Staff and students gather at the Catholic Education Centre in Toronto on June 14 for the official unveiling of the Sacred Fire Project. Photo courtesy of Mary Walker

Video exhibit sparks conversation about indigenous history and culture

By 
  • June 23, 2016

TORONTO – Students from Toronto’s Blessed Mother Teresa Catholic Secondary School are starting an online conversation to share their views of Canada’s First Nations. 

“The idea is to show how natives are overlooked,” said John Mendoza, a Grade 11 student who was part of the Sacred Fire Project video exhibit. “It is basically just giving a tribute to the natives because they don’t get as much attention as any other culture does.” 

Mendoza is one of 35 students from Mother Teresa who took part in the project by preparing a two- to three-minute presentation on a topic directly related to First Nations. Mendoza tackled stereotypes attached to First Nations and their negative impacts.

“The things that you see in movies and on television, not all of that is true,” said Mendoza. “It makes them look like something that they are not. Natives are just like us in that... they are people too.” 

Other topics tackled by the students included missing and murdered aboriginal women, residential schools and the 1990 Oka crisis. 

The individual presentations, which counted as the student independent study unit for their Contemporary Aboriginal Voices class, were recorded and then used to compile one 15-minute video. 

From June 13 to 17 a viewing station playing back the videos was set up at the Catholic Education Centre for all to see, from staff and students to parents and alumni. It moved to Malvern Town Centre for National Aboriginal Day, June 21. 

Vanessa Pinto, the lead teacher for the native studies program at Blessed Mother Teresa, said the collaborative project shows that despite a contentious history between First Nations and non-indigenous people, peaceful partnerships are possible. 

“What these talks and my students really show through this project is that it is possible for people to actually be allies and partners with the indigenous people of this land,” said Pinto, who has been teaching native studies at Blessed Mother Teresa for the past seven years. “(But) there is sometimes an idea that us as non-native people that we don’t care and that we don’t know anything about our First Nations. The unfortunate part is that no one has been there to teach us, no one has been here to show us (and so) it has never been part of our education.”

But that’s changing at the Toronto Catholic District School Board where a number of curriculum initiatives focusing on First Nations have been brought to the classroom. 

Frank Pio, the board’s support teacher for the First Nations, Métis and Inuit Program, agrees with Pinto that the curriculum lacks material highlighting First Nations in a positive light. He sees initiatives like the Sacred Fire Project starting a conversation that is sorely lacking. 

“With our students there is not enough conversation happening about what happened in the past and what is happening today” with the First Nations, he said. “There is not enough known about what it really means to be an indigenous person or what indigenous people are in Canada.” 

Mendoza agrees wholeheartedly about the importance of such a conversation, saying it will lead to a greater understanding of Canada’s First Nations. 

“People need to have a good understanding that ... (First Nations’ people are) humans too,” he said. “It is important because it will help end racism.”

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