Key lessons from Sudbury

Dzulkifli Abdul Razak





FROM Bali the trail of “sustainable development” brought me to a little known place called Sudbury in Ontario, Canada. This was in conjunction with a Unesco meeting on sustainable development with respect to indigenous people, especially when they are marginalised (think Rohingya).

Sudbury (400km north of Toronto) is well ahead in sustainable development. It was once a mining town whose fortunes dipped when the price of nickle ore plummeted. Massive ugly environmental scars likened to a “moonscape” were left behind by the mines.

There was also marked deforestation due to the unbridled pollution from industries. In mid-1800s, an intense wildfire devastated whatever remained; this was in addition to rampant illegal logging of the region’s majestic red and white pines.

On top of this was the poisoning caused by the fumes from sulphide mining that turned the atmosphere acidic with a pungent smell to go with it. Then Sudbury proudly housed the “world’s tallest smokestack” which it is now trying to get rid of.

Simply put, the worst had got the better of Sudbury where a large swathe of land was rendered barren (think bauxite in Pahang), its numerous scenic lakes dead and unable to sustain aquatic life. By the 1970s, some 20,000ha around Sudbury allegedly looked like a “blackened scar” when viewed from space.

But this is now history. The ambitious land reclamation effort undertaken over the last 40 years has turned Sudbury into a global name (with many accolades) as related by the mayor.

A book aptly entitled: Healing the Landspace (2008) recounts and illustrates this very well. “Sudburians found the will to act,” it proudly claims. “Scouts, summer students, unemployed miners, school kids, local businesses and other community members have planted more than 11 million trees” since the 1970s. The locals, especially the volunteers and students take immense pride in the landscape that they helped revitalise.

We can identify this as “gotong-royong” with a “kita boleh” outlook to collectively bring back the “life” – real and figurative – to a dying local community plus making some optimal savings (think the Taman Tugu project).

One such community that successfully found “life” once again is the First Nations (Aboriginal peoples of Canada south of the Arctic). But they too had their “black scar” experience dating back to the 1800s thanks to the colonial masters (think the uprooted pondok schools). We are reminded of statements like “Indian culture is a contradiction … they are uncivilised … the aim of education is to destroy the Indian,” quoting from the Nicholas Flood David Report of 1879. There were several Acts promulgated to systematically effect the project through a residential school system intended “to educate, assimilate and Christianise the Aboriginal people”.

The overall impact culturally speaking has lasted until today. Many lost their connection to the land and sense of belonging, fitting neither into their own culture nor the mainstream (alien) one. Many more were made to feel “shame and guilt” for who they are as people and for their traditional spiritual practices. Several of their languages are in danger of being marginalised (think BM), if not extinct.

In 2008, the then prime minister apologised on behalf of all Canadians to former students of Indian residential schools for the dehumanising treatment. The following year the then Pope expressed “sorrow” over the “deplorable” treatment by the Catholic Church.

Consequently, just like the reclamation effort by Sudbury, the First Nations began to reclaim their cultural rights and heritage to “education” based on the tradition of the Seven Gifts of the Grandfathers. This forms the basic teaching framework on how one should live, encompassing Truth, Respect, Love, Courage, Honesty, Wisdom and Humility – each culturally well-defined.

Wisdom (Nbwaakaawin) for instance is to know the difference between good and bad and to know the result of one’s actions; to cherish knowledge is to know wisdom. While, humility (Dbaadendizwin) is to recognise that no matter how much you think you know, you know very little of all the universe; humility is to know oneself as a sacred part of Creation.

Taken together, all these values that differentiate one as a learned person – this has been generally squandered in today’s highly materialist education system – are earnestly nurtured again through the indigenous culture-based education (think National Education Philosophy).

Indigenous education is now a key priority of the Ontario Ministry of Education. Included is a curriculum with an indigenous perspective towards an understanding of their cultures and histories. Failing to consider this has led to students walking out of schools instead of dropping out. This is a defining moment when sustainable development is deemed as “inadequate” because of the deficit in world views as advocated by the concepts of the Seven Gifts and “Sejahtera” reaffirming that everything in the universe is interconnected and harmoniously balanced.

And human beings need to be in harmony with each other and with nature. Spirituality and values are vital forces offering guidance and are to be respected as well as preserved.

Taking all these into consideration, the indigenous education for sustainable development is therefore more sophisticated and comprehensive relative to the convention now understood. Yet the concern is for the loss of language(s) to adequately give meaning and support in bolstering a way of life rooted in its deep cultural philosophy and practices.

Admittedly, these were once part of the fabric of the community and like the land reclamation, it is time to rightfully reclaim them by ensuring that the Seven Gifts are holistically embraced as the basis of education for sustainable development through indigenous wisdom and knowledge.

To honour the indigenous presence is to connect the spiritual, physical, emotional and mental well-being in a balanced way (read “Sejahtera”) so as to nurture the whole person. Where appropriate Malaysia must take full cognisance and like the Sudbury community must find the “will to act” promptly.

With some four decades of experience in education, the writer believes that “another world is possible”. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com