Reconciliation through Art, Sargent Park School

Written by Joan Suzuki / Posted on

An Indigenous worldview is one that sees relationships: relationships within oneself; relationships with other human beings; relationships with all aspects of life in the circle we call the environment; and relationships with the unknown, unseen mystery often named in Indigenous terms, the Creator which includes ancestors and the energy of all life forms.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada defines “reconciliation” as an ongoing process of establishing and maintaining respectful relationships.

It is quite wonderful for me that the Reconciliation through Art Project at Sargent Park School began within the context of a comfortable personal relationship and emerged from a conversation at a house warming in my son’s backyard.

His friend, Mirae Young was beginning a new position as an art and social studies teacher.  When I shared with Mirae, my interest in Truth and Reconciliation through my involvement with the Manitoba Teachers’ Society SAGE group, the Council for Indigenous Education in Manitoba, we both agreed we would like to try something with her new middle school age students.

Mirae’s intial inquiries with her administrator, Principal Luba Krosney, were met with welcoming support for the project.  We would have the opportunity to share with several classes and reach over two hundred earnest and sincere students.  Mirae and I implemented our program over several classes in the fall of 2016. To see Luba Krosney’s thoughtful comments on the Reconciliation through Art Project click here.

We envisioned an introduction to residential schools in Canada through the voice and experience of residential school students –Violet Pesheens and Chaney Wenjack. Their understanding was demonstrated through writing, speaking, drawing and painting. The next phase involved a calligraphy project in which students chose various quotes on the broader theme of truth and reconciliation.  Finally, the students were invited to integrate and express their understanding through the medium of printmaking.   Inspiration for their own work was inspired by Giniigaaniimenaaning (Looking Ahead),by Metis visual artist, Christi Belcourt.  Talented students also produced a Treaty One Acknowledgement to hang in the hallway of Sargent Park School.

The Diary of Violet Pesheens

The initial literacy based activation was a reading of excerpts from The Residential School Diary of Violet Pesheens, a new book I found in a display at McNally Robinson.  In keeping with the copyright guidelines for teachers, I created a class set of selected diary entries.

Mirae and I explained that there would be a ten-minute silent write after the students completed taking turns reading aloud part or whole of a diary entry.  I interjected during the read aloud to stimulate the students’ understanding of what young Violet was experiencing as she shared her feelings about the residential school she attended in Northern Ontario in 1966.  The author, Ruby Slipperjack draws from her own experience at Residential School to create the first hand voice of Violet.  Mirae and I found the students were deeply moved.

The students’ immediate impressions were recorded in small booklets I had assembled in the fashion that Violet describes her diaries – folded paper that she had sewn into books and carefully kept hidden.  We also had an impromptu sharing circle after writing.  It was interesting to witness their heartfelt reactions to Violet’s story.  The demographic is predominantly comprised of Filipino students at Sargent Park.  Awareness of residential schools in Canada was very new for many of the students.  Many of these students are grounded in a Christian based religion which becomes evident in some of the imagery.

Secret Path

Secret Path tells the story of Chanie Wenjack, the twelve year old boy who died while running away from Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in 1966.  It is told through the songs of Gord Downie, the graphic novel of Jeff Lemire and the animation of Justin Stephenson.  There are lesson plans available from Manitoba Teachers Society featuring Secret Path.  The students of Sargent Park responded to the Secret Path produced their own unique responses to viewing the graphic novel and video with music.

Giniigaaniimenaaning (Looking Ahead)

Christi Belcourt has an excellent website featuring the stained glass window commissioned to recognize the survivors of Indian Residential Schools, and their families and the Prime Minister’s historic Apology in 2008.   It is located in the Centre Block of Parliament in Ottawa.

Giniigaaniimenaaning (Looking Ahead) tells the “story of Aboriginal people, with our ceremonies, languages, and cultural knowledge intact; through the darkness of the residential school era; to an awakening sounded by a drum; an apology that spoke to the heart; hope for reconciliation; transformation and healing through dance, ceremony, language; and resilience into the present day.” (Belcourt website)

In response to Belcourt’s artwork, the students were encouraged to apply their learning on Truth and Reconciliation.  We began with a brainstorming exercise, similar to a sharing circle but on a large piece of paper where the students could write and draw from their own stream of consciousness and share.

From there, each student developed an individual image that technically would translate to the medium of printmaking.  The palette consisted of the Medicine Wheel colours of yellow, red, black and white  for the paper and printmaking ink.

In this way students demonstrated their personal understanding of truth and reconciliation.  The process of printmaking is a very visceral one.  The texture of the printmaking ink is very tactile and full of unexpected results.  The production process of carving plates and rolling ink is a kinesthetic process and is very engaging.  The print itself holds all the thoughtful intention and the energy of the maker.

Looking Ahead Block Prints

To commemorate the official launch of the student and teacher centred website, the Council for Indigenous Education has featured several of the Sargent Park student block prints on each of our website page banners.

Following we see recurring themes in the other block prints.

The bird symbolizes peace, relationship with the natural world and witness to Chanie Wenjack’s journey home


Many images refer back to the story of Chanie Wenjack and scenes from residential school.


The heartbreak from the separation from family was a reoccurring theme


Sadness and loss – the emotional impact of Chanie’s or Violet’s experience is translated into the artwork.



The loneliness and coldness of the dormitories and the sense of isolation is transmitted in the depiction of the residential school.


At times we see through the eyes of the residential school student, an expression of the artist’s empathy



Reference to physical abuse and loss.



Running away from residential school.


Solitary determination – the journey into the wilderness


Strong, simple compositions can say so much


Some remembered descriptions of the Train of Tears in Violet Pesheens’ diary

The comfort of family and culture – reunion


Looking ahead we see hope, love, freedom and recognition


There were many Interpretations of the symbols for reconciliation including representation of First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples and in some instances the maple leaf and the cross.


Reconcilation Artwork present in the hallways

Principal Luba Krosney explained that the students, also “expressed their learning through the creation of powerful artwork that graces the halls of our school.”  These larger scale pieces are composed of a set of block prints and meaningful text.



Treaty Acknowledgement

Sargent Park School Treaty Acknowledgement


The students at Sargent Park were invited to choose a quotation related to the broader understanding of reconciliation.  We honoured these ideas, rendering them in calligraphy.  One example quoted for the calligraphy project included,“Reconciliation – an ongoing process of establishing and maintaining respectful relationships” from A Knock on the Door:  The Essential History of Residential Schools from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.  It is a book that Shelagh Rogers,  TRC honourary witness, hopes every Canadian will read, and read deeply. “The transformation of this country begins with acknowledging what happened after that knock on the door. Acknowledging, understanding the implications, and then resolving to do something for positive change. It’s right that the TRC Calls to Action are included, for we are all called to action.”  This book is an excellent and accessible primer for teachers.

Sargent Park Principal, Luba Krosney, recognized in the students a sense of urgency to make a difference.  She says, “They wrote a Territorial Recognition and penned a passionate, persuasive appeal to Administration focusing on the importance of reading the Territorial Recognition on Morning announcements.  As a result of this, we now read the Territorial Recognition as an integral part of our morning announcements.  They also expressed their learning through the creation of powerful artwork that graces the halls of our school.”

Students took it upon themselves to create a Treaty Acknowledgement for the school hallways which references the Truth and Reconciliation Commission logo.  In calligraphy it reads:

“Sargent Park School is located on original lands of Anishinaabeg, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dakota and Dene peoples and on the homeland of the Metis Nation.  We respect the treaties that were made on these territories, we acknowledge the harms of the mistakes of the past, and we dedicate ourselves to move forward in partnership with Indigenous communities in a spirit of reconciliation and collaboration.”























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