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UNB co-op student is helping to create app for Indigenous storybook series

Author: Kathleen McLaughlin

Posted on Jun 15, 2023

Category: UNB Fredericton , UNB Saint John

In the middle of the isolating pandemic, Michael Hennessey and Rachel McNair set out to create culturally relevant resources to support children and their parents while at home. So, they wrote a three-part Turtle Island series of books using beloved Mi’gmaq-inspired characters.

“A big portion of our clinical caseload are elementary school-aged kids,” said Hennessey, a member of Pabineau First Nation in Northern New Brunswick. “When the pandemic hit, we could no longer provide comprehensive services to our young clients. Rachel and I decided to create a way to provide resources while they couldn’t receive therapy.”

Mike and Rachel are co-founders of the Mi’gmaq non-profit organization Ksalsuti Wellness Resources and licensed counselling therapists. Together they wrote the series that teaches children how to manage difficult emotions, build self-esteem and positive relationships and show respect to Elders.

“All of the characters in the book are animals significant to Indigenous culture and our heritage across Turtle Island,” said Hennessey. “Each animal is created with one of the traditional grandfather teachings in mind. Whether it's honesty, truth or respect, all those values are aligned with a certain animal.”

Turtle Island refers to the Indigenous name of the lands now known as North and Central America. The name represents a creation story by Indigenous peoples who believe their land was formed on the back of a turtle.

To make the books more accessible and a tool to teach the Mi’gmaq and Wolastoqey language, Mike and Rachel decided the storybook could also be an app, one that featured the voices of Elders in the community.

To help develop the app, Ksalsuti engaged the University of New Brunswick (UNB) faculty of computer science co-op program. Third-year student, Hy Pham, with the support of researcher and professor Dr. Paul Cook, is the lead programmer.

The first book being developed for the app is the first one in the series, Hunter Makes a Choice. Hunter is a bear, which represents courage in Indigenous culture.

“My role as the main programmer was bringing the vision Ksalsuti had to life,” said Pham. “Throughout the term, I mostly worked with Dr. Cook and Flutter to develop an app that brings the Turtle Island story book into a digital form with audio alignment that moves along the text.”

The project, funded by Mitacs’ Business Strategy Internship (BSI), uses audio recordings of Indigenous Elders in New Brunswick reading the stories aloud, making it easy for readers to learn and follow along at the same time.

The readers view the page, and as the audio recording plays, hear the story and see the words illuminated.

“Having an application that can bring the voices of Indigenous Elders to life and preserve it is very impactful because it creates a sense of immortality,” said Pham. "It allows the next generations of children to experience and listen to the voices of the Elders, bringing a sense of humanity and history to the story.”

Elders Allan Tremblay, Vincent Simon, Sarah Simon and Joan Milliea narrated the story. Indigenous artists Brandon Mitchell and Jessica Jerome of Listiguj First Nation in Québec illustrated and designed the books.

"This project showcases the potential of the audio alignment technology and what it can do,” said Pham. “It shows us how we can use this technology to preserve, protect and expand our understanding of the world."

Hennessy says that working with private-sector and university partners has been a rewarding and productive experience.

“Our relationship both with Mitacs and UNB has been incredible from the beginning of this phase of the project,” he said. “Everyone has brought relevant information, made sure we had what we needed and then streamlined the process for receiving some supports to bring this project to life.”

The first two books of the series, Hunter Makes a Choice and Curtis’ New Hobby, are currently available for purchase online as an e-book, paperback or hardcover. Audio versions will be made available in English, French, Mi'gmaq and Wolastoqey.

The app is currently in its final stages of development and is expected to be released this fall.