In the last few months I have had the pleasure of experiencing two very powerful events focusing on our Aboriginal community. Though I have used the word “events”, I don’t mean to suggest that these two experiences simply happened at one moment in time; rather, I am suggesting that the dedication, creativity and passion that happened over a period of time allowed us to experience an event that I hope has transformed the hearts and minds of those students who participates and those who attended, hopefully leading to important changes in beliefs, understandings and practices.
The Art Gallery of Hamilton hosted “Songide’ewin: Aboriginal Narratives” from April 12-May 12. Songide’ewin is an Ojibwe meaning “strength of heart”. This exhibit was the work of many students at Sir John A Macdonald Secondary School under the mentorship of Ojibwe artist and author, Rene Meshake who worked with Dr. Kristiina Montero from Wifrid Laurier University, Sir John A. MacDonald Native Studies teacher, Beth McQueen and teacher candidates from Sir Wilfrid Laurier. Students created paintings and wrote poems that brilliantly communicated their experiences, emotions, hopes and dreams grounded in Aboriginal teachings and Worldviews.
I had the chance to meet Dylan at this exhibit who shared his creative journey with me. You could meet Dylan yourself by clicking on this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KZV0b2IFcok.
I also visited Beth McQueen’s class so I could meet more of the students who created this exhibit.
I have been profoundly moved by this experience because I learned once again the power of visual art and poetry to communicate in ways that word alone cannot. I learned more about our First Nation, Métis and Inuit students who shared with me that they found their “voice” through this process. Most importantly, these students shared with me how proud they are of their accomplishments, of the chance to be part of such an exhibit, and of their history and culture, something that a few of these students shared they knew very little about.
As I took in the power of the art and poetry, and after visiting the students’ class, I realized once again how important it is for schools to provide rich opportunities for many different types of learning, not just the stereotypical opportunities that people may think of when they reflect on their own school experience. Songide’ewn happened because high school and university students, teachers and artists came together to make something wonderful happen, and it certainly happened! It reminds me of the importance of collaboration; great things happen when we come together to listen, to share and to create. Thank you to everyone who had a part in Songide’ ewin.
The second event took place at Glendale Secondary School. Under the direction of teacher Crystal Dumitru, and supported by Paul Borsc and Luke Bramer the play “Ten Miles Out” was created. Jenny Kay Dupuis, the Aboriginal community liaison for HWDSB also held a significant supportive role.
These Glendale students wrote this play. The student musicians created the music. And after writing the play and engaging in rehearsals, Crystal informed the students that the performances would be without words!!!
This powerful drama captured some of the experiences that took place at Residential schools for Aboriginal students which existed for many years in Canada. The students researched this history as well as learned from the stories of survivors to create this moving experience. Students had the chance to visit the Woodlands Cultural Center (the former Mohawk Institute) in Brantford where they walked, listened, learned and began their creative journey. I also had the opportunity to visit the centre and I learned about this very sad chapter of history that hurt so many in our Aboriginal community, a chapter that was still in existence a few decades ago!
I learned about how Aboriginal students in these residential schools were silenced, separated from their families and culture, and expected to become something they were not. This is why the play without words made the message that much more powerful.
One of the students involved in “Ten Miles Out” shared with me that her life is forever changed because now she can never ignore injustice. Her heart has been changed and her eyes have been opened…and now she will continue to act!
Art is just a powerful medium for breaking through bias, prejudice, and intolerance. Art has the ability to help the artist communicate his/her experience. Those who are experiencing the creativity of the artist have the opportunity to be transformed, as long as they are open to it.
Our HWDSB students and staff at Sir John A Macdonald and Glendale have made a huge difference in these last few months. I trust that our students will be compelled to continue sharing their story and acting for justice. I believe our community can rest assured that brilliant students, with a desire to bring about change will positively impact all of our lives for many years to come!