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Local Youth Walk the Road to Reconciliation

Cornell Pashe

Indigenous Community Coordinator

Portage Urban Indigenous Peoples’ Coalition

There has been plenty of talk about ‘building bridges’ recently – in the media, on the street, among friends, and around the dinner table. The movement to end systemic racism has come to the forefront like never before. In my mind, it all comes down to the need for education.

Try to remember what you learned in school about Indigenous peoples. If you can’t remember, it is likely because very little information existed in the curriculum. Ask the average Canadian what they know about treaties, residential schools, or colonization, and the results are mixed. Even today, many Canadians have never visited a First Nation community – even though many of our communities are our neighbours.

However, thanks to a recent collaboration between Long Plain First Nation and the Portage la Prairie School Division, there are 22 students who can now say they HAVE visited a First Nation – and made some new friends in the process.

Back in February, a group of Grade 7 students from Yellowquill, LaVerendrye, Ecole Arthur Meighen, and Oakville schools came together as part of an activity called ‘Road to Reconciliation’. The students first met in small groups within their own schools, then with their peers from the other schools, to discuss important topics around reconciliation. Finally, they had a two-day field trip to Long Plain First Nation.

Day one included a visit to Long Plain School, the Band Office, the Rez Plex, and the Adaawe Wigamig Grocery Store. The second day was about Long Plain’s urban reserve, where the students visited the recently-built Microtel, Miskwaanakwadook Place, Arrowhead Development Corporation, Long Plain Employment and Training, Keeshkeemaquah Conference Centre, Rez Radio, and the Residential School Museum. After a lunch of bannock and soup catered by the Crossing Café at the Spirit Lodge, they toured the Health Centre, and the Manitoba First Nations Police Service Long Plain Detachment.

The students also learned about Jordan’s Principle, which makes sure all First Nations children living in Canada can access the products, services and supports they need, when they need them.

Jill Fast, the school division’s Indigenous Academic Achievement Facilitator, came up with the initiative. “I think it’s about building bridges and breaking stereotypes,” Fast said. “Some students have never been to a First Nations community.”

She is quick to point out the project couldn’t have succeeded without the cooperation of Long Plain First Nation. “I can’t thank Long Plain enough – they were such great partners to work with,” Fast exclaimed. “Education Director Bill Beauchamp was just amazing – the hospitality was above and beyond. Everyone involved just helped make the experience awesome for the kids.”

Two Portage Collegiate students from Long Plain, Trey and Seth, filmed the whole activity, and the plan was for the participants to show the completed video to their classmates and present what they learned. Fast was also hoping to meet with each of the groups at their respective schools to review what they saw and learned. But, COVID-19 intervened and those final steps have been put on hold.

However Fast – who has worked on numerous initiatives within the school division, including smudging policies, an Indigenous Education Policy, and land-based education at Dakota Tipi First Nation to name a few – said the effects of the activity were immediate. “Even on the bus ride home, they all started bonding as a group,” she said. “The Indigenous students felt proud at all the good things that are happening on the reserve, while non-Indigenous students were surprised to see that it was much more than “just a bunch of houses.”

The notion of integrating more Indigenous education into school curriculums is just one of the items included in the federal government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action. Here in Portage la Prairie, it has the potential to affect real change, given that 50 percent of the high school students in the city are Indigenous. But expanding on what is in the textbooks is only the first step.

Hands-on experience – in Indigenous language, history, and culture – is essential to give the next generation a better understanding of the roots of racism. Indigenous and non-Indigenous kids attend school and sit in classrooms, but that is often where the understanding stops. Going on a field trip to visit a residential school survivor, or listening to an Elder tell an ancient legend, or learning how hunting, trapping and fishing skills are passed on from generation to generation, is the next important stepping- stone to true reconciliation.

Prior to the pandemic, a ‘Roving High School’ concept was proposed and approved by the school division that would incorporate exactly this type of learning. And if you were to ask any of the Gr. 7 students who participated in the ‘Road to Reconciliation’, they would tell you ALL Gr. 7 students should be able to take part in this activity.

It is more than getting out of school for the day – it’s about learning in a different way. It is about walking in someone else’s shoes for even a brief amount of time. Hasn’t that always been the best way to learn?

Our hope is that in 10 years from now, feelings will have changed, and the next generation will not only understand Portage la Prairie’s diversity, but appreciate and embrace it.

We’d like to get there sooner. And, working together, maybe we will.

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