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Niagara-on-the-Lake
Thursday, December 8, 2022
Every Child Matters flag at half-mast for Truth and Reconciliation
Shyann Jenkins, Emely Velasquez and Sabrina Shawana sing and drum as a form of healing at town hall flag-raising. Evan Loree

Community and schools take time to reflect on legacy of residential schools

 

The Every Child Matters flag was raised to half-mast in Niagara-on-the-Lake Friday morning. 

Each Sept. 30 is now a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, but for the people touched most by residential schools the day, it is an opportunity to reflect on that violent era in Canadian history.

“Ever since the first uncovering, I thought instantly, what a horrible secret for Mother Earth to keep for all those years,” said Sabrina Shawana of the Anishnaabe Eagle Clan and co-founder of Niagara’s Strong Water Singers.

 

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Shawana was at town hall with two other singers to honour the victims of residential schools.

When ceremonial flags are raised at town hall, they normally fly at full-mast. Not this day.

On Friday, a crowd of about 30 people gathered under the half-raised flag for a solemn ceremony.

Shawana remembers her father had a lot of emotional trauma to work through when she was young and it wasn’t until she had her first child that he began to change.

“We’re so thankful that our family took those steps to heal, because a lot of families don’t,” she said. 

The drumming helps, she said.

“I almost feel like I have an out-of-body experience,” she said, adding it feels like a connection to the creator.

The first the group sang was called the Elements Honour Song, which Shawana said pays homage to “those roles that we all play and those responsibilities that we carry.”

The second was taught to the drummers by women of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation. Shawana called it a “snake medicine song.”

“What this song is actually teaching us is that snakes come across our path for a reason,” she said.

People assume snakes are bad, but she said they lead us to the medicine that was meant for us. 

When Shawana looks around she said she does not see truth and reconciliation happening. 

“The communities (in Niagara Region) that we’re in now are making a lot of efforts and strides,” she said, but in the general community, Shawana said there’s not much acceptance.

She said there’s a misconception that her community is treated favourably through things like tax exemption status. 

Shawana is a single mother and it’s important to her that her children grow up proud of their heritage. 

In her household, “how you live every day and how you carry yourself out with your teachings” is paramount. 

She does not see those values reflected in the school system.

One singer, Emily Velasquez, described the breakdown of Indigenous languages as “heartbreaking.” 

Velasquez had a friend in school who was Indigenous and said she witnessed first-hand the bullying she endured. 

“She was trying to show how proud she was,” Velasquez remembered. 

It was hard to watch and it made her want to “stick up” and fight for her Indigenous friends, she said.

“Today I will be wearing my orange shirt. For my great-grandfather,” singer Shyann Jenkins said. 

“He was taken when he was four years old and didn’t leave the mush hole (Mohawk Institute) until he was allowed to at 18.” 

Her great-grandfather went into the old Mohawk Institute Residential School (nicknamed the mush hole for the food it served) speaking his native tongue, Cayuga, but came out speaking only English.

“He survived the school but did not survive life afterwards,” Jenkins said. 

Prior to the arrival of the Strong Water Singers, the people who gathered took a short walk through the neighbourhood and reflected on the history of residential schools.

Richard Mell, who sits on the town’s diversity, equity and inclusion committee, wants to do more to support Indigenous education in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

It is a challenge, though, as the committee doesn’t have an Indigenous member.

Mell wondered if it’s even possible to represent a community without having an Indigenous member. 

“We need to recruit people who have that knowledge and expertise.”

Next term, Mell hopes the town can form subcommittees to help address issues faced by different minority groups. 

The diversity committee has made “great strides with regional organizations,” including the Niagara Regional Native Centre, he said.

Truth was heard and reconciled on Friday in NOTL’s schools as well, by teachers and students alike who were learning the hard truth of Canada’s cultural genocide together. 

“Today we focused on Gord Downie’s book (“Secret Path”), the Chanie Wenjack story,” said Julie Scaletta, a teacher at St. Michael Catholic Elementary School.

Wenjack died in 1966 after fleeing the Cecilia Jeffrey Residential School in Kenora, Ontario. 

His body was found near train tracks, 600 kilometres from the residential school. 

The Downie Wenjack Fund has shared his story with schools across Canada in an effort to reconcile with the truth of stories like Wenjack’s.

The foundation provides subscribing schools with learning resources to help teach the history of residential schools in an age-appropriate way.

“One of the challenges is that they don’t see it in their community,” said Scaletta.

It can be difficult to teach children about residential schools because they may not know anyone who has that experience. 

Scaletta was impressed with how her students were engaging with the content, though. 

“The children are so receptive,” she said.

At Crossroads Public School, the students spent the day learning about clean drinking water on reserves.

According to the federal government’s webpage on long-term water advisories, 135 long-term drinking water advisories have been lifted since 2015. 

Now, 32 advisories remain in effect.

Like other schools in town, St. Davids is working with members of the Indigenous community to better integrate Indigenous education into the curriculum.

At St. Davids Public School, students spent the day learning about the history of residential schools while cutting out orange hands from cardboard paper.

At the end of the day, on the hands the students wrote something about what they learned before attaching them to the school’s Every Child Matters tree.

Brian Kon, the leader of Indigenous education for the Niagara Catholic District School Board, says it can be hard to teach kids about Indigenous culture and history in a sensitive way, especially since teachers didn’t learn it in school themselves.

There are over 600 different Indigenous communities in Canada, speaking over 50 different languages among them.

“When we’re getting into the intricacies of each of the nations, then that nation needs to be recognized,” Kon said, adding that he, too, makes mistakes in educating people about Indigenous communities. 

“You’ve just got to make sure that whoever is speaking to our children in the schools is recognized by the community,” he said. 

The common refrain across town was that truth and reconciliation does not happen in a day. 

The whole truth is not yet told and it cannot be wholly reconciled until that happens.