Decolonizing Toronto Classrooms

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Decolonizing Toronto Classrooms

High school students from five GTA schools present ideas on how to integrate Indigenous culture at their schools.

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Indigenous educator Kim Wheatley performs a hand drum song for parents, students, and community members at the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto on April 25. Photo Jasmine Kabatay

Kim Wheatley looks across the room with a mix of awe and amazement across her face. For her, it’s everything she has been waiting to see since her time as a high school student—students validating her Indigenous culture.

High school students from five schools across the GTA gathered at the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto last Tuesday to present ideas at a community summit on how to integrate Indigenous culture at their schools.

The students, from Don Mills Collegiate Institute, Dundas Valley Secondary School, Woburn Collegiate Institute, Louise Arbour Secondary School, and The Woodlands Secondary School, presented idea ranging from murals to including Indigenous greetings during morning announcements.

The community summit is the final stage of Decolonizing Schools Together, an initiative organized by Facing History and Ourselves. It started at the beginning of March when Wheatley spoke to students about her personal experience in public school, which left her feeling invisible, silenced, and misrepresented as an Indigenous person.

“I try to explain to people the impacts of what it’s like to go to public school and be invisible and be silenced, be part of the great unknown. I find that words are not enough because it’s so deeply rooted in emotion. I wish that my experience was different, but it wasn’t,” said Wheatley.

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Students from five schools across the GTA pose for a photo together at the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto on April 25, where they presented their ideas on how to decolonize their schools. Photo by Jasmine Kabatay

Since the colonization of Canada, Indigenous people have been part of a cultural genocide through horrible events such as residential schools, the Sixties Scoop, and through the public education system.

Residential school survivors took the federal government and churches to court. It led to the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history, with an agreement calling for the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and providing compensation for survivors.

For six years, the TRC listened to stories from more than 6,500 Indigenous peoples tell their experience of living through residential school.

With the release of the report in 2015, 94 Calls To Action were made with calls to many sectors such as child welfare, language and culture, health, and education.

Don Mills Collegiate students Kyup Lee and Ingrid Gaspon want to do their part for reconciliation. Together they pitched the ideas students at Don Mills thought of, which included plans to make a mural with an indigenous artist, and to create a space for a traditional garden and plants.

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Sharing circles take place at the Decolonizing Schools Together community summit on April 25 at the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto. Photo by Jasmine Kabatay

Both Lee and Gaspon understand the importance of reconciliation and have made it their duty to understand Canada’s grim past with Indigenous peoples.

“I’m an immigrant, but if I live in Canada it’s my duty to know what sort of history went on in the land and what the people before me have gone through. It’s sort of everyone’s duty to know and respect that, and I think that’s really important,” said Lee.

For Gaspon, it’s especially important, she says, since she has been living in Canada for less than a year and wants to know more about the country’s history.

“I need to know what happened here when I wasn’t [here]. I need to know the culture, how people were, and what had happened that lead to now. I think it’s really important, it’s our history and we have to know that,” said Gaspon.

Ben Gross, a teacher at Don Mills Collegiate, has been doing what he can to teach students about Indigenous culture, including bringing in guest speakers and an Indigenous artist to work with the students.

“We need to learn this actual true history if we’re ever going to truly understand how Canada became what it is today,” said Gross.

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Kyup Lee, left, and Ingrid Gaspon, right pose together at the Decolonizing Schools Together community summit at the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto on April 25. Photo by Jasmine Kabatay

“We are also implementing more case studies in all of our history and social science courses to make sure kids don’t leave the education system without really knowing in depth what the residential school system was, and it’s lasting impacts are [felt] today.”

For Wheatley, it was an overwhelming feeling to see all the students come together with ideas and projects that were inspired by her time with them.

“When I look at them, and I see what they’re going to do, and I look at all these amazing ideas, I recognize that sharing your own story is very powerful,” said Wheatley.

“I planted a seed of hope in each and every one of these students, and I’m seeing the nurturing of that and the sprouting of that, and I cant wait to see the long term ripple effects of that. It’s very validating and it’s very beautiful.”

While she’s grateful for the work from these students, she hopes that the rest of Canada can get their act together for the sake of reconciliation.

“I think of Canada celebrating it’s 150th birthday this year, and how there’s almost nothing for us as Indigenous people to celebrate in this, and we are at the culmination of the TRC’s report and the challenge to make change,” said Wheatley.

“Canada’s putting all this money into a birthday and zero recognition, responsibility and acknowledgement for the harm it has caused, and continue to cause, to our people. When are they going to change?

“If you want to celebrate something, celebrate the initiation of a new relationship with us. Acknowledge us as founding members of this country.”

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