The Gleaner
Arts & LifeArts & Life

Recognition and reconciliation play an important role at CVR

“We wanted to create an individual space, a safe space of sorts,” says Chateauguay Valley Regional High School vice-principal Mélissa Larocque, of a year-long project that led to the creation of the Indigenous Resource and Education Centre for Indigenous students within the school.

There are currently around 15 Indigenous students at CVR, including several from Kahnawake, and others from off-reserve communities and northern communities as well. The school applied for various government measures to secure funding to create and furnish the centre, which features a collection of books, beads, and other culturally significant items.

CVR also received funding to provide support for its Indigenous students. Isabelle Arsenault, who was already working there, was hired to support the Indigenous student population. The New Frontiers School Board’s Indigenous consultants, Dwayne Stacey and Curran Jacob, have also been instrumental in ensuring the project is a success.

“The room is really coming to life,” says Larocque. “It is becoming really rich,” she adds, while admitting the hallway leading to the room did nothing to draw attention to the space that was being created. “There was this ugly beige wall,” she says, explaining how they settled on painting a mural to enhance the area. “We needed something to bring attention to this space.”

The school reached out and found Megan Kanerahtenha:wi Whyte, a Mohawk First Nations art therapist and artist, who worked with eight Indigenous students over two days to design and paint the visually stunning and symbolic mural. “It was really beautiful. I would have never thought it could have been this amazing,” says Larocque, of her experience watching the students bring their vision to life.

The mural was created to acknowledge, honour, and memorialize the Indigenous children who attended Indian Residential School and Indian Day schools. With Whyte’s guidance, the images, colours, and narrative were decided upon by the students. In the process of making the mural, discussions focused on identity, trauma, growth, and empowerment.

The mural was the subject of a recent post on CVR’s social media account written by Whyte. She notes that “It is important to continue the conversation and awareness-building about the systemic injustices faced by Indigenous people, because the long-term effects in families are still present. Indigenous students and their families are continuing to reclaim their identity and culture. They are continuing to work through multigenerational trauma so that they can empower themselves to become who they are meant to be.”

 

PHOTO Chateauguay Valley Regional High School

 

“It has been a really nice and motivating project to be a part of,” says Larocque of the centre, who admits it is still a work in progress. “I am confident [the space] is still evolving,” she adds, saying that even though she will be moving on from CVR to fill a new position, the school will re-apply for all the same measures to ensure the important work that was started can continue.

Recognition and reconciliation

Beyond the Indigenous Resource and Education Centre, much work is being done at CVR in terms of recognition and reconciliation. A new territorial acknowledgement was read in both French and English to open the Class of 2023 graduation ceremonies on June 17. The text acknowledges the unceded Kanienʼkehá꞉ka territory on which the school is located. “As a part of the greater Haudenosaunee Confederacy, they succeeded due in part to a union of all voices, women and men. As caretakers of the soil, they protected and farmed this land long before we did. We want to move forward spreading awareness and appreciation for the Iroquois Nations. We can’t change the past, but we can determine the future as we honour them.”

History teacher Lisa Evans and last year’s Grade 10 history students reworked the land acknowledgement. “They worked on it relentlessly,” says Larocque, who suggests it was fitting that the new version was read at their graduation.

This year’s ceremony also featured a Thanksgiving address, which was read in Kanien’kéha (Mohawk) by a graduating Indigenous student. The address had been read for the first time at the school during the September 30 assembly marking the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. “I thought it was a nice addition,” says Larocque; “a needed addition.”

 

The Cedar Room Everything Memorial mural was painted by Indigenous students attending CVR with the guidance of Mohawk First Nations Art Therapist Megan Kanerahtenhawi Whyte PHOTO Chateauguay Valley Regional High School

 

A grant for professional development allowed a contingent of 20 teachers, staff members, and administrators to go to Kahnawá:ke in June to learn about appropriately integrating the Indigenous world into their classrooms and the school. Seven staff members are also travelling at the end of June to the Mohawk Valley region in the United States for an overnight visit and professional development experience.

Larocque says the efforts being made for CVR to be more inclusive run deep. “It is a small rural community, and it is becoming more diverse,” she says, suggesting CVR will only continue to evolve in the coming years.

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The story behind the mural

In a post to the school’s social media account, artist and art educator Megan Kanerahtenha:wi Whyte explains the story behind the mural that was recently completed at CVR.

As an Indigenous Way of Knowing, we often share our teachings through story, and the story of this mural is one of them. In our story, we meet three young people around a sacred fire. Fire connects us to Spirit, the energy that connects all life, and to Creator.

Two youth, living in the present, sit with a spirit of a young person taken by the Residential School system. They grieve this young person, whose grave may be unmarked or lost, and grieve how this history impacts their families and themselves. But they also sit with wisdom, knowing that Spirit keeps us connected and our culture connects us to who we are.

Around them lies the power of this connection, from the land to the sky and to animals. The moon cycle reminds us that change is a normal cycle in life, and that we can continue to grow through our own changes. The roots remind us that we are resilient even if we are still trying to reconnect with who we are. The spirit animals remind us of our individual gifts and the teachers we have outside the school walls. They remind us that we are never alone, and that healing will happen in connection.

Our young artists have signed this image with a handprint to honor themselves and their resilience, gifts, and wisdom. This story reminds of why Every Child Matters, because there was a time when Indigenous children did not. It is also a reminder that we, as a community, a school, a society, have work to do to make culturally safe spaces; spaces that are trauma-informed and understand the unique healing needs of Indigenous children today.

As Métis leader Louis Riel once said: “My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.” The spirit of our young artists were indeed present.

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