Students from Eastwood Collegiate Institute knew they were onto something big – for themselves, their school and for 20 Indigenous students from Senator Allan Bird Memorial School in northern Saskatchewan – when they set out to organize a student exchange in the spring of 2018. With support from their teachers, and funding from the federal Experiences Canada program, they planned their own “reconciliation” experiment. With the exchange now behind them, they say reconciliation is about listening and learning, and connecting person-to-person.
“It’s one thing to read about Canada’s history and its Indigenous people,” says Myah Robinson, a Grade 9 Student at Eastwood. “But this was a real connection with real people. That’s learning!” Robinson found her inspiration when she encountered Gord Downie’s Secret Path graphic novel and album about Chanie Wenjack, a twelve-year boy who tried to escape Indian Residential School fifty years ago and died of exposure on the railway tracks. Like the other students, she had to articulate her personal learning objectives and be enrolled in a native studies class to be considered for the exchange.
Things got rolling in March this year when the students from the Montreal Lake Cree Nation boarded a plane – the first flight for some – and entered the world of their “twins” in southern Ontario. A return exchange was, unfortunately, cancelled due to wildfires in Saskatchewan. There is little doubt that most of the Kitchener students will make a personal journey there at some time in the future.
After landing in Toronto, the visiting students arrived in Kitchener where they met with their twins’ families. The week ahead included classroom time, trips to Toronto, Niagara Falls, St. Jacob’s, a Kitchener Rangers game, and a haunting visit to the Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford managed by the Six Nations of the Grand River and situated beside the Mohawk Institute Indian Residential School. The school is slated for renovation and a new life as an interpretive centre in the future.
“The visit to the Woodland Culture Centre and being on the actual grounds of a residential school was really profound for all of us,” says teacher, Adam Kasper, who noted that the difficult story of Canada’s Residential School System was recalled often during the week.
Kasper plays a leadership role at Eastwood where he adapts the province’s First Nation, Métis, and Inuit Education curriculum so students make a quick and deep connection to the history of Canada and its Indigenous communities. He and colleagues Karen Lillie and Greg Toller form a triumvirate of energy and inspiration for native studies.
This latest exchange adds to Eastwood’s growing reputation for understanding and diversity. The exchange has left the Kitchener teenagers with lifelong friends, many memories and a deeper understanding of Indigenous history and culture.
“Truth and Reconciliation will happen and should happen,” says Kasper. “We have to believe that. Education and learning how to talk to others about it is key.”
In its 2015 report to Parliament, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission challenged Canadians to make amends with its Indigenous communities and learn more about the culture and history of our country’s first people. While that goal is necessary, it is daunting for most Canadians. For students at Eastwood Collegiate, being free to ask questions and connect with their peers from Saskatchewan made all of the difference as they forged their own path to reconciliation and learning.