Unique educational experience as Wikwemikong Tourism teams up with Manitoulin Streams

Last week was a busy one for Manitoulin Streams’ Liam Campbell, as he led numerous school groups on educational tours along the Kagawong River. Most Island schools have participated, and students from École Secondaire Catholique Franco-Ouest from Espanola. On Friday, it was a Toronto high school.

The tour begins at the mouth of the river, where Mr. Campbell talks about the shoreline and river habitat as well as the life cycle of salmon. The water level is low this year and there aren’t any spawning salmon swimming up the river.

Mr. Campbell stops at a bend in the river, about halfway between the small craft harbour and the hydro generating station and tells the group to look down. Manitoulin was once covered by a shallow tropical sea and is rich in fossils; in this area is mostly found fossilized coral. Cedar trees line the bank here, and healthy patches of wild mint. Some students are gathering sprigs of mint to take back with them.

The group is from Monsignor Percy Johnson Catholic Secondary School in north Toronto. The Manitoulin Streams field trip is actually part of a bigger experience for the group.

“We’ve been doing this for about five years,” said Sal, a teacher with the group. The trip is part of the school’s Grade 11 English curriculum called, ‘Understanding First Nations, Métis and Inuit voices through literature’. “As part of the program, we bring them the hands-on, experiential learning outside of the classroom for three to four days.”

A little further on, Mr. Campbell stops at two evergreen trees. He has the students use sight, touch and smell to learn the difference between balsam fir and white spruce. He points out the invasive plant, goutweed, on the far side of the trail.

He stops again at three bronze deer sculptures. The artist who created them noticed there was a lot of deer on the Island, but also a lot of roadkill. “That’s why this doe deer has a Ford F150 grille built into it,” he explained. The buck has propane tanks built into it and the fawn has an invasive emerald ash borer carved into it.

The students are gathered around, examining the sculptures, touching them. The art is “representative of the interconnectedness between man and nature, and the manmade world and the natural world,” explained Mr. Campbell.

The purpose of the trip is to help the students connect with the culture of the Anishinabek people of Manitoulin Island and look at how they become that change within the truth and reconciliation framework, explained Jake Rivers, lead cultural guide with Wikwemikong Tourism.

On their first night, an elder and residential school survivor shared her story. “The history books only show so much,” Mr. Rivers said. “They’re getting to hear the stories from our firsthand experience.”

They also heard about the sixties scoop and Mr. Rivers shared his own story of intergenerational trauma. “I’m under the age of 40 so it’s not that far back. It still affects even me,” he said. A facilitator at Osawamick G’Tigaaning, the recently opened Anishnaabemowin language learning house in Wiikwemkoong, led students through some exercises to “show them a different way, to show these students how to understand what happened to these families,” said Mr. Rivers. The activity drove that message home that through various acts of the government, this forcible removal had a hand in taking away their identity, he said.

“But what is truth and reconciliation?” he asked. There’s more to it than residential schools. The tourism experiences help to break down stereotypes and educate people so they understand the history and the culture and can then ask the hard questions that lead to truth and reconciliation. Reconciliation is not just for Indigenous people. “We try to give them the tools and put them in the mindset of how, and what is the next step they’re going to take.”

The school groups, cruise ships, motor coaches and others that come up from southern Ontario for tours have provided Wikwemikong Tourism the avenue to tell their story. “We tell most of our stories through our lens, specifically the Anishinabek of Manitoulin and the Great Lakes area because we can’t speak for other tribes.”

Wikwemikong Tourism has hosted a number of school groups and is seeing more inquiries from schools in southern Ontario, Mr. Rivers said. Programs are developed specifically for each group.

For Monsignor Percy Johnson teacher Michelle on her first visit to Manitoulin, the whole experience has been amazing. “It’s one thing to read about things in books and watch videos. It’s a whole other thing to be immersed in culture, to hear other perspectives like the people in the Wiikwemkoong community, to hear history from their perspective as well and also just to see the land, how beautiful it is up here, and all the wonderful views.”

On Thursday, students had some land-based learning activities, she said. “They got to fish. They learned about skinning animals, and they loved it. We thought they might be a little squeamish but there was nothing.”

She pointed out that in north Toronto, the students don’t get to do these kinds of things very often and she has enjoyed seeing their learning come to life and how happy they are just to be out in nature.

Listening to the elder’s story on their first evening in Wiikwemkoong was very impactful, Michelle said. “We’ve been privileged to hear some other stories from some of our guides as well and that’s been very powerful to hear and to feel how these experiences have shaped them and what has helped them come back to themselves, to really be within their culture, within their family, that’s been really powerful. And just to be able to put yourself in their shoes a little bit, I have two daughters so whenever I hear those stories it hits home, the thought of having to go through that is heart wrenching. So that’s just been very powerful and very much of an awakening.”

She hopes to take those lessons learned back to her classroom. “I’m always thinking about how I can bring something new into my classroom, new perspectives, new experiences, so just seeing how our students have reacted to being out here and learning that way, I can take that back, to be more engaging and to give them a fuller experience in the classroom.”

Lori Thompson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Manitoulin Expositor