In April 2019, I boarded an airplane with 21 teenagers from Toronto to travel to Thunderchild First Nation in northern Saskatchewan, where we would stay for one week as part of a YMCA youth exchange program.
This experience changed all our lives.
These students had all taken the English: Understanding Contemporary First Nations, Métis and Inuit Voices course I teach at James Cardinal McGuigan (JCM) high school – a course designed to honour Indigenous voices.
But I wanted to push that education further by having my students participate in authentic experiential learning: being immersed in a First Nations community; engaging in rich discussion with the youth and Elders; and forming relationships that would bridge the gap between our cultures.
This YMCA program offered the perfect opportunity.
The project required an enormous amount of preparation – both logistically and emotionally. We explored stereotypes and learned about how to respectfully enter into an Indigenous community.
We participated in a workshop led by Dr. Angela Nardoz called “Build a Community” – an embodied experience that teaches about the impacts of colonialism and connects participants to the historical facts in a heart-based way.
I was in frequent communication with the coordinators at Thunderchild, Lydia Sunchild and Leah Arcand, to ensure that the experience would go smoothly and that their students would feel respected and welcomed when it was their turn to visit us in Toronto a few weeks later.
When we arrived at Piyesiw Awasis school, we were graciously greeted in a welcoming ceremony by all 250 students and teachers, who shook each of our hands, saying, “Tansi” (welcome).
Over the course of the week, my students engaged in land-based learning activities including teepee-building, hide-stretching, fire-building, and hiking. They visited historic sites and museums in neighbouring communities. A lucky few were even able to participate in a Sweat Lodge ceremony. Thunderchild shared their teachings, traditions, languages, artwork, and dance. Students met with Elders, watched a traditional powwow demonstration, and participated in a round dance.
“I was so impressed with how trusting and receptive both groups of students were.”
My students formed immediate relationships with the host students.
They played co-operative games and volleyball (with Thunderchild’s regional championship team), listened to music, and watched movies together. They talked about social media, family, traditions, and hobbies.
They were so alike and so eager to learn about one another.
At the end, the students participated in a sharing circle where they were able to openly and honestly express their thoughts and feelings regarding their newfound relationships.
It was moving for me to see such a wonderful example of trauma-informed and anti-colonial relationship-building.
“It was a truly special celebration of inclusion and unity.”
Two weeks later, we welcomed our new friends to Toronto. Our JCM students and the Thunderchild youth were so excited to be reunited, and they emanated a joy-filled energy all week. The days were jam-packed with activities: we did beading; we took them to the CN Tower, a Blue Jays game, the waterfront, the Royal Ontario Museum, and the CBC for a tour where we met award-winning Cree journalist Connie Walker. We even met the famous Ojibway author Drew Hayden Taylor!
A highlight was a downtown mural walk to discover the beautiful Indigenous artwork that is hidden all around our city, led by First Nations artists Chief Lady Bird and Aura, whom we had met earlier that year.
We concluded the week with a multicultural festival where JCM and Thunderchild students showcased their traditional music and dance. It was a truly special celebration of inclusion and unity. The week’s end brought emotional good-byes, and the students are still keeping in touch with each other months later.
I was so impressed with how trusting and receptive both groups of students were.
They came to the experience with open minds and a genuine interest in one another.
My students returned from Thunderchild changed in various ways: some came out of their shells, others now have more direction in their lives. They’ve grown: they have more friends, they’ve traveled, they understand what community is, what pride is. They have a broader worldview. Parents noticed this change immediately and thanked us for giving their children this experience.
I’m proud of us for rising to this challenge.
We hear about the realities on certain reserves and we know about the resounding impacts of colonization. Colonialism has created a divide between people who live on reserves and settler-people – yet the students managed to overcome those obstacles together.
That’s how relationships are formed; that’s how foundations are built; and that’s how change is made.
Photo: Dave Donald
First published in Education Canada, March 2020