Over the past seven years, St. Clement’s School’s Upper School students have visited the northern Cree community of Moose Factory, a small First Nation nestled on a small island in southern James Bay. Our student groups are always welcomed with incredible hospitality, generosity and kindness. They learn about Cree culture, community, history and important issues concerning Indigenous rights. After every trip, we return deeply influenced by these visits; many students go on to integrate their newfound or deepened passion for Indigenous issues into their post-secondary work and careers. Their time in Moose Factory encourages them to reframe their view of Canada, forces them to reconsider what it means to be Canadian, and allows them to really think about reconciliation and their role in it.
The partnership with Moose Factory has always offered a powerful learning experience for our students, but when the Truth and Reconciliation report came out in 2015, we looked carefully at the Calls to Action, specifically the recommendations concerning education. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) outlined the importance of educating all Canadians about Indigenous history, people, and issues. We asked ourselves, “What responsibilities do educators and educational institutions bear in the time of reconciliation?” In order to act on the Calls to Action, teachers need to have a strong understanding and awareness of Indigenous history, culture, issues, and pedagogy. Cognisant of the power of our Moose Factory trip experience, we planned a trip that offered similar learning experiences as the student-trip, but solely for teachers.
In preparation for the trip, the teachers are participating in a year-round Professional Learning Community focused on Indigenous Issues. Comprised of eleven SCS staff from various departments, the group meets monthly. We study and discuss issues such as:
- Indigenous culture, language, pedagogy, and identity;
- The impact of colonization, including the impacts of the Indian Act, treaties, and residential schools)
- Authentic integration of Indigenous content; and
- Reconciliation and partnership.
As much as we study, discuss, read, and dialogue, the work of reconciliation will always be incomplete without meaningful, authentic partnerships. Knowing that, three teachers and I departed for Moose Factory on February 8, eager to learn from our incredible guides and teachers up north.
Our time there, five days, was full of sewing lessons, which allowed us to converse and laugh with our sewing teachers and Elder Frances Moses. We also visited the youth centre, the high school, the Cree Cultural Interpretive Centre, and the community complex. We enjoyed a poignant and informative film screening with filmmaker Phoebe Sutherland, who has created several short films that teach us about her community, culture, and art. In particular, her film “Eulogy from the White House,” is a heart-warming and moving narrative. I have seen the film many times, but each time it touches me again, moves me to tears, and reminds me of Phoebe’s great talent. We were honoured to learn from her. We left excited to use Phoebe’s work in our classes.
One of the most significant learning experiences was a two-day winter camping trip to a traditional Cree camp up the river at Negabou Lake. Our guides, Jacques, John Paul, Ann and Kim, went to extreme efforts to keep us warm in the -40 weather, while teaching us about traditional Cree living. We snowshoed, set rabbit snares, built fires in the teepee, cooked moose fry, and did our best to keep the wood stove fire going overnight in our cabin. In between these experiences, we jumped from side-splitting laughter as we shared jokes and stories, to poignant stories of resilience and survival. Around the bonfire at night we were honoured to listen to these stories, and we were moved and touched by their care, hospitality, and generosity.
In fact, it is with these stories in our hearts that we move forward in our work in the classroom. The SCS partnership with Moose Cree First Nation has grown into a deep friendship. And this recent visit has reminded me of the educational power of both our partnership and the Moose Cree land and people. Each of the guides, teachers, Elders and community members we work with brings a unique story and teaching to our learning experience. Kim Cheechoo, the director of tourism for the Moose Cree First Nation, is like everyone’s mother and teacher. A gracious host, patient and gifted teacher, a highly efficient and organized planner, Kim is the glue and heart of every visit. There is my friend Geraldine an Elder who shares conversation, teachings, and stories with us. An hour of tea with her fills our minds and hearts for days. And our beloved guide Ann makes every trip hilarious and educational. Ann is a master of many trades; she’s one of the best car mechanics on the island, mother and grandmother to many, foster mother, former social services worker with Payukotayne Family Services, a security guard, Bingo coordinator, and gifted sewer. Ann can start an enormous bonfire in seconds, boost up any discouraged sewing student, bring laughter to a quiet moment, and rescue any frozen southerner before frostbite sets in.
Justice Murray Sinclair, Chair of the TRC has said, “Education got us into this mess. It is through education that we will heal.” Without a doubt, I know that the greatest teachers in the journey to reconciliation are found when these bridges are built. The recent staff trip to Moose Factory reminded me of the power of friendships bridged over time with respect, care, and generosity.
As the trip came to a close, I was humbled again, as I always am.
Upon departure we offer tobacco to give thanks, and we say “Chi-Meegwetch”. I am reminded of one of my new Moose Cree words that Geraldine has taught me: Nanâskomow – she or he gives thanks. It’s perfect. I give thanks for this friendship, for the bridges we have built, for the lessons shared, and for the steps we take together towards reconciliation.