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School art project honouring residential school survivors

Published on

Cathy Dobson

A unique art project to learn about the atrocities of residential schools and honour the survivors has been taken on by the entire student body at Alexander Mackenzie Secondary School.

Each student has been given the opportunity to paint a small commemorative tile to be incorporated into a large mosaic and permanently mounted on a school wall, says native studies teacher Joeleen MacDonald.

“These tiles acknowledge the survivors of residential schools and those who did not survive,” she said.  “They will become part of a very public display that shows our school cares.”

She and Patricia Shawnoo, an Anishinabe Education Cultural Co-ordinator from Kettle and Stony Point, conducted workshops with every one of Alexander Mackenzie’s 500 or so students this week and last.

“This is a beginning,” said Shawnoo.  “I think it’s awesome.”

She spoke about the historical connection between treaties and residential schools. Last week was Treaties Recognition Week in Canada and school boards were encouraged to raise awareness about treaties and treaty relationships.

Indian residential schools operated in Canada for about 100 years, with the last one closing in 1990. They were an attempt by the federal government, working with Christian churches, to assimilate children by removing them from their families and culture.

Mary Whiteye, an indigenous student support worker with the Lambton Kent District School Board (LKDSB), watched as Alexander Mackenzie’s Grade 10 students designed their tiles and painted them in the school’s cafeteria.

“I am the daughter of two residential school survivors,” Whiteye told the students. “Both were treated very badly. My father talked about being stripped down and scrubbed until they thought they could change his skin colour.

“But my dad said there was no way the residential school could change who he was.  He was an Ojibwa and they beat him for speaking our language.”

After seven years at a residential school near Spanish, Ont., Whiteye’s father ran away at the age of 13 and made it back to his family at Cape Croker, she said.

Whiteye thanked the students for being part of the mosaic project and thinking about those who suffered at the schools.

“A lot of children were literally stolen from their families,” she said.  “Many of our elders can’t even talk about it yet.”

But directives from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to teach Canadians about their “darkest secret” have led to open discussions like those at Alexander Mackenzie, Whiteye said.

“This is positive. I’m so glad to see this.”

Carter English-Kinsman, a Grade 11 student who assisted with the workshops, said the Canadian government should have apologized much sooner.

“I’ve learned a lot about residential schools before this but I think this is good because some students still don’t know about them,” said Cora Last, another student assistant.

“It’s rare to see the whole school get involved in something,” she added.

The 3×4-inch wooden tiles will be arranged into a mosaic and mounted on large sheets of plywood for display in the school foyer or office, said MacDonald.

Survivors living in First Nation communities in the area will be invited to the unveiling, including those from Aamjiwnaang, Delaware, Kettle & Stony Point and Walpole Island First Nations.

The Arts Journal reflects cultural activities of all kinds in our community.  Send your ideas to [email protected].

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