York Region students look to bust stereotypes

  • October 22, 2010

RICHMOND HILL, Ont. - More than 150 students from the York Catholic District School Board will gather Oct. 27 to raise awareness of the contributions and struggles of aboriginal people at the Desire for Change Symposium held at Rama First Nations Cultural Centre.

The symposium has two objectives, said Cynthia Bettio, a teacher at Jean Vanier Catholic High School in Richmond Hill, Ont., and one of the chairpersons for the symposium.

“It will raise awareness for those students of First Nations, Métis and Inuit background so they understand that the community is welcoming and supportive and wants them to feel comfortable identifying what their heritage is,” said Bettio.

“But we also want students who are not First Nations, Métis or Inuit to gain a greater understanding of these cultures historically but, more importantly, in contemporary Canada.”

This is the second-annual Desire for Change Symposium, whose themes are chosen to raise awareness of groups that are discriminated against, said Cathie Furfaro, literacy consultant for the York board. Last year’s event focused on Holocaust awareness.

Ten students from each of York Region’s 16 high schools will be attending, along with a teacher moderator. Of the 16 schools involved, half were given the book April Raintree by Métis author Beatrice Culleton and half were given the book Keeper ’N Me by First Nations author Richard Wagamese. Each book was then divided into segments and the students will interpret an assigned portion of the novels through dramatic presentations.

The day-long event will also include an address by keynote speaker, David Bouchard, an author and educator who learned later in life that he was of Métis ancestry. In addition, elders from the local community will lead the students in opening and closing prayers. A sharing circle will end the symposium, in which a feather is passed around the group as each person shares something they have learned from the event.

“There are 21 students in our board that have self-identified,” said Furfaro. “Half are of First Nations ancestry and half of Métis ancestry.”

Lara Lee, a Grade 11 student at Jean Vanier Catholic High School, will be among those students attending the sympoisum.

“I think I’m going to gain more knowledge and more respect for the native culture,” she said. “I feel like we’ll help inform the youth about how we can help end the stereotypes.”

Addressing stereotypes is one of the main concerns the gathering hopes to address, said Bettio.

“The stereotypes that we tend to be battling are the ones that the kids come to us with from a lot of what they do in elementary school,” she said, referring to notions about how natives lived in traditional times.

Bettio said those stereotypes include ideas such as: all natives live in teepees, wear feathers and shoot bows and arrows.

“How do we break down the stereotype amongst non-First Nations students so that there’s an understanding and a respect for this very diverse and multi-layered ancestry?

“When we look around in society, we see many examples of those stereotypes and nobody challenging them. We want students to challenge those stereotypes.”

Michael Handrigan, also in Grade 11 at St. Jean Vanier, will be among the students Bettio hopes is going to make a difference.

Handrigan said he wanted to be involved in the symposium because he believes it’s good to have a perspective on different people’s lives so that “you can really see the world in a different way.”

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.