Vanessa Pinto, teacher at Loretto College Catholic Girls High School in Toronto.

Speaking Out: The power of Indigenous voices

By  SHANIA ROCHA, Youth Speak News
  • November 17, 2021

Editor’s note: The following is a guest column from Shania Rocha, a 16-year-old Grade 11 student at Loretto College High School in Toronto. It’s an essay paying tribute to Indigenous Education Resource teacher Vanessa Pinto, who is celebrated by the TCDSB for amplifying Indigenous voices within the classroom.

As a Grade 11 student in Vanessa Pinto’s English Contemporary First Nations class at Loretto College Catholic Girls High School in Toronto, I appreciate learning about Indigenous history, traditions and relations with Canada.

Focusing on Indigenous literature, history and social issues taught me what it means to be a Canadian citizen, and participating in class activities like the Kairos Blanket Exercise and communicating with Indigenous authors really opened my eyes to what it means to live on Indigenous lands.

It has been more than a decade since Ms. Pinto developed this English course on behalf of the Toronto Catholic District School Board to spotlight Indigenous voices. It is clear that her experience with Indigenous peoples and her knowledge of First Nations history gives this course its unique flair. With many years shepherding this course, she knows how to ensure each student enjoys  the best experience in this course.

A particular activity I enjoyed was after having read a story in class, each student would be empowered to send a message to the author on social media to engage with them and ask questions about the story.

I recently messaged  Drew Hayden Taylor, the author of the short story, Pretty Like A White Boy. Reading the short story and having my questions answered by Taylor, a member of the Ojibwa community living on Curve Lake First Nation near Peteorborough, Ont., was an  unforgettable experience.

This lesson made me feel more connected to the course content, which increased my drive to learn more about the topics within the curriculum like the impact of the residential school system and historical and contemporary anti-Indigenous racism.

Reading novels on these topics allowed     me to reflect on the lived experiences of Indigenous peoples and boosted my passion for activism.

When Ms. Pinto was interviewed by The Catholic Register in June, she talked about how she tries to get her students to walk a mile in another’s shoes.

“Being a good Catholic means to follow with compassion, to follow with empathy, to follow with truth,” said Ms. Pinto. “When I’m teaching students, we’re having just frank and open discussion so that my students in my classroom develop that empathy, develop that knowledge and develop that sense of responsibility too.”

Like Indigenous novels, participating in the Kairos Blanket Exercise opened my eyes to the truth of Canadian history and tells the story from an Indigenous perspective.

As I walked over the blankets, the sequence of tragic events made me reflect on how far Indigenous peoples have come from, following the social and emotional trauma they experienced, which had lasting impacts. The symbolism of the blankets representing the Indigenous land and the blankets getting folded in half to describe the loss of the land was   difficult to witness.

Educating myself on Indigenous issues motivated me to bring change and use my voice online by sharing awareness posts. My devotion to helping others stemmed from realizing I could make a difference.

This course left me with a sense of hope for the future generations of Canada’s Indigenous peoples as we continue working towards achieving reconciliation.

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