Melanie Lamarca

Learning from past mistakes

By  Melanie Lamarca, Youth Speak News
  • March 4, 2016

Indigenous youth face a lot of harsh realities even in today’s school system and it has made me think about the new responsibilities that Clayton Shirt will face as the Toronto Catholic District School Board’s first-ever elderin- residence. Shirt, a member of the Cree First Nation, will be providing insight into the indigenous culture and act as a resource the school board has not had access to in past years.

Recent news reports tell of First Nations teenagers at a high school in Thunder Bay who have been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. As a result, they have been turning to vices, like substance use, as a short-sighted solution to the mental illnesses that have been plaguing their community for years.

A nurse in the Thunder Bay school system attributed the issues of mental health to “25 years of a suicide crisis that never got addressed.”

Although a sad reality, these issues concerning the mental health of indigenous youth are not new issues to come to the forefront.

Considering that the gap in understanding between cultures was bridged during the Truth and Reconciliation process, a generation of mindful and understanding students is in our midst. This is where Shirt’s position will be pivotal.

What may be the greatest issue is the lack of focus on indigenous issues in the TCDSB curriculum. Indigenous youth have taken a backseat to students from other cultures who were accepted at Catholic secondary schools. For indigenous youth to be consistently ignored has evidently taken a heavy toll on their self-esteem, confidence and sense of belonging within a primarily Catholic community.

As a Toronto Catholic student, I can speak to my own lack of awareness of the indigenous culture as a whole. And I believe many students can attribute this to a lack of education about the indigenous culture. There are many things I would love to learn more about. When are their holidays celebrated? What are their celebratory customs? Who are the important people in their history? Where are their sacred grounds?

As we move forward, it is important to keep in mind that simply being a part of the TCDSB learning environment makes indigenous youth in our communities our brothers and sisters. In sharing the same space, we must move towards a deeper understanding of their culture, as well as give them a sense of belonging.

Shirt plays a huge role in instigating a change within the set up of our school system. But it is the students and teachers who play an even greater role in opening their hearts and minds to their indigenous brothers and sisters, who, at the core of their humanness, are not so different from the rest of us at all.

(Lamarca, 17, is a Grade 12 student at St. John Paul II Catholic Secondary School in Toronto.)

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