Youth are leading the way towards the West Coast’s reflection and observance of Canada’s National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on Sept. 30.
Ucluelet Secondary School students have spent the past four weeks working on youth-led reconciliation projects and their work will be displayed at the school alongside an exhibit being brought in from Ontario.
For the third consecutive year, the school has partnered with the Clayoquot Biosphere Trust and the Legacy of Hope Foundation to bring a museum quality exhibit from Ontario and this year’s exhibit is called ‘Indian Day Schools in Canada, An Introduction’.
“As the truth came out about Residential Schools over the past decade-plus, they’re now more recently looking at day schools and the trauma and abuse that happened at day schools. That’s the most recent thing that the government is trying to work on settling,” CBT project Manager Jason Sam told the Westerly News.
The Legacy of Hope exhibit was brought to the West Coast with funding from the CBT as well as Heritage Canada and it will be displayed at the school surrounded by the local students’ research and work.
“We are coming at it with a youth-leading reconciliation process,” Sam said.
For the first time, the Legacy of Hope exhibit will remain on the Coast for an extra week as Sam said the exhibit and students’ work will be displayed by Tourism Tofino following Sept. 30’s school presentation.
Art students designed and printed orange shirts and art teacher Shannon McWhinney told the Westerly she has been proud of how respectful and engaged the students have been.
“This group has been really respectful of the learning,” McWhinney said. “This year, we tried to get students to think more about healing and possibly more uplifting shirts because we’re on this path now towards reconciliation and the hope that people are healing.”
She added that Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation artist Marika Swan worked with the students, encouraging them to think of their own personal designs.
“Last year, we had a number of survivors come in and they definitely shared some really emotional stories. One of the things that one of our guests shared was that she saw someone wearing an orange shirt, not on orange shirt day, on the ferry and it was really emotional for her to see that support from community on a day that wasn’t necessarily designated to honour and respect and remember,” McWhinney said.
“There’s a connection there with the shirts that’s very visual and cathartic…Sharing with the students that not only are they making shirts to learn about this, but that these shirts actually have a healing, emotional effect on survivors.”
She added counselling is available for the students as they learn about the tragedies and atrocities of Canada’s residential school system.
“There’s a connection because of their age. They definitely can share that, when they’re in school this is how they’re being treated, but then seeing and hearing how children were treated in the past is emotional,” she said. “They definitely do learn and feel empathy towards the survivors as they’re going through these projects.”
Art students were printing their designs onto their orange shirts on Friday morning and spoke to the Westerly about the importance of what they have been learning.
“It’s been hard. It’s been all kinds of hard…Because of all the things that everyone went through,” said Talia Charlson, 14. “It’s sad what happened, but it’s kind of great that we’re learning about it and to not repeat it. It shows the pain that our people had to go through and it shows that we may have been through it, but things are getting better,”
“It’s a really bad thing that happened in history, but it’s really important that we’re learning about it,” said classmate Karl Sked. “It tore apart families and was really destroying to the culture…It’s important to remember the families who had to go through that and all the kids who had to go through that because it was really traumatic for them.”
“So many kids died and that sucks. They didn’t deserve to,” said Kyten Traviss, 13. “They’re not forgotten. We remember that they got done wrong…I’m glad I’m learning about it and it’s not getting put away in somebody’s back pocket. I’m glad we’re hearing about it.”
“It’s been really cool to learn the history. It’s also been sad to hear about how many kids died and what they went through,” said Ayla Roberts, 14. “It’s been tough. I think people need to know what happened in the residential schools and acknowledge that bad stuff did happen and we need to do something about it.”
“I’ve enjoyed learning about peoples’ stories and how they feel about what happened and how we can improve,” said Bronwynn Bradshaw, 14. “It’s interesting learning about peoples’ experiences because it’s very unique for every person…It gives me a better understanding of what they felt when they were going through a tough time and how we can help them recover.”
Sam said the school’s English students are writing poetry about survivors’ stories and literary students are investigating the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 calls to action and how far along each one is to being implemented.
BC First Peoples students are looking into the Christie Residential Schools that operated on the West Coast.
“We have another group that is looking at the history and decision making by Duncan Campbell Scott, who ignored all the deaths and effects of malnutrition and sickness, especially tuberculosis, going on in residential schools and did nothing about it,” Sam said, adding students are also learning about the Bryce Report.
“Dr. Bryce went around to residential schools investigating and wrote a report that highlighted all of the atrocities going on at residential schools but he was ignored, even though he put it plain and clear that children are dying, children are getting mistreated and they are sick.”
The students’ work will be displayed with the Legacy of Hope exhibit and each student from Grade 6-12 as well as the public will have an opportunity to engage with, and reflect on, the topics covered.
Sam said more classes are involved this year than in the past with each tackling different aspects of residential schools, including a new program focused on the lack of food children were given and effects of malnutrition.
“We followed that up with making recipes with traditional foods, such as salmon, blackberries and elk,” he said.
“The reason why we brought it into foods and nutrition class was that every survivor up until this date who has been in to share with the students all talked about the lack of food and how bad the food was. They independently went to different residential schools and all of them talked about the lack of food.”
He added that a key part of the learning process is hearing from residential school survivors.
“It brings it into reality. It takes it off paper and off the internet and it brings it into reality. These are our neighbours, community members, coworkers or, for some of them, it’s their relatives. It brings it into reality and puts a personal story behind it, which is where you get that understanding and empathy,” he said. “So, we can grow and foster and raise knowledgeable and empathetic community members and so that, when they go out into the world and the workforce, they have this empathy and understanding of what communities and people went through, which is still affecting our communities today.”
He said he is consistently impressed with the reverence the students give to the subject.
“I was really, really amazed by how well they pay attention in class. We had a guest speaker today and the kids were great. They all focused and they all listened. They all take it seriously. There’s some hard stuff that gets talked about for sure and they’re always very respectful in class,” he said.
He spoke to his own learning journey when he was tasked with teaching students about residential schools about eight years ago.
“I was never taught about Residential Schools in public education, high school, nor was I taught anything about it in University,” he said.
Sam said that, during his teaching, he worked with the Maaqutusiis Hahoutlhee Stewardship Society to take students on field trips to Lone Cone, a former residential school site on Meares Island.
“When you first walk up to Lone Cone, the first thing you come across is a cemetery and it’s a cemetery of children that went to residential schools. So, it immediately hits home with the kids as well as teachers and anybody I bring,” he said.
He added he was going through information about the history of the residential school site when he discovered a story that he had not heard before and resonated strongly.
“I read this new one to the kids and the person talked about having his hands beaten so badly that his brother had to feed him oatmeal…I got to the end and it was my grandpa’s story. It really hit home that my family was very impacted by residential schools. My family never talked about residential schools,” he said. “It’s something that I’m passionate about for sure and it’s something the teachers are all on board with.”
He added USS’ approach to learning about Truth and Reconciliation is developing a strong reputation and other schools are looking to follow the school’s lead and offer similar programming.
“Ucluelet Secondary School and the Clayoquot Biosphere Trust are definitely leading the way,” he said. “Ucluelet Secondary School is a shining star when it comes to this. No other school around is doing anything like this…Out on the Coast, we are definitely doing a very well-rounded job.”
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