouellette, students had the chance to learn lessons from a traditional Indigenous perspective, such as an experiment modeling climate change.

“We wanted to learn about and study the leadership roles Indigenous folks have taken on issues of climate justice,” explains Mr. Tanchuk. “Watching kids get excited about learning about climate science and also seeing that this is something that Indigenous people have been doing for thousands and thousands of years, that this is something that is deeply embedded in culture, that these types of insights are part of a long tradition of insights, was really powerful and exciting.”

Students also participated in land-based cultural activities such as medicine picking and a sweat.

“I had never been to a sweat lodge,” says 15-year-old Josey Gustafson, who participated in the summer program for the fourth year, this time in a leadership capacity. “I learned that it’s a very spiritual place, it’s sacred.”


Nick Tanchuck and Dr. Carly Scramstad
Nick Tanchuck and Dr. Carly Scramstad.

Youth have overwhelmingly reported positive experiences with the cultural aspects of the program. “They came out feeling stronger, healthier, more connected,” says Mr. Tanchuk. “These things are really crucial, especially in adolescent years, not only to fostering achievement in academia but also in all the other things that matter in life.”

Participating in these cultural activities is also in keeping with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action, he adds.

The Indigenous Math Leadership Program piloted in 2012 with about 15 students Mr. Tanchuk had taught in school or worked with when he was Sports Coordinator at the Spence Neighbourhood Association. Each year programming has evolved. As youth grew up, staff realized many were ready to take on increasing leadership roles. And to strengthen programming, staff realized it was important to get community insight. Mr. Tanchuk applied for funding under The Foundation’s Emerging Leaders’ Fellowship (ELF) to design and implement peer mentorship and intergenerational components.

“The ELF money helped us to develop a model that is community-based, that is based on insights; on things that had gone well with the program to date and also drawing on insights from expert community members. I think it has been powerful having a clearer community-based model for growth and also for supporting kids as they grow up, filling those next generational roles.”

For the last two years, some of the older students who have grown up through the program have started to mentor and teach the younger students. “To see that growth and strength in leadership emerge, and to see that ripple effect on the younger generation, [is powerful].”

The Summer Indigenous Math Leadership Program (facilitated through the University of Winnipeg Foundation), has received support from a number of The Foundation programs, including Nourishing Potential, the Youth Vital Signs grant response program, and the Emerging Leaders’ Fellowship Program.

What is ELF?

The Emerging Leaders' Fellowship (ELF) is open to any young person in Winnipeg between the ages of 18-35 with a project idea that works with a local registered charitable organization to help build our community. Young leaders can apply for up to $10,000 to help with the costs of developing and implementing the project. Through ELF, participants will come away with strong connections to community, agencies, and The Winnipeg Foundation. To learn more, visit our Emerging Leaders' Fellowship page.

This story is featured in the Fall 2016 issue of our Working Together magazine. Download or view the full issue on our Publications page.