Students Celebrate Aboriginal Heritage Through Art
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Students Celebrate Aboriginal Heritage Through Art

TDSB students display their art in the rotunda of City Hall as part of National Aboriginal Day celebrations

Students work on a piece at the Aboriginal Education Centre. Photo by Ralph Brown/Waterfront Productions Inc.

Educator Tanya Senk didn’t see herself represented when she was in school. “Or if I did,” she said, “I felt it was a misrepresentation.” Senk’s family is from the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan, and she self-identifies as Cree, Saulteaux, and Métis. Her job as a coordinator at the Toronto District School Board’s Aboriginal Education Centre is to make sure kids don’t feel the same way she did growing up.

Started four years ago with the help of a grant from the Ministry of Education, the centre provides supports like classroom space, a library, counsellors, and special programs as part of the Ministry’s Aboriginal Education Strategy. Senk describes her work as “the infusion of aboriginal perspectives right across the curriculum in a way that is respectful and appropriate and honours tradition in a contemporary context as well.” It’s one of the centre’s special programs that brought students together to create the art that can be seen in the rotunda at City Hall this week (7:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m. daily), as part of the City’s celebrations for National Aboriginal Day on June 21.

In collaboration with the TDSB Arts Department, the Aboriginal Education Centre hosted 12 students for a one-day studio session that resulted in one of the two art works on display. (The other piece is a multi-layered, multi-panel work made by students from Charles H. Best Middle School.) The students, from schools across the board and in grades 8 to 11, spent the day learning different art techniques, like photo transfer, and discussing what their identity meant to them.

“They reflected on who they are, how they identify themselves, what they value, and what their aspirations are in the future,” said Senk. Combined with research of aboriginal leaders, the group developed some works, including a photo-transfer piece showing the students’ hands holding things that symbolize them in some way: an eagle feather, beads, an iPod.

“When you look at the faces you see their personalities and interests that come through. You see that cross-section of aboriginal people in the city of Toronto,” said Catherine Pawis, the central coordinating principal for Aboriginal Education at the school board. She hopes the art being displayed in a public forum like City Hall will promote awareness of aboriginal education programs and the diversity among the city’s urban aboriginal populations.

“It will be seen by people in all walks of life,” said Pawis. “And that’s the intent; to make people more aware that aboriginal students are very much present in Toronto. Sometimes they are invisible, but here they’re clearly very visible and standing strong.”