THUNDER BAY – Jolie Whitecrow says she’s thankful she was born in the early 21st century, and not a few decades earlier.
The Grade 6 student at Westmount Public School shudders at the thought of going through what many of her ancestors did, living through the residential school era.
The 11-year-old on Wednesday helped unveil her school’s Project of Heart, a colourful mural set with hand-drawn wooden tiles that form the shape of the Sleeping Giant, each student using their tiles to present their vision of reconciliation, truth-telling and relationship building.
“I’m glad that I was born now, than then, because I would have to go to a residential school. This project means so much to me because it’s beautiful and so nice that we did this for so many people,” the youngster said.
Students presented the mural to a pair of elders, who shared their stories of what it was like during the residential school days.
Jolie said it’s frightening to think about.
“It makes me feel upset because I’d miss my family and the fact they wouldn’t be there would be very sad,” she said.
“The mural can help so many people. It can show them that we are all together now and residential schools are done.”
Tykara Balke-Brewer, a Grade 7 students at the school, said it’s moving to see the completed project. The impact is long-lasting, the 12-year-old said.
“You kind of had to think about it a lot,” she said. “We had some examples. Most of us made up our own ideas and pretty much all of them represent something.”
While completing the mural, students learned about the struggles and suffering Indigenous people went through while attending residential schools, and the ripple effect that is still affecting their communities to this very day.
Principal Eric Frederickson said an effort like Project of Heart, which involved students in grades 6 to 8, can go a long way to change attitudes and behaviours and foster relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people at a young age.
“It’s recognizing the importance of how this really changing the way we think about history, the way we learn about history, the way that we consider our history – the good and the not so good and to learn from that as a school and a community,” Frederickson said.
“We have a diverse school here at Westmount and it’s important for us that all the students here, and the staff, recognize we celebrate those differences, we learn from them and there are some things in our past we need to learn about and learn from as we move forward together.”
Elder Felicia Waboose, who was torn from her home and forced to attend residential school, where she wasn’t allowed to speak her own language or stay with her widower father all year long, said Project of Heart can’t take away the pain of growing up without her parents, but it’s comforting to know that today’s generation of students understand a little of what they went through in the past.
“I can see how much you understand, how much you have learned, from what you are writing and what you are being taught,” she said. “That means a lot to me, seeing all those feelings that are there.”