It took time, a whole lot of it — and agonizing consideration — before John C. Yesno Education Centre teacher Courtney Strutt did something that brought students, staff members, and the community of Eabometoong (Fort Hope) together to do something that took courage and belief in the power of the human spirit.
Courtney knew the hurt ran deep. She knew wounds would be reopened if she were to join a movement that was beginning to spread across the entire country: teaching the truth about Canadian history. But Courtney did what she knew she had to do, and in the end, leaders of the Truth and Reconciliation movement in Canada would highlight her actions as a model for settlers in this country to follow. Please read her account here:
John C. Yesno Education Center is the local school in Eabametoong (Reserve #64), also known as Fort Hope, that took part in the Project of Heart for the first time this year. In collaboration between the Grade 6, Grade 7/8 classes, and intermediate Native Language classes, the students began to explore the history of residential schools in a meaningful way. Despite the fact that residential school was a lived reality for many students’ immediate family members and a past that is not so far removed, few students had an idea of what this experience really meant. It was with this understanding that the Project of Heart began in Eabametoong.
Part 1 – Learning About Residential Schools
In the first phase of the project, students were introduced to the history, background and effects of residential school. The teachers attempted to answer the following questions:
- What was happening in Canada in the 1800s between Europeans and First Nations people?
- What is a residential school and why were they created?
- Why weren’t residential schools ended sooner?
- What are the effects of residential school on survivors and their families and communities?
- What kind of healing and reconciliation is occurring across Canada today?
These discussions were held in large groups and in small break out groups, using visual presentations; archival material; books (such as “Shin-shi’s Canoe” and Larry Loyie’s “Goodbye Buffalo Bay”); and videos (“Where the Spirit Lives”).
The students asked many questions and wrote moving reflections on their thoughts and feelings towards what happened at residential school. Many students also revealed that they personally knew members of their family who had gone to residential school. The teachers encouraged the students to ask their family members questions, in a respectful way and if that person was willing to share with them. Students were reminded that not everyone is comfortable talking about their experiences and they must be respectful of this.
Part 2 – Local Effects of Residential School
As the discussions about what residential school was and how people were affected began to draw to a close, a number of local survivors were invited into the school to talk to the students. Over the course of a few weeks, we had three male survivors come and speak to the students. Many students were shy to ask questions, however they listened to the stories wide-eyed and with great respect. Much richness was added to the learning by extending an invitation to community members to come and share their experiences. It is hoped that this will continue within the school in years to come.
Part 3 – Decoration of Tiles
Part 4 – Social Justice
Upon completing their tiles, the students were given a list of organizations that are working towards healing and reconciliation or towards social action for First Nation’s children and people. In small groups, the students researched the various organizations and put together a poster that displayed key information and how people could get involved in various movements.
Part 5 – Display of Work
As different community members came and spoke at different times, a final gathering was held on the last day of the project that allowed the students to display their tiles and social justice pieces for other students and community members to see and discuss.
Overall, it was felt that the Project of Heart was a great success at John C. Yesno Education Center as it was the first time that the experience of residential school was talked about with students in a meaningful way. As word got out about the project, more people expressed wanting to share their experiences. The project ended as the beginning of an important dialogue to be held within the school in the years to come. It is an important aspect of First Nation and Canadian history to be explored and a necessary conversation for First Nations communities to engage their youth in. There cannot be movement forward without an understanding of the past and a vision for the future.
Miigwetch to the founders of the Project of Heart for bringing a visionary way of discussing this important aspect of history to First Nation’s and non-First Nation’s alike!