pregnant pauses fill the air
youthful minds still
’til honesty is shared
In the sophisticated, spacious, glass ensconced student commons at Maples Collegiate, the effect of this forum could have felt “whitewashed”, despite the good intentions of its organizers.
Concerned social workers, foster parents and educators are among those gathered to delve into the difficult topic of racism, precipitated by the January 2015 Maclean’s article, Welcome to Winnipeg: Where Canada’s racism problem is at its worst, written by guest presenter and former Winnipegger, Nancy Macdonald.
Faith, the last speaker of the high school’s Indigenous student leadership group panel admits, “I feel it’s pretty hard for all of us to talk, to express our opinion.” Seemingly, it is these youthful halting voices that reach across the chasm between First Nations reality and the “newcomer” circumstance in which the rest of us inhabit.
Having experienced racism as an everyday occurrence, these young students are not surprised at the racism described in Macdonald’s article. Danielle, originally from Peguis First Nation, describes racist comments as anything from, “You’re an honour student?” to taunts of “dirty neechie”.
When Dylan comes to the podium, he bows his capped head, quietly thoughtful – perhaps just being an authentic humility. A Maples student who recently moved from Berens River (accessible only by ice road or plane), Dylan poignantly muses that even if he is a graduate, he may still be a homeless guy.
Dylan candidly shares he has been in 16 foster homes since the age of four. He says he never called a place home. He always says, “I’m going to their place.” He was scared to come to school here (Maples Collegiate) but is going everyday. Dylan still hears racial slurs in the classroom but does his best not to say anything back.
Dion, an Oji Cree from St. Theresa Point, gives credit to the ASL (Aboriginal Student Leadership Group) for changing his perspective. Dion, who acknowledges his toddler at the back of the room, is a proud father. People say it is irresponsible to be a young parent. Dion says, “I am not afraid to show how much I love her and bring her to ASL.” He wants her to be in an environment where she does not experience racism.
Gilbert moved from Split Lake when he was 12-years-old. He brings the drum he loves to the podium. Gilbert plays his drum a lot on his own time because he is in love with the heartbeat of Mother Earth.
Like the others, Gilbert shows a heartfelt gratitude for ASL. Gilbert says, “We are a family. We try to unite, change stereotypes. We not only want to inform but we want to inspire.”
Gilbert pauses momentarily to grab two clear cups. The empty one, he explains, is “our history.” As he pours water from the second cup into the first, he illustrates, “This is how we bring back our heritage and our culture.” He advocates that IDP (Indigenous Peoples) should be a mandatory course.
I cannot help but project how Seven Oaks superintendent, Brian O’Leary, might feel as Gilbert earnestly expresses how proud he is to go to a school that is diverse – a school where equality matters. It is very significant that a space is created where young Indigenous students want to be. Emcee and academic scholar in residence Kevin Lamoureux acknowledges the courage within the division to seek and implement programs such as this.
These young people feel they have a safe and meaningful place in public school. ASL meets on Thursdays after school. It is a place of belonging – as Kevin aptly states, a place where shared wounds are healed.
It cannot be overlooked that identity and responsibility do not form without the wisdom and guidance of teachers like Bernadette Smith. Smith embodies the values of social justice not only in her teaching but in her work with families of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls.
For her part, Nancy Macdonald defends the article that has catalyzed the discussions and actions of many Winnipeggers. She claims there is nothing anti-Winnipeg about it.
A dark stain illustrated by a journalist can push a city to act. While pointing out the more gruesome facts and statistics relating to matters Indigenous, Macdonald also illuminates the undeniable opening right now to mobilize.
This ex-Winnipegger is objective enough to recognize the remarkable strength and actions of people in this community. People such as Kevin Lamoureaux, Rebecca Chartrand, Leslie Spillett, Nahanni Fontaine, Michael Champagne, Wab Kinew and Rosanna Deerchild.
As educators, it begins with the young. Friendships begin, as Brian O’Leary says, in elementary school, when we were all colour blind. It is up to those of us in the education system to inform and inspire young minds, hearts and spirits, and embrace the history and culture in the land of Treaty One and the Metis Nation. . . as the youth leaders of the ASL would have it.
Nancy Macdonald points out, we are not all born on the same starting line. We need to learn to connect the dots. . . and build the bridges.