On their journey toward truth and reconciliation, Sacred Heart Catholic High School students have made a portage with their Sacred Canoe to Ottawa.
About 20 students and staff of the Newmarket school made the trip to present their Sacred Canoe community-based arts project on Parliament Hill for today’s International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
And the feature piece of the project, a visually stunning 19-foot long canoe, made the trip with them, thanks to Two Guys and a Truck Newmarket.
The multidisciplinary art project, which the school initiated in 2017 in answer to the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, involved hundreds of students, their teachers, Indigenous community and artistic mentors, and community partners, including the Town of Newmarket.
As well as the Sacred Canoe, more than 150 watercolour landscapes, dry-point etchings and spirit animals were designed by the students as part of the unique project.
Newmarket-Aurora MP Kyle Peterson and the Liberal Indigenous Caucus are hosting the Parliament Hill event, at which the Sacred Canoe will be presented by the project’s indigenous mentor, Todd Jamieson, to Chief Kirby Whiteduck of the Pikwakanagan and First Nation Organizations.
“It’s really a beautiful honour and it’s a great tribute and culmination of this unique project, which has many partners,” Dawn Ellis-Mobbs, head of the Sacred Heart arts department, said.
“Canoe to the Capital carries on the Sacred Canoe legacy and we hope it inspires further learning, discussion and action, nationwide, relating to truth and reconciliation.”
On the eve before the Canoe to the Capital trip, the school held a special presentation, Sacred Canoe Launch, at St. Andrew’s College for its community partners, parents, indigenous and civic leaders, and York Catholic District School Board trustees and officials.
“It is our hope that this Sacred Canoe opens up conversations and actions for people to continue to work together in truth and reconciliation, to be open and reconnect to Canada in that mutual sense of working together in harmony and knowledge,” project mentor and artist-in-residence Glenn Marais said.
The students’ original artwork, drama, dance, song, music, poetry and fashion told the story of truth and reconciliation as they had learned it, including the early harmonious and respectful relationship between settlers and indigenous peoples, which changed with colonization and the Indian Act following the War of 1812.
The residential school system and its impact on Indigenous communities and their children were also portrayed, and the journey of truth and reconciliation.
The presentation included a speech by student Honour Ariajegbe about the importance of representation, from the perspective of both a student and a young Black man, and the ability of art to represent diversity.
“This amazing piece of artwork alone is an example of just how ideas can be changed into possibilities, and possibilities can grow into reality.
“It is often the underrepresented that are found to be neglected, exploited and subject to racial discrimination. The pigmentation of our skin, our appearances or even social status do not define any of us as individuals. They are simply exterior qualities, but underneath it all, we are so much more than that … because we are all made in God’s image and He has put something special and unique in each of our hearts that only we know. It is our responsibility as humans to find out what that is and uplift each other as a community,” he said.
From its beginnings two years ago, the project relied on mentor Jamieson to ensure the Sacred Canoe story was told with authenticity and respect.
Jamieson, a traditional visual artist who has been working with the YCDSB for more than a decade, said he taught the students “the things that are important in our culture”.
“These kids got it,” he said. “I pushed the fact that we are not that far apart and they got that.”
The students’ artwork demonstrates their understanding and connection, he added, they “are doing this from their hearts”.
“I’m humbled, I’m in awe that it came together so quickly. They are so talented, and from start to finish, they are nothing but a pleasure to work with.”
YCDSB Director of Education Ab Falconi said the community-based project has been a learning experience for the entire board.
The canoe, which has been on display at the YCDSB’s Catholic Education Centre, is not only a “breathtaking” work of art, but “it has created many conversations around the work being done to be sure we are welcoming and acknowledging and respecting all cultures in our school system, especially our indigenous community,” he said.
“With all the tragedy that we see in our world these days, we hope that this project, those involved and those presenting it can be an example for others of what we can do when a full community pulls together in the same direction.”
Julia Mellary, a Sacred Heart student and president of the York Secondary Catholic Presidents Council who led the land acknowledgement at the presentation’s introduction, told NewmarketToday that the project is “something so remarkably special” in that it has created a culture of understanding as a community.
“This is a very serious topic, and it’s not something that I think people are very comfortable talking about but we’ve used the arts as an invitation for the community to really see what we’re capable of and what message we have to share.”
For Jamieson, the Sacred Canoe project is a step in the right direction on the journey of reconciliation.
“There are still things that we need to learn and learn to share properly. We are still learning and that’s what part of reconciliation is,” he told NewmarketToday. “I don’t know that I’ll ever see the change fully in my life, but I am laying a stone and if I see someone stepping up, I’ll pass the torch.”
His hope lies with the generation of the students on stage that evening, he said.
“This generation now is the one that’s going to make the biggest change,” Jamieson said. “For them to get the right story, for them to get our story, to get our history, to get who we are, they’ll be the ones who will be able to give it back to us.”