By Kathy Yanchus
It wasn’t the first time Waterdown District High School (WDHS) history teacher Nathan Tidridge had taken his Grade 12 class to the Six Nations Reserve in Brantford. For students of his Canadian History Identity and Culture elective course, tours of the reserve on the Grand River brought to life the interaction between aboriginals and colonizers like no textbook ever could.
Last fall’s trip, however, also included a visit to the Woodland Cultural Centre and Museum, site of the Mohawk Institute Residential School, which closed in 1972, and one of many such controversial institutions investigated for the harm they were believed to have imposed upon aboriginal children, including documentation of physical and sexual abuse.
“It was eye-opening,” said Alex Paladino, a sentiment echoed by many of the students who were on the bus to Six Nations that day last November.
Aside from the residential school stories, which presented their own brand of horror, most of the students admitted they were unaware of the historical roots of the First Nations or of contemporary issues of poverty and treaty rights, which deeply divide aboriginals and the federal government.
“There is a distinct lack of native topics in the history we take in high school,” said Austin Brown.
When they spoke to others about what they had learned, the students sensed a general lack of awareness, even apathy. This was enough to compel the students to further educate themselves so they can promote understanding and respect, as explained by Connor Johnson, who noted it is important to know what happened in the past in order to move forward.
Classroom discussion took on an even more dynamic dimension with the spread of the grassroots movement Idle No More and Attawapiskat chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike, which she began over concerns with the federal government omnibus bill.
“It was an amazing coincidence,” said Tidridge. “I wanted to capture the energy of that especially in an area such as Flamborough, which is rich with First Nations history.”
Tidridge gave his students the opportunity to write letters to Spence’s delegation, an optional exercise, which they could use to agree or disagree with the chief’s actions, or simply ask questions. The letters were sent to a former WDHS student in Ottawa, who delivered them to Spence’s location on Victoria Island, within view of the Parliament buildings.
“It was an exercise in getting the kids engaged. My goal was to get them engaged in the debate, make them aware of what’s going on,” said Tidridge. “It’s an emotional topic. I wanted them to participate in history, participate in a respectful way.”