Grade 3 and 4 students from Msgr. Philip Coffey Catholic School in Oshawa, Ont., plant tulip bulbs on school grounds, part of the Durham Catholic board’s commitment to learn, ally and take action towards reconciliation with Indigenous people. Photo courtesy Durham Catholic District School Board

Indigenous learning commitment made in and out of the classroom

By 
  • October 15, 2021

On the first National Day of Truth and Reconciliation, 6,509 orange ribbons spanned the banisters in the foyer at All Saints Catholic Secondary School in Whitby, Ont., each representing a child from an unmarked grave at a former residential school.

Durham Catholic District School Board (DCDSB) student trustee Declan Amaral, a Grade 12 student at the school, says the powerful symbolism represents an ongoing commitment to learning, allyship and action towards healing with Indigenous peoples. Far beyond an annual event, for Amaral and the board’s Indigenous Advisory Circle, the day represents a continuation of learning and discourse that has been taking place and carries forward both inside and outside of the classroom throughout the school year.

The most important part of that education, Amaral says, has been uncovering the truth about the historical traumas inflicted on Indigenous individuals, communities and cultures through residential schools and beyond. Candid staff-facilitated discussions have created a space for honest dialogue amongst teachers and students that has helped to bring to light a history buried for far too long, he says.

“It was just a powerful statement to walk into the school and to see students really taking a second to look up (at the banisters) and understand the importance of recognizing the day and acknowledging their own privilege as a settler,” said Amaral.

“One of the most useful things that we’ve taken away has been those open conversations that have been facilitated by staff because it’s Ok to have questions. There are so many to ask, especially in a long history that has been covered up. The first part of truth and reconciliation is truth. It’s OK not to know but it’s not OK to stay in that ignorance.”

Across the DCDSB, every student and staff member received a tulip bulb in honour of the lives lost to residential schools. Called the Tulips for Truth initiative, the perennial flowers will bloom every year and stand as a reminder of the ongoing commitment to reconciliation.

Students were also invited to carry a bulb home to plant to ignite discussion at home to facilitate learning within families.

Karli Robertson, DCDSB senior manager of Indigenous education, says many classes have been learning about traditional territory and how to better connect with the land itself. Daily school land acknowledgments stand as an honest and historically accurate way to recognize the traditional First Nations, Métis and Inuit territories. Schools have been learning about treaties and have been in ongoing discussions on how to facilitate learning about the land.

Recognizing tulips are not indigenous to the territory, Robertson has been working with schools to look at how there can be a balance between indigenous and non-indigenous plants within the commitment to reconciliation. Several schools are exploring ways to incorporate indigenous plants that would have existed for thousands of years onto school property and learning about their medicinal benefits.

“One of the questions that we’ve been talking about a lot with principals specifically is how do you acknowledge a land that you don’t know?” said Robertson. “So, we’re starting with tulips but then committing ongoing to that learning. With the land acknowledgement it’s talking about treaties, it’s talking about the commitment, but there needs to be an action piece.

“What we’ve been doing with a lot of classes is getting them out on the land with community partners and looking at how there can be a balance between indigenous and non-indigenous plants with our commitment to reconciliation.”

Amaral believes the public commemoration of the tragic and painful history and ongoing impacts of residential schools is a vital component of the reconciliation process. Although the general public may just be awakening to the unmarked graves, the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation report from 2015 also specifically address the need for the government and churches to work with Indigenous communities to inform families, identify bodies and properly honour the lives of the children whose lives were lost.

Now that the issue is salient in the media, Amaral says youth are looking at ways to respond as treaty people, allies and Indigenous youth to continue those calls to action at school.

A devoted Catholic, Amaral sees this time in the nation’s history as a “come to Jesus moment” and listening to Indigenous communities, carrying forward the calls to action and looking at ways to further facilitate healing is vitally important if we are to move forward. While acknowledging the crimes committed against Indigenous peoples in Canada and the United States, he makes the distinction between the actions of the Church and his personal faith. Jesus, he says, paints a clear example on what needs to be done as individuals, as a Church and a nation to make meaningful strides in the journey towards reconciliation.

“The faith moves forward, and the Church has to move forward too,” said Amaral, who hopes to become a high school teacher one day. “The way I was taught is Jesus was an advocate for the needy, the poor and the marginalized. It’s about us as a community, having an understanding of what needs to happen next and how together we can take Jesus’ teachings and use that in equity and advocacy.”

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