Indigenous

Students on and off reserve exchange ideas of reconciliation through art

A reconciliation initiative organized by a First Nations teacher on the Kainai Nation is bringing together children on and off reserve through art.

Students in Kainai Nation and Calgary schools exchange works of art they have created

Aureya Ayopte, left, a 14-year-old student at Bob Edwards School in Calgary, stands with Tatsikiisaapo'p Middle School art teacher Andrea Fox in front of a work of art created by Ayopte at the Studio C Prospect gallery in Calgary. (Submitted by Aureya Ayopte)

A reconciliation initiative organized by a First Nations teacher on the Kainai Nation is bringing together children on and off reserve through art.

Despite being located 200 kilometres apart, Tatsikiisaapo'p Middle School in Kainai and Bob Edwards School in Calgary are breaking geographical boundaries to come together.

Now in its second year, the idea for the initiative was born from Tatsikiisaapo'p art teacher Andrea Fox as a way for students to use art to express reconciliation.

The students from the two schools created works of art over a couple of months, then exchanged them with each other.

"I truly believe in hands-on learning through arts and cultural-based programs that will enhance and nurture the knowledge, skills and goals of our students to provide a strong foundation for their future," said Fox.

"When our students can come together to learn together, and teach one another, and understand the true history of the relationship between First Nations and Canada, that is when we can have reconciliation."

Helping to mentor the next generation in reconciliation building is something Fox believes is critical, especially in the school system.

Nine-year-old Naela Thunder Chief is a student at Tatsikiisaapo'p Middle School who took part in the art collaboration. (Submitted by Andrea Fox)
"I feel art is a wonderful and beautiful place to start because people are freer to express who they are while considering things that have formed their ideologies and foundations of who they are," she said.

"I'm so proud of the work that they've [students] created. Their confidence levels in who they are as Blackfoot people moves beyond the classroom."

Fox selected a group of 20 middle-school students to participate, while 45 students from a leadership program at Bob Edwards teamed up with the project.

Naela Thunder Chief, 9, prepared beforehand by reading two books about girls who attended residential school. She chose to write and display letters that she wrote back to them as her art piece.

"I feel proud of what I did," said Thunder Chief. "I like that the truth is finally coming out. It was nice to collaborate with them [other students]. And it's really awesome that they're learning how to reconcile."

'Eye opening'

On the other side, 14-year-old Bob Edwards student Aureya Ayopte called the project "eye-opening." She said she had no idea about the many issues affecting Indigenous communities because she wasn't taught a lot about them in school. The concept of reconciliation was rather new to her.

"With me being a Canadian, I wanted to know how we got to where we are and how our ideas were formed," said Ayopte, who made a painting about missing and murdered Indigenous women.

"I was drawn to it. It needs to be brought to light. I thought it was important for everyone to know — they don't know what the real story is. They see people on the side and they judge, but people just need to know the whole story."

Thunder Chief's art piece consists of letters she wrote to girls who attended residential school. (Submitted by Andrea Fox)

University of Calgary civil liberties and human rights educator Brenda Johnston helped guide the students from Bob Edwards to create their art.

It's heavy subject matter to engage in, she said, but the youth were motivated and open to learning about reconciliation.

"It's very profound to listen to young students talk about deep, important subject matter in the ways that they can get to that they may not be able to get to in an ordinary classroom," said Johnson.

Heart of reconciliation

She believes projects like these are the heart of reconciliation. If young people from different backgrounds get to know each other better, new relationships can form, she said.

"I tried to get the students to take it personally and not look at it as, 'This happened to those people,' but, 'This is a Canadian issue,'" said Johnson.

"Until we can get non-Native people talking about this issue as if it's a personal issue, we can't make those big changes as a country. I have some hope that some of the students in the classroom will move forward in their lives acting in a different way, talking in a different way and doing business in another way."

Fox said the art project isn't a "final answer" approach to reconciliation. However, it paves the way for a new beginning.

"With Canada 150 coming, this is a great place to start. For me, it's an awareness. We can't change what occurred in the past; however, we can learn from it. I'm excited about sharing these concepts with other non-Indigenous educators … to help build a stronger country," said Fox.

The art pieces were recently displayed at the Studio C Prospect gallery in Calgary and will travel to different exhibits throughout Canada this year, including the Indspire youth conference in the fall.

About the Author

Brandi Morin, Métis, born and raised in Alberta, possesses a passion for telling Indigenous stories. Based outside Edmonton, Morin has lent her talents to several news organizations, including Indian Country Today Media Network and the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network National News. She is now hard at work striving to tell the stories of Canada's Indigenous peoples to a broader audience.