The Pimicikamak Cree First Nation in Cross Lake, Manitoba declared a state of emergency in March 2016. The entire community was in grief over the suicides of six young people within three months, and had 150 students on suicide watch. The Canadian media paid attention and for a few weeks we could all see the situation of this northern community on the TV news and read about it online and in the papers. I suspect most people reacted with sadness and a helpless feeling and turned the page, as I did. This story is about some Toronto teachers who responded with action, and what came of it.
Laughing and chatting as they munch pizza, a typical group of teenagers sit around a restaurant table and then head off, joking and jostling their way down Spadina Ave. in the twilight. Waiting at a traffic light, one is rocking from foot to foot on a manhole cover setting a rhythm like a drum, while another is looking skyward; “I just like all the streetcar wires up there.” Simultaneously giddy and thoughtful, they take in the city sights and atmosphere together.
The group is comprised of First Nations students from northern Manitoba and Toronto students from High Park and Jane/Finch. “They hang out together, they get to know each other, the shyness peels away and then they just talk to each other,” says Monica de Jersey, a teacher at Downsview Secondary School and one of those responsible for bringing them together. “It’s like there’s separate groups and then almost immediately it’s like I don’t know who’s with which group, they’re just together. Those are the best moments – they’re all intermingled. And the social also helps with peeling away the façade that like ‘oh in Toronto everyone’s happy, they have all this stuff’, because some of our kids aren’t, and they can get to know each other and realize ‘oh these are issues that we share.’ It’s neat once they start to open up with each other they ask each other ‘what’s your house like, what’s your school like’. They’re really interested once they get to know each other. Kids at Downsview want to go there, they want to do the reverse trip and see what life is like there.”
How they connected
When Judi Lederman, a teacher at Downsview S.S. in Toronto, read the 2016 Globe & Mail article about the northern Manitoba community she got in touch with the reporter to find out how to contact the school. The principal of the Mikisew School in Cross Lake just happened to be in Toronto at that moment, so the reporter put them in touch. Judi invited him to her home, along with interested Downsview colleagues, including Monica de Jersey and Lisa Prinn. None of them knew what they could do or if they could do anything, but they showed up to hear about the kids and the community.
Monica: Lisa and I thought let’s just go with some ideas, not knowing if there would be interest or suitability or whatever. Lisa teaches tech with a lot of skill and creativity and had a 3-D printer and thought maybe this could spark something up. And I went with info about a program both Judi and I taught called PPC (Positive Peer Culture) which is all about kids talking to each other and learning communication skills and basically sharing their stories but listening in a different way. Others had brought some other ideas but when the principal heard these he looked at Lisa and me and said I like what you two are offering and I’d like you to come.
Their plan was to train the Mikisew teachers how to do PPC and how to work the 3-D printer. It was early April then, too late to organize a trip during that school year because it was out-of-province and there were a lot of bureaucratic obstacles, so they began planning for a fall trip. As they filled out endless paperwork they also started fundraising for a 3-D printer and other materials to take with them. They consulted with Indigenous education instructional leaders at the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) who told them about Orange Shirt Day, and that’s when the students really started getting involved.
Lisa: Orange Shirt Day was such a great launch for the whole thing because people were wearing orange shirts and explaining why, and talking about Phyllis Webstad. She’s not that old, she’s 56. When she was a little girl she was excited to wear a new orange shirt to her new school. It was a residential school and when she got there it was ripped off her and her hair was cut and she was forced to wear a uniform and she was abused. There’s something really universal about this story for students. It resonates with kids, because you’re excited, you get new clothes for school.
The entire school got involved in informing themselves and fundraising on Orange Shirt Day at Downsview (have a look here). The media covered it and these articulate, knowledgeable and engaged students told the story on CityTV and CTV news.
Lisa: On that first Orange Shirt Day, Tarik, a Syrian refugee, was one of the first students to come over. He was so distressed, “What do you mean Indigenous people were ripped from their families and put in these schools and ripped from their culture?” He was so moved by it that the next summer he actually went to the Native Canadian Centre and took free lessons in Cree, just to learn the language and understand more. He’d had a terrible time in Syria, which was on-going. A lot of our students resonated like that. It was like a layer peeled away – they saw more and it didn’t make them happy. They were very upset that this place that had saved them could be so cruel to other people.
The first trip
A few weeks after Orange Shirt Day four educators went to Cross Lake – Lisa Prinn, Monica de Jersey, Judi Lederman and Lisa’s friend Garth Jackson, a videographer she invited along to do video lessons with the kids. He brought cameras and did workshops to show the kids how to use them. And before the trip he did workshops with the kids at Downsview, so they shot messages for the kids in Cross Lake. Afterwards they could show video about the trip and the school because the Cross Lake kids shot that footage.
Lisa: So the four of us went there for one week. Garth edited together the videos that the kids had taken in Downsview, the news clips and all the stuff that the Cross Lake students had shot. We played it at an assembly the last day and they were all cheering. It was great. During it they were silent, too – they really wanted to hear from all these kids in Toronto and to see that they were on the news in Toronto. Even though it was really sad it was also refreshing, getting those messages out there.
The loss and pain of all those suicides was still very recent when the Toronto teachers arrived, and there were over 100 kids on suicide watch. Lisa taught them how to make little 3-D keychains. They could print their name or their Indigenous language or whatever they wanted and many of them made memorials to the friends they had lost. “It was was really quite painful – they were definitely hurting,” says Lisa.
Monica: It was a hard week in some ways. It was eye-opening, and I think we all felt it. One of the main things that sunk in was just how hard it would be to live there. There was the school, and there was a hockey arena – hockey is big, and baseball’s big. But in the cold months there isn’t a lot to do, there aren’t enough jobs, there aren’t enough homes so there’s a homelessness issue. And yet, we were welcomed and there were always plans for us – we were included in everything. It just felt so warm. I’ve never been treated so well – you felt like you could just knock on someone’s door and you’d be welcome. There was an ease about it. And I felt that way about the kids too, like there was a lot of informal help that was given to these kids. Many of them are super shy and self-conscious.
More exchange trips
So far there have been four exchange trips. After that first visit in the fall of 2016, five Cross Lake students came to Toronto the following April (2017) with the computer teacher Evelyn Spence, Elaine Beardy the guidance counsellor, Rusty Garrioch the youth chief, and Keith MacKay a teacher of Cree languages. Then in 2018 six kids from Downsview and six from Humberside went to Cross Lake with Lisa and Monica and Humberside teacher Mike Dingwall. And in May 2019 seven Cross Lake kids and their teachers came to Toronto. “I wish we could take more,” says Evelyn, a Mikisew teacher. “So many more need to come.”
Lisa: Those first students were all in danger – they chose to bring really at-risk kids. They just wanted to give them hope, give them an experience they’d never had, or didn’t see themselves ever having. That trip was pretty brief – they came on a Tuesday and they left on the Saturday morning. It felt like a whirlwind. And we did a lot. They spent one full day at our school. We couldn’t help ourselves, there’s so much to see, we jammed in a bunch but we had a really good time. And we included kids from Downsview whenever we could, which was pretty much all the time, so they were always surrounded by this crew of Toronto kids. They love the multi-culturalism of Toronto. I think they expected, because we were white teachers going up there, that we’d be a pretty white school and they got there and they were ‘Oh, this is pretty cool,’ because we’re a pretty multi-cultural school and it was awesome.
Since 2017 the exchanges have included students from Humberside Collegiate as well as Downsview S.S. because Lisa moved from Downsview to Humberside and both schools took up the project.
Lisa: I never understood why Toronto schools are so separate, why aren’t we all doing more of this, it just made sense. And when we went last year with kids from both Humberside and Downsview, part of the fun was seeing them mix, because they are really different kids. And man, they bonded – they were really fun together. I remember the kids from Cross Lake saying who’s from which school? A Downsview girl turns to me and she goes, ‘No offense, Miss,’ and then turns to them and says, ‘the blond white kids are all from Humberside and the rest are from Downsview.’ I looked around and thought aw shit, that’s true.
Their days were a mash-up of sightseeing like Niagara Falls and the CN Tower, school time and meals together. During this recent trip in May 2019 students organized a music performance evening, setting up their cafeteria in an honourable meeting circle and performing for each other.
“How this has morphed”
Judi Lederman, the Downsview teacher who initiated contact, has since retired. Lisa and Monica took over the project and expanded it.
Monica: I feel that now that it’s happened a few times it’s sort of broken through a wall, because starting something like this in a TDSB administration way is huge. The sheer number of forms would stop a lot of people but Lisa was just a force, in the paperwork and in the communication on it because you have to be. There’s so many points where you just want to throw up your hands and say well I guess we just won’t do it because so many things get in your way but she made it happen.
Lisa: It was nice that it all worked out, we had really great principals who were totally on board, trustees were on board, we had administrators at the board level who were super engaged and wanted it to happen.
With the current Ontario government will this continue to be possible, we wonder. “If the work wasn’t there, if we just randomly said to the students, let’s go to northern Manitoba, no one would be interested. There’s a lot that goes on before that,” explains Monica. Certainly the education cuts which lead to increased class size and decreased administrative support will take its toll on teachers and make the intense engagement and preparation required to create this learning environment for students less likely.
Monica: I was thinking about how this has morphed. When we started, it was about kids who were committing suicide and it moved much more into Indigenous issues. We didn’t start there but now that’s more where it’s centred, and it’s interesting how it’s happened. The evolution of it away from us to the kids – I didn’t see that coming. I don’t think we knew what direction it would take, but it’s more the direction of the mingling of the kids and that’s good. And social media allows that to continue.
Lisa: The thing is, we’re doing what we do but it’s more important that our students understand this and hear the stories because they are more on the cusp of this change. They can make change. They need to grow up and get into the world understanding this better.
What some students said
Fuad Mohamed, former Downsview student
I graduated from Downsview in June last year and I go to Humber College now. I was there when kids from Cross Lake came, and I went there last year too. It was a happy experience, I liked it. They’re really cool people; they’re outspoken, they’re nice, they’re outgoing. We showed them around the city, they were smiling, they were happy. They liked the traffic, you know, the cars driving by, the big buildings. We took them to the baseball game too, Toronto Blue Jays game and they were so glad and we took them to the CN tower too, they’d never seen that before. I went there last year, it’s a whole different world, the houses are small compared to us. I learned more about their culture when I was there and that made me happy. I learned new things about them that I didn’t know before, how their lifestyle is. They went hunting, all this different stuff we don’t do. It was cool to see what they did, their experience, how they live. Whole different world. I got everything I need, they’re just working towards what they need.
I’m lucky to live here in the city, honestly. My mom and dad came from back home, Somalia; they had war there, al Shabab. They came here they struggled to work. They worked so hard to put me where I am today, you know. They’re living life honestly. They’re happy. I have two brothers and two sisters and my mom and dad live with each other still. They guide me toward good, I have everything I need.
I heard they have a suicide rate and then when I went to Cross Lake I saw a poster that made me cry, honestly. A ‘missing’ poster for seven years – some people are missing for seven years! I don’t know if they’re going to come back or not. I don’t know if they’re alive or not. It made me sad. And they told me a story about the residential schools and it’s tough to hear about, the kids in those bad times. And right now they’re living in bad times too, though they don’t give up on themselves, they keep grinding, they go to school and they work, so that’s all they can really do. How my family was raised, they’ve been through that too, tough times. They told me never give up on yourself, keep going. That’s all I can really tell them. I’m lucky to have them as friends. When I’m around them they change my mood, they make me a happy person. I stay in touch, I have their Facebook so I get in touch once or twice a week.
Tyler McKay, Cross Lake student
My dad drums and plays guitar, so that’s where I took it off from, but he didn’t teach me, so I was self-taught. I’m in grade 11 right now – two of my classes are grade 11, the rest are grade 12. This summer I’m going to be working, then back to school for grade 12, and then I don’t know what to do after that. Probably go out to school for music, that’s what I’m thinking right now. There’s a lot of choices for music. I probably wouldn’t come to Toronto, it’s too expensive, probably somewhere in Manitoba.
I didn’t know anyone from the trips before but I enjoyed Toronto so much. I went on the glass floor of the CN Tower. It felt weird at first but I got used to it more and more. I was jumping on it. We went to Niagara Falls, which was good; we went under the waterfall, we all got wet.
Sarah Dueck, Humberside student
I am sooo glad I got to go to Cross Lake last May. I was never really educated on Indigenous issues and just to see that firsthand, the first time I was learning about it was, like, an experience I’ll never forget. Ever. And just the people I met. We even got to go in a sweat lodge. It was such a sacred thing to be a part of and to, just right off the bat, be accepted into the culture was so amazing it was like another family we were able to have in Cross Lake. I’m so grateful that I was part of it. So it’s really really cool to have them back here so we can show them our city and show them the same treatment that they did for us.
I really hope we continue that relationship. I’m in grade 12 now so I’m going to be graduating but hopefully I’ll be able to still connect with the community. I have a lot of their social media so I can still connect to them through that.
I’ve been looking a lot more into Indigenous studies and how in Canada our government is moving on to help fix these issues. I’m looking into going to UBC next year and they have a lot of different courses that offer ways of knowing that type of stuff.
Since I’ve come back from the trip I’ve been able to share my experiences. I think that’s been really valuable, so I’ve become almost like an advocate for these people who don’t necessarily have a voice in this bigger busy city. It’s allowed me to bring my experiences back to Toronto and share them and help other people understand what’s happening on the reserve. It’s definitely become a big part of my life now.
Aidan Umpherville, Cross Lake student
I live in Cross Lake, Manitoba, on the road going toward Mikisew high school. I’m in grade 12, this is my last year of high school. It’s nice to be out of the reservation because it gets, like, consuming. It feels like the world is small, like all you’re ever going to be is there. But coming out here, seeing the world, seeing the places with a lot of people, it helps. I like meeting these new people in Toronto, going to these schools, seeing Native students here too. Yeah, that’s nice.
I got accepted to the University of Winnipeg, I’m planning on going and majoring in English with a concentration in Creative Writing. That’s my plan right now but it can change, but yeah, that’s my plan. A lot of Native students go to that school and I like to be around Native people like me.
Knowing that there’s a bigger world beyond the reserve is comforting. I know there’s a bigger world but it’s better when you go and see it. Actually I may be planning on maybe coming to Toronto after I finish school. Well, that’s a plan, that might change.
– Schuster Gindin
Photos by Schuster Gindin, Linda Perez and courtesy onewlearning blog
See all the details and photos of the students’ exchange trips on Mikisew, Downsview, Humberside – A Learning Partnership blog.
A good place to start making connections:
Inspired by Chanie’s story and Gord’s call to build a better Canada, the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund aims to build cultural understanding and create a path toward reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. Their Legacy Schools program is a free national initiative to engage, empower and connect students and educators to further reconciliation through awareness, education and action (#reconciliACTION).
You’ve done an inspired job in crafting the stories of people behind this. As we approach this year’s Orange Shirt Day, it’s such a welcome reminder of what can be accomplished when people believe in making a difference , what’s possible no matter how you start, support each other, and stay connected by forming new expressions of community. Thanks for this ray of sunshine.
Cathy Auld, Winnipeg
How moving and inspiring is this????
Herman Rosenfeld, Toronto