A path forward for Indigenous truth and reconciliation in this country may be realized in collaborative partnership with a new generation.
Tawingo College students in Grades 6-8 travelled to Yellowknife and Fort Providence, N.W.T. for a week at the end of February, accompanied by principal, Tia Pearse, and Grade 8 teacher, Fraser McTurk. The trip strengthened youth friendships that began with Indigenous Fort Providence students visiting Tawingo College for a week in October 2019.
The unique youth exchange opportunity—initiated by Northern Loco, a Fort Providence organization with a mission to create sustainable futures for northern communities, and through funding by Experiences Canada—aimed to “demystify, define, and give voice and action to reconciliation, and understand the challenges of decolonization,” according to the Northern Loco website.
“This trip was presented as an awesome opportunity for experiential learning about Northern Canadian culture and reconciliation with Indigenous youth,” McTurk said.
Upon arrival in Yellowknife, the 10 Tawingo students were met by their counterparts from Fort Providence. They enjoyed some fun tourist attractions together as they became reacquainted, including the newly constructed Snowking Castle, and admired some of the amazing creations at the International Snow Carving Competition. A dozen students from Ottawa’s St. Pius High School, who were also part of the exchange, joined the group shortly afterward.
The students then travelled by bus to Fort Providence, about 300 km southwest of Yellowknife. It is the ancestral home of the Dehcho Dene known as the Deh Gáh Got’ie Dene (pronounced day gaw go-tee deh-nay), which means “people of the river”—in this case, the Mackenzie River.
One of the most unique and challenging experiences Tawingo students enjoyed was two nights living “on the land” at remote Horn River, an hour’s snowmobile ride northwest of Deh Gáh. There, the students benefited from experiential, culture-based, on-the-land learning from local hunters, trappers, and Elders, and took part in trapping small game, setting out fishing nets, and tracking down a herd of bison.
“The students really listened to the Elders at the camp, watched carefully, and recognized their wealth of knowledge and practice,” said Pearse.
Careful listening was a lesson the students learned as it related to survival, but also about the community and their new friends. “The Dene are quiet people. If they can say it through hand motions or facial expressions, they will choose that way first,” Pearse said. “They are a quiet culture—and we are not. It was very apparent to our kids, early on, that we were doing all the talking. That was a big learning piece for me, personally, because I wanted to hear what they [the Dene community]had to say.”
When looking for commonalities, Pearse was quick to point out the Tawingo students’ keen observations of the outdoors, and also their love of play. “One thing that brought the kids together easily—always—was play. During free time they could go to the school gym and play something like basketball or soccer. Everybody played together. It really is the universal sign of friendship.”
During activities, Tawingo students became more proficient in traditional hand games, and also discovered new games like one-foot high kick, pole push, and stick pull.
Above: Matthew Hochfellner from Tawingo has the highest one foot high kick during traditional games (supplied)
Above: Dean Squirrel from Deh Gáh and Emma Cole from Tawingo playing stick pull (supplied)
The two-day regional youth conference occurred in Fort Providence towards the end of their stay, with about 70 students taking part from Deh Gáh, Tawingo College, St. Pius High School, Fort Resolution, and Yellowknife’s St. Patrick’s and Sir John Franklin High Schools. There, students learned more about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action. The conference addressed intergenerational trauma caused by the residential school system, while focusing on action plans for increasing regional and national awareness of northern youth issues, and fostering mutual understating and respect during brainstorming for youth-led community initiatives.
“Learning the experience of residential school survivors is part of changing the narrative about the truth of Canada’s history,” said McTurk. “It was very revealing, through hearing the stories of residential school survivors, the hopes and dreams for the future of Indigenous people.”
Marie Wilson, journalist, educator, and co-commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, and her husband, Stephen Kakfwi, Dene leader, former N.W.T. premier, and residential school survivor, were keynote speakers at the conference. Both met with students in smaller group breakout sessions on topics related to culture, understanding community, and action plans to stop intergenerational trauma. Together, groups brainstormed and devised youth-led plans for after-school programming, as well as a mentoring program for at-risk children at the youth centre.
“Marie Wilson pointed out that the common theme through all the 94 Calls to Action is collaboration, partnership,
When Tawingo students were asked what they learned on their trip, Grade 7 student Andy Maduri said, “We learned a lot about Northern culture. The youth conference was a safe environment, and nobody was judging you. I learned more about intergenerational trauma with residential school survivors.”
The subject matter may have been heavy, but the students made connections regarding the material. Phoenix Varieur, in Grade 8, said, “It kind of put the whole thing in perspective for me—the different experiences that were shared about the residential schools—how many people went there, and how many people suffered. I did learn a lot from that. I learned about what things were like up there.”
Fellow Grade 8 student, Grace Baxter, was clear about her views on students in Ontario learning more on this topic: “I want youth here to really learn about residential schools and the impact they had on First Nations. I want them to know all about the 94 Calls to Action and what Truth and Reconciliation is about—what it means to the First Nations and to us—because it’s really important.”
According to the CBC website Beyond 94, which measures progress on the 94 Calls to Action, “all provinces and territories include the history of residential schools in their curriculum, but not all of it is mandatory, nor is it extensive.” It reports that content revisions were finally made in 2018 to mandatory social studies and history courses from Grades 4-8 and 10 in Ontario, but not included in other grades.
Tobin Spiers, a Grade 6 student from Tawingo, has high hopes for change, given what he’s learned from the experience. “You need to actually do something. It’s what you personally do, but it’s also what you do collectively. And if you do something, you need to know what they want, not what you want. You need to ask the First Nations what they want because it happened to them, not us,” he said. “[We] should work with the [TRC] 94 Calls to Action. We need to give back. We need to heal the wound.”
His classmate, James Laughton, agreed. “If you learn about it, I feel like it’s your duty to tell other people about it. It’s a big part of our history. Even though it’s very bad, we should do something about it.”
Varieur was happy to continue his friendship with several students, including Dean Squirrel, who briefly stayed at his home during the Huntsville part of the exchange last fall. “We have become really good friends with a lot of them, and we’ve created a really good long-lasting relationship. The Calls to Action suggest we need to create a long-lasting relationship with Indigenous people, and I feel like we’ve done that, but I also feel like we need to keep that relationship moving forward.”
The students keep in touch with one another on social media and group chats, and have been doing so since the early fall when they met in person. Now, having learned of the legacy of the residential school system, the Tawingo students have a much clearer sense of the struggles many Indigenous youth face.
“I want my friends to feel like they’re safe in their community,” said Baxter. “When we were up there at the conference, they talked a lot about drugs and alcohol, and how it’s around in the community, and they’re scared that the younger generation is going to get into that. I just want everyone to feel safe.”
Ryan Sawyers, in Grade 7, hopes for a bright future with his newfound friends. “I hope they can come here again, and I hope that we can see them for a longer period of time… and I hope that they’re okay.”
When asked what important lessons the students learned on the trip, Pearse said, “How to learn compassionately about another culture; they learned how to listen; they learned that there are differences between their cultures for a reason. They also talked about how fortunate they felt for all the opportunities they’ve had in their own lives.”
McTurk said that he is “exceptionally proud of the Tawingo College community for embracing this N.W.T. exchange opportunity.” McTurk previously worked as a teacher in Fort Resolution, N.W.T. “The students were excellent ambassadors of Tawingo College, Muskoka, and themselves with their participation and engagement. It was not an ‘easy’ trip, and the students rose to the many challenges they were presented with.”
Tawingo students “have been tasked with finding something they can do individually, and then figuring out what they can do collectively. We have every intention of helping them make that come to fruition,” said Pearse, about future involvement. “My hope is that the program and exchange continues in the years to come because I think the connections are important. We are committed to doing what we can to create positive change.”
The point of the youth conference, after all, was focusing on a new path forward—together.
Pearse reiterated what McTurk told the Tawingo students prior to embarking upon their trip. “He told them, ‘You have been given a gift—this adventure, this experience, your relationship with these people is a gift—and you are expected to share your gifts. So it is an expectation that you will go out and tell people your stories, and tell people what you’ve learned, and pass on the knowledge—that’s your job.’”
McTurk encouraged community members to reach out to Tawingo College to learn more. “We are happy to share what we learned with members of the public, interested classes, and others. If you are interested in getting involved in reconciliation work, we would love to collaborate with you.”
For more information on the TRC Calls to Action, read the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action (PDF).
To learn more about our nation’s progress with the 94 Calls to Action, check out the CBC website Beyond 94.
To learn more about the Assembly of First Nations, click here.
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