The pattern of human rights abuses ‘settled-in’, as Cairine Wilson Secondary School students in Ottawa, under the guidance of teacher Malia Robin, made the links between the historical Indian Residential School abuses in Canada, and present-day abuses against Indigenous peoples — violations that human rights instruments such as the Canadian Charter of Human Rights the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People were designed to prevent.
As students decorated tiles to commemorate the lives of the students at the Red Deer Industrial School in Alberta, they were shocked to learn of Canada’s historic and contemporary complicity in human rights abuses. Invited IRS survivor, Terry McKay, (Suu Wii Lax Ha–Tsimshian for ‘Another Great Storm’) gave first-hand evidence of the abusive behaviour he endured after attending three different Indian Residential Schools.
Here are some of the students’ reflections on what Project of Heart has meant for them:
“The Project of Heart really surprised me. I had no idea Canada had such a dark past until I learned about the Indian Residential Schools. It has even left its mark up to today. It has scarred many and reparations should be made and delt with as soon as possible.”
“The Project shows we are commemorating the all the people it affected and that we care. It helps keep the issue alive so history doesn’t repeat itself.”
“It inspired me to do something about it and I’m sure it inspired others too. I hope speeches like this are made at all schools to both make people aware of what has happened and to get to know more Native people.”
“I think everybody should experience something like this because its easy to read about the schools and get a general idea of what they are like, but to actually hear it from somebody who had to go through it, is really so different.”
“Before we did the Project of Heart, I had very little knowledge about Indigenous people…Learning about how they were treated and what they had to go through left me shocked and appalled.”
“When I found out we were having a residential school survivor coming in to talk to us, I was excited that I would be able to hear from someone who had lived this nightmare and I could hear what it was like first-hand. I guess I was still somewhat ignorant even after we had looked at the dvd. I was expecting the Elder to have long hair tied back in a pony tail but he had short hair and looked like anyone else. I feel like I’ve learned a lot from the experience and am a little less ignorant about the subject.”
“The guest speaker taught our class that this issue is not being addressed well enough. Youth don’t know about this and should be fully educated. Project of Heart offered me an opportunity to listen to Elders and educated people about this issue.”
“Before the interview with the Elder with Project of Heart, I had not had the experience of speaking with an Elder and freely asking questions.”
“It was quite difficult for me to stay focused on what he was saying because I was getting so emotional and felt so bad for what these childen, who are now adults, had to go through. The thought that us human beings cold do that to young children is unimaginable, after all they were just kids! They should have been outside running, playing, swimming, hunting, and just being a normal kid.”
“Project of Heart has allowed me to realize how fortunate I am with the life I have. It has also lead me to realize that the Canadian government is at fault for Aboriginal people’s suffering in the past and even today.”
As part of the students’ taking responsibility for our own governance, they participated in a variety of social justice actions. Some students voiced their concerns about the mistreatment of First Nations children by the Federal Government in letters to Royal Galipeau, their Member of Parliament for Ottawa-Orleans. Others wrote to Pierre Lemieux, their representative in Parliament from the Glengarry-Prescott-Russell constituency. Some students also involved themselves by learning about Shannen Koustachin, and signed petitions from the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society to end ongoing discrimination against First Nations children in Education as well as in child welfare.
Congratulations to the students at Cairine Wilson Secondary for “making the connections–past is present” and to their teacher Ms. Robin, who filled her grade 9 geography and her grade 10 civics classes with both heart and spirit!