Mackenzie River flows through resource by RRU grad

December 1, 2020
Michelle Swallow smiling in front of a bright blue wall

The Mackenzie River runs through Michelle Swallow’s life like a long blue thread. Growing up in the Northwest Territories, the river was always there — a part of her life. After being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and going through treatment, Swallow was taking stock of her life and a conversation with her father brought her back to the river.

“My dad had suggested that a lot of people were looking for a guidebook to the Mackenzie, and I thought ‘that’s something I could do, I could paddle this river, I have some time,’” says Swallow. “I really jumped into that project naively, because it’s over 1,800 kilometres long and it took me years to finish paddling that river, and then more years to finish writing a book that included not just the natural history but also all of the cultural history and legends.”

After documenting her paddle and creating a definitive guidebook, Swallow began working at the Government of Northwest Territories Department of Environment, where she works on the conservation of the land and water. When Swallow took her Master of Environmental Education and Communication at Royal Roads, teaching the river became her thesis project, and that project has now been adopted as part of the Northwest Territories curriculum.

Swallow started her thesis project research by talking to teachers across the Northwest Territories about what makes a good resource, and that informed her approach to developing the material.

“Mackenzie River communities are connected to distinct geographic places, like mountains, pingos or cliffs along the river that are featured in legends and stories. The curriculum needed to tie in all of those places and their importance,” says Swallow. “We decided that the site should be organized as a journey down the Mackenzie and that the river itself would organize the content.”

While the materials were initially developed with Grade 4 students in mind, Swallow says she learned during project testing that the resource is suitable for wider use across grade levels, for everything from learning Indigenous language to geography and water systems for high school students.

Following the river is a concept that Swallow would like to see expanded across the country.

“Canada is a country of rivers, and it’s certainly not only the Mackenzie River that has all this learning attached to the geographic feature. This is something that all jurisdictions could look at developing to bring rivers and their histories to life for kids in those places as well.”

The educational resource Your Big River Journey is available online. Swallow’s Mackenzie river guidebook is available at The Yellowknife Book Cellar and the MSS Ltd online store.