Indigenous art tour sparks complex conversations between students and parents

A new educational tour at the Art Gallery of Windsor is leaving students empowered and inspiring complex conversations at home.

Tour features Ojibwe artist who attended an Ontario residential school

Educators are teaming up with the Art Gallery of Windsor to teach Indigenous history. 1:08

Eugene Anekwe walks across the hardwood floor at the Art Gallery of Windsor with his classmates and stares at the colourful portraits painted by Ojibwe artist Arthur Shilling.

Anekwe's favourite piece shows the faces of dozens of First Nation's children from the Chippewas of Rama First Nation community.

Jessica Robins, Eugene Anekwe and Yara Mekawi stand in front of one of Ojibwe artist Arthur Shilling's pieces. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

"I feel like it's really inspiring to see how after so much pain they've been through and all the things that happened to them they can still go and create these amazing pieces of art," said Anekwe.

"They didn't just give up, they kept trying."

Excited to learn the real history

Anekwe and his classmates are learning about the history of Indigenous people at Bellewood Public School in Windsor, Ont.

Residential schooling, the Sixties Scoop, infrastructure problems and treaty agreements are all being discussed in the Grade 7 classroom. 

This field trip takes students on an 'Indigenous Perspectives through Art' tour which features permanent and temporary displays by Indigenous artists. 

Arthur Shilling: The Final Works display runs until May 13th and is included in the tour. Shilling went to a residential school in Ontario as a child, something the students were told about during their tour on Wednesday. 

One of Arthur Shilling's colourful paintings hangs on the wall at the Art Gallery of Windsor. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

"It was really eye-opening," said Jessica Robins, who said she's excited to learn about history from an Indigenous perspective in her class.

"I'm glad it's not being hidden anymore. It's not something that needs to be 'brushed under the carpet,' like my parents would say."

Generational, global connections

Anekwe said his time spent learning about Indigenous history in the classroom has turned into thoughtful, complex conversations at home with his mother from Nigeria. 

"There lots of resemblance that we talk about between the two, the Indigenous and Nigerians, and when the British and the French came to both," said Anekwe.

Students take in a tour at the Art Gallery of Windsor by Jessica Cook. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

Yara Mekawi experienced a range of emotions while touring the exhibit that's left her asking questions of the Canadian government.

"I really want to know what the government of Canada has done because they made it seem like they're the best people but really we need to look at people's perspectives — perspectives of everybody, how they felt," said Mekawi.

'It's their land'

Education and Public Programs Coordinator Jessica Cook helped create the program, which was launched in January.

Cook, who is First Nations, said she was overwhelmed with emotions when she first saw Shilling's work on display at the gallery.

Cook said that one of her favourite parts of the Arthur Shilling exhibit is seeing the title card translated into Ojibwe. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

She ends each tour with the large painting Anekwe said is his favourite piece. 

"It celebrated the beauty in the culture of the Ojibwe people from Arthur's community Rama," said Cook, who focuses on southwestern Ontario history during the tour. 

She said students often make global connections with Indigenous populations all over the world as they hear about how things were in Canada. 

Reaching adults through students

Cook believes the students are where seeds of change are planted but the real growth needs to happen with adults. 

"A lot of the misconceptions, stereotypes, discrimination really starts with the older generation so ideally I would love to see more adult tours come through this exhibition before it closes," said Cook.

She thinks it would be a great tour for educators that are looking at curriculum changes next year which reflect the Indigenous protocol signed by the school board.

Cook said she hopes to see more adults tour the Shilling exhibit before it closes on May 13. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

"We're here really to assist educators moving forward and adjusting reconciliation."

Paola Kohut teaches the class that Cook took through the gallery on Wednesday and said the students are really embracing calls for reconciliation. 

I'm glad it's not being hidden anymore. It's not something that needs to be brushed under the carpet,- Jessica Robbins, Grade 7

"What a lot of student are telling me is that they're teaching their own parents. They go home and they bring this home, and this is how we start," said Kohut.

"The message is getting through to these kids and they will make a change." she said, adding that it's been a rewarding challenge teaching her class. 

Kohut's student Robbins said learning about a history that's been hidden is eye-opening, offering them a unique opportunity. 

"I feel that our generation is going to be making a change which feels amazing," said Robins.