Middle school students ask, 'What can we do about truth and reconciliation?'

Beth Weatherbee's Grade 7 and 8 students managed to stump her this year when a class discussion about Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, ended with a tough question for the longtime teacher.

"The students asked, 'What can we do about truth and reconciliation?'" said Weatherbee. "And my answer to that was, 'I have no idea.'" 

That was the beginning of a year-long quest to learn more about Indigenous people and specifically the Mi'kmaq culture by the entire student population at Port Elgin Regional School.

I'd say as far as Canadian history goes on the First Nations side, we never dug this deep. - Grade 7 student Wesley Chassé

Wesley Chassé, a Grade 7 student, said when he started reading stories written by Indigenous children, he quickly realized how much he didn't know about Canada's history.

"What stuck with us most of all are the terrible things that happened in the residential schools and how the children were treated and what happened there," he said.

"I'd say as far as Canadian history goes on the First Nations side, we never dug this deep."

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Grade 8 student Aimee Earle said asking herself how she could contribute to reconciliation in Canada was a powerful question.

"A lot of people don't know how much this affected our history because it's been hidden away," she said.

Students make personal connections

Weatherbee describes the past school year as a journey that has included visits from elders, Indigenous artists and lots of research by her students.

For Aimee, the highlight of the year was a visit from Garrett Gloade of the Millbrook First Nation in Truro, N.S.

He spent the day with her class making traditional Mi'kmaq drums from cedar rings and deer hide.

Vanessa Blanch/CBC

"Making these [drums] — you kind of feel like you're learning more about their culture and how they did things."

She said most students weren't strong enough to tighten the deer hide on the drums, and as Gloade went around helping them, he also shared stories about his own life.

"When he was tightening [the drums] he was telling us stories about how he grew up, like how it was living with parents who went to residential schools," Aimee said.

"Like even if you don't go to residential school yourself, it still affects you because of the way your parents were brought up."

'I can't imagine the pain'

Aimee and her classmate Emily Hicks were researching the national inquiry on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls when Gloade came to the school, and Weatherbee suggested they talk to him as part of their research.

When they pulled him aside, they were shocked when he shared a story about his sister, who was found murdered outside a Halifax elementary school in 2009.

"I just never heard a personal story, one-on-one before," said Aimee. "I've heard stories online but I haven't really talked to someone personally.

"We thought it was a friend of his or someone that he knew. But it was someone close to him. His sister."

Tanya Brooks was a 36-year-old mother of five from Millbrook First Nation. Her murder has never been solved.

Emily said hearing Gloade talk about losing his sister changed her.

"And when he said, 'My sister,' I went, 'Oh my God.' I can't imagine if that was my brother. Whoa," Emily said. "I can't imagine the pain you would go through.

"When you hear the experiences you feel traumatized and for me I think, 'Well what if that happened to me?'"

Students answer their question

The "eye-opening" experience for the two Grade 8 students led them to create a project for the heritage fair about missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls that was chosen to go on to a district competition.

Aimee and Emily said as they were presenting their project that they realized how history has influenced today.

"The question of truth and reconciliation has so many branches," said Aimee. "You can't just say it's one thing. There's so many different things. We started with residential schools, and then it moved on to the intergenerational trauma."

"It's like they're all connected in some way," agreed Emily.

At the end of their year-long project the students say they have answered the question they posed back in September.

Vanessa Blanch/CBC

"Being a good citizen really is just being open to new things and being an ally with those things that you aren't usually used to," Aimee said.

"You want to be an ally. You want to talk to these people. You want to make a connection with them."

Sitting in a circle, rehearsing the Mi'kmaq Honour Song, which was gifted to elder George Paul and shared with the class, the students all agree that being an ally and standing up against racism is how they will contribute to truth and reconciliation in Canada.