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Courtenay students honour residential school survivors
École Puntledge Park Elementary students learned about residential school history and honoured survivors in their school community as part of a three-month project.
Aboriginal kindergarten/Grade 1 teacher Susan Leslie came up with the idea for Project Heart last spring.
"Something I always wanted to do was talk about residential schools in schools because it seems to be taboo," recalls Leslie.
"The idea (of the project) is that when we acknowledge our shared history then we can come together ... and all walk forward with a new shared understanding, supporting and caring for each other with an open heart."
Parent Ed Carswell, who is a local filmmaker, quickly jumped on board to create a video documenting the project. Visit the Comox Valley Record's Facebook page for a link to the video or visit the Comox Valley School District website at www.sd71.bc.ca. According to Carswell, the film will be presented at the 2014 World Community Film Festival in Courtenay.
Leslie, who is Mi'kmaq, presented her idea to school staff, and 15 of the school's 21 classes joined in to learn about residential school history. Leslie went into each of the classes and played the character of a young girl at a residential school as she taught students about the history through age appropriate storytelling in circles.
"From those circles it inspired a lot of questions and from their questions came an inquiry in various classrooms, and the classrooms all went in different directions trying to research and answer the questions that they felt were really important to their learning," recalls Leslie.
"Some children knew a little, some children knew a lot and some knew nothing. But every child wanted to know why. It was really difficult for them to understand how this could have been the law."
Residential school survivor Verna Flanders, who spent 10 years of her childhood at residential schools, told her story in four three-class group sessions, telling her story to 12 classes in total.
"Those sessions, the children came back, they actually heard from someone who went through it, so that really cemented the fact that these are real people," says Leslie. "This actually happened and this is how they feel, and we heard it. And then they got to see what they, as a community of learners, could do about it."
Students and staff then created blankets, one for each of five residential school survivors connected to the school community and one for each class. The project culminated at an assembly held on National Aboriginal Day, June 21, where the five survivors were wrapped in blankets by students.
Flanders spoke with emotion after she was wrapped in her blanket.
"You kids, all of you touched my heart — all of you — the questions you asked me," she says on the video. "You all respected who I am. Thank you so much for this wonderful blanket that you made. I am so honoured. Thank you."
Leslie adds the ceremony was amazing, and she's satisfied with what the project did to bring the entire school community closer together.
"This is what we did as a whole school, to honour, to support, to show our love and caring and understanding and just to basically say, 'We acknowledge this happened to you, you are part of our school community, we care about you,' " says Leslie.
She says she believes healing will come through understanding and acknowledging the shared history of residential schools between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people.
"We can walk together and help each other heal," she says. "And it's through that walking forward that I think we'll see our aboriginal learners in our schools feeling safe, feeling seen, feeling like they belong, because their ancestry and their nation is being honoured in our history."
Leslie invites other schools to honour the residential school survivors connected to their school communities.
"Every school has them," she continues. "What if we all did this in the Comox Valley? In British Columbia? What if we did this across Canada? Wow, the impact of acknowledging our shared history together would be a game-changer.
"I think it could only strengthen our relationships between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people in this country."