Horizon receives performance illustrating lasting effects of residential schools

As part of Horizon School Division’s professional development day on Nov. 14, the staff of the school board received a performance from Strathmore High School to end the day. Deanne Bertsch, drama teacher at Strathmore High School who was the individual behind the creation of the New Blood performance, spoke on what the show was about.

“It’s a story about reconciliation, it’s a story of Vincent Yellow Old Woman and his life going through residential school — his healing and returning to his people to become chief of his people,” said Bertsch. “It’s told through music, dance, poetry, and Indigenous traditional dances. It’s essentially the story of so many Indigenous people across Canada who went through residential school.”

After giving this explanation, Bertsch also went into a discussion speaking about what elements made this performance important both to put on and to witness.

“Just to bring awareness to non-Indigenous Canadians about the effects of residential schools, and why so many Indigenous people have experienced trauma because of it and continue to experience trauma through the generations,” said Bertsch. “To give people understanding of why when they see an Indigenous person who is struggling, or living on the streets, or homelessness that kind of thing — there’s reasons for it and behind it. These little children were taken away from their homes where they felt safe at the age of five and put into the schools where they couldn’t speak their language. They had to adopt a completely differ- ent lifestyle than what they knew and what they were used to. They just weren’t loved, they weren’t cared for, and they didn’t get love there.”

Bertsch discussed some of the challenges that they faced when putting together this production.

“Well, it was definitely challenging because we started with nothing and then ended up with this. There’s a lot of devising and playing, creating, and figuring it out, but now that we have it, I think it moves people. I think they feel what it was like for the people that went to residential schools. They feel it in their hearts and that is a success for us — when you can see today even that people were moved by it.”

Bertsch finished up the conversation by explaining why they came to W.R. Myers to put on this performance for the Horizon School Division during one of their professional development days.

“Horizon School Division asked us to come to an inservice day with the teachers back in August, but we haven’t had time to rehearse with the kids since it had been summer,” said Bertsch. “They are having an inservice day today and they just wanted to bring some Indigenous education to their in-service day, and thought that this was a good show to include.”

The drummer who performed alongside Strathmore High School students was Clarence Wolf Leg Jr., a member of the Siksika Nation who spoke on how this play came to be.

“It’s been going since 2014 and it comes out of Strathmore High School,” said Wolf Leg Jr. “It was initially made when Bertsch went to Writing On Stone and she ended up finding out a lot of our culture, teachings, and stories were kind of lost with the children in general. Writing On Stone was one of those places that was preserving some of our ancient stories. She was a little bit sad and went back to her school where she was working and she ended up meeting with one of the students who was telling some of her stories and her experiences with residential schools. One of her other students who ended up becoming the lead in the play, their grandfather was the chief of Siksika at the time as well as a residential school survivor. Bertsch talked to him and she started getting all these stories compiled together.”

Wolf Leg Jr. continued his discussion on the origin of this play as he spoke on how Bertsch combined several elements together to create the New Blood performance.

“Bertsch wanted to do something for the kids of Strathmore, and then she ended up coming across an Indigenous poem, and from that, she kind of started to piece stuff together,” said Wolf Leg Jr. “She was also trying to find some background music and one of her friends suggested Peter Gabriel’s album New Blood, it’s a concept album. From what I understand, it’s dedicated to Indigenous people of the world. That’s kind of how it went — she just had Peter Gabriel’s New Blood album, sort of putting the stories together, and she started getting her classes involved. Then she needed some drummers and my niece was actually one of her backup singers in the play and her father asked me if I wanted to come to help him sing. I came out and there were three of us and we actually brought a little drumming group and that’s how I got involved with the play. I guess you can say I kind of got accidentally involved and I’ve been with it ever since.”

Wolf Leg Jr. also shared his views on if the play succeeds at its goal of preserving Canadian Indigenous culture.

“What it’s done, and just from listening to all the talkback from the hundreds of shows we’ve done from all the different students — all of the non-First Nations students are learning a lot about the Blackfoot people not too far from Strathmore,” said Wolf Leg Jr. “They’re learning about the cultural things they did not know. A lot of them did not know too much about the residential school experience. Now, they’re learning about it as they were doing the play, and also some of the First Nation Blackfoot students, they are learning about their own culture also. The stuff they do not know they’re starting to ask their grandparents about things that happened and are sharing their stories with them. They’re kind of figuring the things out, and re-discovering their own Blackfoot roots.”

Ian Croft, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Taber Times