WCI has been trying to promote difficult discussions about Indingeous issues within the school through the Indigenous Students Association (ISA), the leadership class, and events like Orange Shirt Day, Secret Path Week, and Treaties Recognition Week.
The ISA is a club similar to the Black Student Association and the Chinese Student Association, which function as places for students to meet and discuss these issues in an inclusive way.
The idea of an ISA was first suggested by Ms. Watters, WCI’s principal, in June of 2020. She approached Ms. Chin, a teacher of science at WCI who organized the Orange Shirt Day assembly earlier that year, saying that each school needed a safe, caring and inclusive school committee. The club had to be composed of at least one student, one parent, a group of teachers and a vice-principal.
Soon after Chin agreed to start the ISA is when Ms. Rasi, an English teacher at WCI, got involved. Over the month of June, Rasi challenged herself to read 30 books in 30 days, all of the books being by Indigenous authors. She mentioned this in a staff meeting, which caught Chin’s attention, and they started having informal discussions on Indigenous topics and the ISA.
Rasi thought that the club was a good idea since it would provide a good way for students to connect.
At the moment, the club is trying to expand and have more people participate. The group was originally intended to be only for students who identify as Indigenous, but in their first meeting only one student attended, and there have been subsequent meetings where the teachers outnumber the students. Thus, the club was opened up to non-Indigenous students, however, they are still trying to center the club around Indigenous issues and students.
Marina I., a grade 12 student, joined because she wanted to help make Indigenous issues a bigger focus, and Malak M., a grade 12 leadership student during the 1st quadmester, joined mainly out of personal interest.
The teachers within the club post links to news articles and digital resources, recommendations for documentaries and books, and information about community initiatives.
In biweekly meetings, there are discussions surrounding current events and ideas for other events. The most recent meeting on November 3rd featured ideas for future events, and ideas for making those events more student-driven.
Knowledge Keeper Kelly Curley came to a meeting as a guest speaker, sharing his perspective on topics like changing Columbus day to Indigenous Peoples’ day, the decolonization of education systems, and the end game for reconciliation. The club plans to have more guest speakers in the future.
One of the main goals of the club is to have student directed conversations about Indigenous issues, wherein students can discuss both their internal and external experiences in a safe and welcoming environment.
By doing so, those involved can start to understand not just the topics or events in question, but also how they affect people: “It’s different than hearing something from the news or from a third-party, rather than hearing it from someone who has actually experienced it. So I think that’s why the issues they talk about are really important,” Marina explained.
The club is also able to discuss school-wide events and how to go about them, with the inclusion of student perspectives. However, while the club does have some input on how events are to be run, the events would not happen without the help of the leadership class.
Kate D., a grade 12 student in leadership during quadmester 1, describes the role of leadership class in this way: “A group of students who enjoy putting together different events and smaller things that help other students feel welcome to the school and/or comfortable. We try and create new, innovative events for everyone to enjoy.”
Thus far in the school year, there have been three events at WCI with an Indigenous focus: Orange Shirt Day, Secret Path Week, and Treaties Recognition Week. Each of these events were organized by some combination of the ISA and leadership class.
Orange Shirt Day, an event to educate and spread awareness of the history of residential schools, took place on September 30th.
Malak, the leadership student assigned to this event, had always been interested in Indigenous issues, and other matters of human rights, but when she was assigned to head Orange Shirt Day, she first thought that the event was rather small. However, as she learned more about it, she realized that there is a lot to learn about the subject, and that encouraged her to keep researching.
She soon realized that not many people are aware of these events or why they exist, so when she was designing WCI’s event, she wanted to make it something that people were unable to ignore. She created a slideshow for teachers to present to students with hard facts about residential schools, an interview with a survivor of residential schools, and photographs of residential schools.
Malak worked primarily with classmate Jude M., Ms. Jilesen, the leadership teacher, as well as Chin.
Following Orange Shirt Day was Secret Path Week, or Downie-Wenjack Week, an annual event that took place at WCI from October 19th-23rd. The event commemorates Chanie Wenjack, a young Anishnaabe boy from Ontario who passed away while trying to run away from Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School, and Gord Downie, a Canadian musician who was inspired to create an album about the story, and who was an activist on Indigenous issues and reconciliation.
WCI celebrated this event this year since it is part of the Downie-Wenjack Foundation’s Legacy School Program, a program that helps schools spread awareness of Indigenous issues and history.
Chin, Malak, and Jude organized the event, with the help of Kate, who contributed to the creation of the slideshows that were given to the teachers in her spare time.
The slideshow contained information about Chanie Wenjack and Gord Downie, their lives and legacies, as well as the drinking water crisis on Indigenous reserves. It also provided resources allowing students to participate in a letter-writing campaign concerning the water crisis.
Some teachers personalized the slideshow. For her English class, Rasi trimmed down a good portion of the information presented, and added some music, TV, book and other media recommendations, all by Indigenous artists and authors.
Treaties Recognition Week took place the first week of November, as declared by the Province of Ontario in 2016. This event was headed primarily by the ISA.
For this event, posters and plaques containing information about treaties and what they did/were meant to do, most of which had been collected by vice-principal Mr. Chapman over the years, were set up throughout the school, along with a poster that was hung on the tennis court fence which read, “We are all treaty people.”
Some posters also included QR codes, which, when scanned, opened an article, video, or another type of online resource, that explained the topic on the poster even further.
Three slideshows were also sent out to teachers for them to share with their classes, one about treaties in general, another about the Indian Act, and the last one about the Land Back movement. Even though Treaties Recognition Week is the first week of November, Chin encouraged teachers to use the resources throughout the entire month of November, which is Indigenous Awareness Month.
Malak explained that one of the main goals with these events is to get the message out. A way of doing that is by educating teachers in this area, and then having them educate their students. They also tried to take advantage of technology in various ways, such as announcements, videos, and social media.
She emphasized the importance of presenting real stories, and not sugar-coating the facts, saying that “We have to acknowledge the full truth so we can take full accountability, and take full action.”
Making information both reliable and accessible has also been one of Malak’s priorities. She explained how the information presented needs to be legitimate and understandable, and how “You can’t educate people without making things accessible for everybody.”
When speaking to the importance of events like these, Kate mentioned that not only is it important to raise awareness and to educate, but also to demonstrate how people can make a difference: “Everybody should know what has happened in our past, and know how they can take action and help.”
Malak mentioned that she received some feedback from teachers about the information on the Orange Shirt Day slideshow being too “solemn,” and that some teachers felt “uncomfortable.”
“Yes, it’s uncomfortable,” she said. And when it comes to teachers not being able to have these conversations, “That’s not how it’s supposed to be at all, especially for Orange Shirt Day when we’re talking about residential schools, and what happened, and why they were so bad.”
She also brought up the fact that if we fail to acknowledge our past, we will not prosper, and that “Things don’t go away […] you can’t pretend things don’t exist, and if you don’t fix your mistakes, no matter what the scale, whether it’s an assignment or a whole first-world country, you have to take action.”
Chin also mentioned that when events like Orange Shirt Day and Treaties Recognition Week are celebrated, and teachers are given small opportunities to bring Indigenous issues into their classrooms, “It’ll just become natural, automatic: it’s not going to be a chore.”
Featured photo was taken by Zoe S.FOLLOW FJORD: