Seemingly small actions can carry big significance.
During the unveiling at the Little Mountain fields in June of the Secwépemc Landmarks Project – just days after the confirmation of the remains of 215 children at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, one of the elders present gave a painful account of their time at the residential school.
Following the ceremony, a bannock taco lunch had been arranged across the street for those attending by Indigenous Education Workers at Shuswap Middle School, Theresa Johnson and Kaeli Hawrys.
When the elder came over for the lunch, she wished to use the school washroom so Hawrys took her there.
Johnson recounts how, earlier in the year, one of the projects the Indigenous workers helped organize for a Grade 7 class was to put Secwépemc posters and language recordings accessible by cell phone around the school. Each of the QR codes provides a student’s voice as well as an elder’s voice.
The project came about when the class read “Speaking our Truth: A Journey of Reconciliation” by Monique Gray Smith, and the students were struck by how much culture had been lost with the loss of language. They wanted to display the language all over the school, Johnson said.
When the elder got to the school’s gender-neutral washroom, she saw the poster. In Secwépemc it translated to “all people’s bathroom.”
“And she looks at it and says, ‘huh,” explained Johnson. “And she says the name in Secwépemc, and then she says, ‘Isn’t that nice,’ and then she goes in and uses the washroom.”
The story was told to many classes.
“While it’s just a small reflection from an elder whose people have lived here since time immemorial, it is a recognition in her – little, but for us it’s significant of something so much larger. It’s significant of the fact that her school experience was this way. She shared a brief little bit about that pain, right? But then coming here and being able to see her language, on our school walls.”
Johnson said people don’t realize when schools ask survivors to come and speak to students on Orange Shirt Day at the beginning of every school year, what it must feel like for them. Standing in front of 700 or 800 people and baring the most tender parts of their trauma to hundreds of people.
“Not everybody can do that, but we ask our old people and our survivors, the ones who have the strength to do that, or who are ready to share, and that’s such a big ask.
“Sometimes, I’ve had experiences with people who’ve attended residential school who sit outside in the parking lot for a little bit. Because coming into a school for them, it’s still raw. And so we want to make reconciliation real.”
She said reconciliation in action can be as simple as reading a survivor’s story, or parents having an age-appropriate conversation with their kids about how they’re feeling about the children found.
“Having an open, real conversation about it, learning what we can do, learning more about it, making sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Part of making it real – or reconciliation in action, is creating things like the language project, Johnson said.
Amelia Hall was one of the students in teacher Morgen MacDonald’s Grade 7 class who took part in the project.
“It was very sentimental to me, because I have Indigenous and Secwépemc background,” she said.
“Learning about the words and putting more of our culture into the school was very nice to see. I didn’t really know some, but hearing some of it was very inspiring.”
She pointed out there are more Indigenous signs in Little Mountain Park.
“I’m very happy to see all of this.”
Johnson said learning at its deepest level occurs through experience, so students making the posters and hearing the stories about the history are important.
“To elevate the culture that has been downtrodden by society in general and say – no more.”
While some projects were for Indigenous students, others were for all students.
At the end of the year, for instance, Johnson and Hawrys accompanied classes to Marine Peace Park where Johnson took students fishing at the wharf and Hawrys did soapstone carving with them.
“If we really want to be agents for social change and a better world for everybody, it involves everybody learning about this,” Johnson said.
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