A project spawned from a desire to learn about aboriginal rights will now forever link two Alberta schools in friendship.
In November, Grade 9 teacher Suzanne Williamson of École Lacombe Junior High School was brainstorming ways to explore the aboriginal rights component of the Social Studies 9 curriculum. What developed was a quilting project that went way beyond what she’d originally conceived.
During the course of the project, Williamson’s students conducted comprehensive research into Canada’s Indian residential school system and also examined the nearest Indian school, Ermineskin Residential School, which operated from 1894 to 1976. Each of Williamson’s students (including those with special needs) made an eight-inch by eight-inch square of material containing an image representing their thoughts on the residential schools and their legacy.
“When discussing their chosen images, my students would often talk about the need for Canadians to recognize and acknowledge what the Aboriginal Peoples have gone through, that moving forward will require all cultures working together toward a common goal, and that those who experienced the Indian residential schools displayed great strength of spirit,” Williamson said.
The students put a great deal of thought and symbolism into their squares, many of which were meant to represent love, hope, unity, peace, courage and strength. The students chose even the colour of their material for symbolic reasons, Williamson said.
Williamson’s mother, who operates a quilting business, transformed the resulting 60 squares into two quilts. At first, Williamson was going to keep both quilts, but then she hit upon the idea of offering one to Ermineskin Junior Senior High School in Maskwacis (formerly known as Hobbema). That reserve school is situated on the very site of the former residential school that the Lacombe students had learned about through their research.
So, on Feb. 22, the Lacombe students travelled to the Ermineskin school to present one of the quilts.
“It was just a really great gesture of friendship and reconciliation,” said Ermineskin principal Keith MacQuarrie. “It’s great to know that there are schools out there that are learning and studying about residential schools. It’s an acknowledgement that this is a part of Canadian history that happened.”
“That’s the first time that a school has reached out to us as part of the Truth and Reconciliation [Commission]. That was a really big thing for us and we were happy to be part of that.”
After conducting hearings and meetings for years, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued its final report on Dec. 15. Among its recommendations is that all Canadian schoolchildren learn the history of the nation’s residential school system.
To Williamson, the main benefit that the quilting project provided her students was an appreciation for another culture.
“I’m still a little overwhelmed. It kind of ended up becoming bigger than what we had initially planned,” she said.
She said her students were thrilled with their visit to Ermineskin School, which included a talk by the school’s elder, Marvin Littlechild, who spoke about his experiences in residential schools. The visit also included a mini powwow, a student and staff drum group, a school assembly with a grand entry of dancers, a formal presentation and a round dance.
The visit not only made a lasting impression on the Lacombe students who participated, but also on those who stayed behind.
“I’ve noticed that, even with the staff and some of the other classes, there seems to be much more of an awareness of the aboriginal culture,” Williamson said, “and now people are talking about what they can do next year.” ?
Keith MacQuarrie, principal of Ermineskin Junior Senior High School, speaks during a Feb. 22 visit by Lacombe students.
Aboriginal dancers perform Feb. 22 as students and staff from Ermineskin Junior/Senior High School host visitors from Ecole Lacombe Junior High School.