“Saskatchewan” is a Cree word meaning “swift-flowing river.”
Jeannette DeMontfort, an art instructor at Simcoe Composite School, looked west to Saskatchewan last week for inspiration for a campus-wide project marking the first annual National Truth and Reconciliation Day.
The move gave the project wings, for in Saskatchewan DeMontfort found Loch Willy, a man who has made a name for himself on the prairies crafting wing sets from wood and situating them around the province.
The wings have become famous. They have proven to be popular with people who like posting novel photos of themselves and their families on social media. In turn, this has provided Willy world-wide exposure.
At the high school, DeMontfort tweaked the concept in the direction of National Truth and Reconciliation Day. Nearly 15 classes at the high school were asked to fashion feathers of a specific dimension from coloured paper and inscribe them with messages students would like to send on this day of healing and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.
“It came together fairly quickly, over the past week,” DeMontfort said.
The feathers were pieced together in a large, mural-like wall hanging in the cafeteria. Thursday, all classes at SCS were taken one-by-one to view the installation and have their photo taken with it if they wished.
Some of the messages were sombre and thoughtful:
“We have in memory the children from residential schools,” one feather reads. “All those who have passed; all those who were taken from their families.”
Another says: “Even though we cannot change the past, we can change the future for the better.”
Other messages referenced the recent discovery of unmarked graves at the site of former residential schools. Some were direct and to the point:
“Don’t kill kids,” one said, adding “(Genocide is bad too).”
On hand to document the acts of remembrance were members of the high school’s social media club.
Given the global reach of social media, club member Charlie Ellis said it is conceivable that positive messaging at SCS on National Truth and Reconciliation Day reached tens of thousands of people if not many more.
“I think that’s possible, the way things spread online,” Ellis said.
Many students at SCS and at schools across the local area wore orange shirts in memory of Indigenous children who were traumatized at residential schools or who simply never lived to tell of the experience.
Students at the elementary and secondary level also engaged in memorial walks in their communities. Many carried signs expressing regret for the experience of Indigenous people.
“I thought it was really cool,” said student Emma Bradacs, also a member of the school’s social media club. “We did a walk around our school today, which is on native land, so it was nice to do that and appreciate that at the same time.”
For her part, DeMontfort said the wings project is about challenging assumptions one student at a time. She found the outpouring of empathy encouraging.
“We have to change attitudes and how our country approaches these issues and how this country might move forward in a new way,” DeMontfort said.