Centre High Campus in downtown Edmonton was a busy place on September 29 as students, administrators, special guests and other visitors gathered to unveil a memorial that honours survivors and victims of the Indian Residential School era. The event saw numerous students from across the region, including several from the University of Alberta, meet to unveil the memorial, which includes a beautiful piece of art created by Centre High students.
“It gives me great pleasure to welcome you all here today to take part in this important event,” began Centre High’s First Nation, Métis, Inuit (FNMI) Liaison, Naim Cardinal. “I’d like to take time to acknowledge the Treaty 6 Territories that we are on today, the traditional territories of the Cree, the Blackfoot, the Tsuu T’ina and the Nakota Sioux, the Mohawk and the Métis. A special welcome and thank you to Charlene Bearhead who has played an important part in our Aboriginal studies classes these past two years and to Centre High’s former students who helped create this special memorial and came here today to help us unveil it.”
Working with students at Centre High for the past four years, Cardinal, a member of the Tallcree First Nation noted that when he first arrived, the school did not have an Aboriginal Studies Program. The initiative began the year after his arrival.
“We began the Aboriginal Studies Program with 20 students,” he noted, adding that “during the past three years the program has created a great deal of interest and input and in the last two years it’s graduated 75 students each year. A special thanks to Principal David Morris and the other staff members and students who initiated this program and have contributed to its growing success. Aboriginal Studies has become an important element in our school and I am inspired almost every day by the content of the program and the accomplishments of our students. As a person with many family members who have been affected by the Indian Residential School system, this subject has a great impact on me; I am fortunate in that I am within the first generation of my family who never had to attend the schools. It is difficult at times to talk about what went on in there, but when I see the accomplishments that many of our students are experiencing and the knowledge that they take back to their communities in order to enhance the lives of others, it gives me great pride to have been a part of the Aboriginal Studies Program.”
Principal Morris greeted the gathering, noting that “this is a real treat for me because my teaching experience is mainly as an art teacher. I taught art at Victoria School for about 16 years before I went into leadership so to see this artwork in our school is special to me. This stunning piece of art was a collaborative effort by last year’s Aboriginal Studies students. It is a visual demonstration of our students’ learning and a really unique opportunity for our students to show what they understand, what they are thinking, the different types of knowledge they share – all of these things are clear in this artwork. The Aboriginal Studies Program also gives us insight into the great work that our teachers do; the opportunities that they provide. We look forward to more opportunities like this; opportunities that continue to give our students the tools they need to succeed – as many of our graduates are succeeding today in the workplace and in the various post-secondary institutions they are attending.”
Aboriginal Studies 30 teacher Adam Ambrozy thanked the staff, students, teachers and the community and talked about the focus of this year’s program.
“We are truly honoured to have so many people from the community here supporting us. This is a community project so it’s nice to see so many people supporting the work our students are doing here at Centre High. The Residential School Unit (of study) has become the focal point of our course; the students really enjoy that unit. Last year our classes became very engaged in the residential schools; we went to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearing that was held in Edmonton and this project of art was held in conjunction with that. This project is part of a national initiative created to educate Canadians about the residential schools.”
Ambrozy explained that the students created small wooden tiles, each one representing a life of a person who spent time in a residential school.
“Our students took great care in creating more than 300 individual tiles. When they had finished, former teacher Kyle Wagner and I created the piece that the tiles are glued to – in the form of a mosaic. I am really honoured to witness Centre High students unveil this permanent memorial here at the school.”
Each of the tiles is coloured, many with simple designs, others with intricate artwork. Some include short but pertinent words and messages while others include cultural symbols and drawings of plant life, forest dwellers, marine life, leaves and berries.
Charlene Bearhead, National Coordinator for Project of Heart said that being invited to participate in the unveiling of the memorial “is a very special honour for me and a real gift to be here with you today because in all this work that’s being done around the country to bring awareness to the residential schools, this is where I live; this is where I call home. For me to be able to share the stories of you – you who have created such an amazing story for us to share across the country – is very special. You are making a significant difference; you are helping us to realize our goals of educating everyone about residential schools. This project is the first of what we hope to see continue in every school across the country. Thank you very much for making me a part of your special day.”
Edmonton Public Schools’ Superintendent of Schools, Darryl Robertson congratulated the students and staff at Centre High for their “extraordinary effort” and “beautiful memorial” before reminiscing about the time when he was a teacher at Centre High School. Admitting that in his early years “high school and I didn’t get along all that well” Robertson talked about the importance of finally realizing that in order to achieve, one has to apply one’s self. He spoke about the importance of education, telling the students how he’d learned the hard way that without education, dreams cannot be fulfilled. He’d wanted to become a pilot but when he went to enrol he was told that his education wasn’t enough to get him into a cockpit, never mind fly the plane.
“All I could qualify for was the army, a foot soldier, and that wasn’t really something that I wanted to pursue. I decided to go back to high school.”
Robertson encouraged the students to grasp the “wonderful opportunities you have here at Centre High; you are surrounded by supports that people have put their minds together to come up with – programs that will help young people to become successful. It’s much like a college campus here, but with a warm feel to it. There are some incredible people here who are working to help you become successful. Take advantage of that opportunity. Every day we live is an opportunity to create a better future for ourselves and in the process of that we create a better future for our communities.”
Following the unveiling, Centre High hosted its 3rd annual FNMI Student Welcome. Invitations to attend the event were sent out to all of the school’s self-identified First Nations, Metis and Inuit students for the 2014-15 school year. The spirit and intent of the welcoming event was to build upon the community at CHC and provide students with a sense of belonging. In addition, the welcoming event provided information regarding post-secondary, scholarships, and CHC in-school supports.
The Edmonton Public School Board (EPSB) has been involved in Aboriginal education for many years and in 2007 developed an Aboriginal Education Policy. That policy deals with such things as respect and recognition, community involvement, staffing and professional development, achievement tracking, curriculum, programming and assessment. The Board itself does not develop nor supply a specific Aboriginal curriculum to its city high schools, the onus is usually on the leadership in those schools to develop their own initiatives and programs.
by John Copley