Cobourg students “moved beyond what they had imagined”.


Sheryl Mattson’s students at Cobourg District Collegiate Institute were learning of things they never thought could happen in Canada. They progressed through the first three steps of POH, reading stories and articles as well as watching videos and DVDs. Though the new knowledge was changing their understanding of their country’s history, they still could never have predicted the transformation that occurred at “Step 4”, when Elder Ron Howard, an Indian Residential School survivor from the Hiawatha First Nation, visited the classroom.

As Mattson states, “Through the personal visit from Ron, many students were moved in ways beyond that which can be experienced through reading stories and articles, or watching and listening to videos and stories. Ron brought his experience to share with the students: what he lived as a child as well as what he continues to experience to this day as a consequence of his time in the two residential schools he attended from ages 5 to 14.”

The students were brought into the world of the Indigenous when Elder Ron prepared them to participate in a ceremony–one to honour the lives of the children who never returned to their families and their communities–to cleanse the beautiful wooden tiles they had so lovingly decorated, each to honour a life lost to the depredations of the IRS.

Their new knowledge resonated with meaning as CDCI students, in step 5, learned about the ongoing nature of many extreme challenges faced by First Nations, Inuit, and Metis communities. The epidemic of violence against Aboriginal women, the continuing assimilation of Indigenous youth through underfunding of their education, health and child welfare agencies, and a plethora of other injustices were all included in Mattson’s plan.

Project of Heart would like to extend a huge meegwetch to Sheryl, her students, and to Elder Ron Howard and his wife, who cared enough to risk living the trauma they experienced, so that the students of CDCI could give testimony to what they heard. Emily Mackenzie, student at CDCI West leaves us feeling hopeful, as she explains why the day with Elder Ron will stay with her forever:

 The Elder visit was to say the last, very eye-opening. While we spent a lot of time learning about Residential Schools in class, I found I could not really relate to what actually happened until the Elder came in and shared his stories. To actually hear the emotion in his voice, from sadness to even hatred, I really got a sense of how it had affected him.

Along with the Elder came his wife. So not only did you get the perspective of someone directly involved but someone who was affected second-hand. The part that I found myself choking up at was when they were talking about their children and how he could not be the father he wanted to be, emotionally wise. That he was always a little harder on his children because he was rarely shown any kindness as a child. This really got to me because it shows how it has affected not only that generation, but future generations as well. You could also see how much it affected his wife as she began to tear up. You could really tell that it was something that they had struggled with.

As a Canadian student, I was shocked to hear these stories. I had no previous lessons involving this topic and that is something that very much upsets me. If I had not taken this course or had this opportunity to meet this Elder, then I would really never get to learn of Canada’s dark past. I am very grateful to have the chance to experience this, and it is something that I will always remember. I feel that more students should have the opportunity to learn about this–that it should be mandatory in the Canadian education system. It is not until we study the past that we can better our future.

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