Can tea brew awareness? Winnipeg students think so

By Chinelo Onwualu

What does peppermint tea mean to you? For most of us, it’s a relaxing herb—the stuff of cozy winter evenings. But for the 25 students of Ryerson Elementary School’s Social Action Committee, it was the last step in a year-long journey to learn about and connect to the issues plaguing their South Winnipeg, MB, community. It was also a unique attempt to reach out to their neighbours in reconciliation.

The Grade 6 group started five years ago, hoping to make a difference in their community, a city that has undergone a rapid demographic shift in the last 10 years—mostly because of immigration and refugee resettlement.

“Our school is incredibly diverse,” says Lindsay Stewart, a teacher librarian at the school who stepped in to lead the group in the fall of 2017. “We have kids from all over the world, kids who are refugees and an Indigenous population.”

Stewart began looking for innovative ways to get her students—many of them newcomers to Canada with a wide range of cultural backgrounds—to connect with the community’s ongoing social issues, such as poverty and inequity.

When Ryerson began to integrate Indigenous knowledge and practices into its curriculum as part of its commitment to reconciliation, Lindsay turned to WE Schools resources. Through WE’s WE Stand Together school resources, her students learned about historical treaty violations and the discriminatory legislation that has marked the country’s relationship with its Indigenous population.

The school wanted to do more than just have the students read about Indigenous issues. So, in 2016, it invited Elder Theodore Fontaine, former chief of the Sagkeeng Ojibway First Nation, to visit various classrooms once or twice a month.

Fontaine started out by talking about himself and his life growing up, sharing stories of his religious beliefs, culture and family. He also spoke frankly about his traumatic experiences attending the Fort Alexander Indian Residential School from 1948 until 1958 and the Assiniboia Indian Residential School from 1958 to 1960.

Hearing about residential schools from someone who had lived the experience left many students upset. In one Grade 1 class, when the students learned that Fontaine had not been allowed to celebrate his birthday while at the schools, they decided to throw him a birthday party.

“I think that a lot of the students lacked an understanding of the inequalities that Indigenous people have faced throughout history,” said Stewart. “It really shook them—because kids are all about fairness.”

For 12-year-old Nour Mohamed it was the thought of young Indigenous children leaving home as themselves and returning home as strangers that most moved her. Nour came to Canada from Libya with her family when she was a one-year-old, and recognizes the pressure to conform to a different culture.

“[Residential students] were forced to speak a specific language, whether they wanted to or not. They were forced to eat specific food, whether they liked it or not,” she said. “They all had to be the same and that’s not fair. Everybody is different and has different beliefs, thoughts and opinions.”

“What I wanted was an emphasis on a call to action,” Stewart said. “This is our job as educators, to talk about this history and this truth, and to make it a part of our everyday learning.”

It worked. The students became passionate about sharing what they’d learned. Wanting to find out more, the group read any news reports they could find about Indigenous rights. That’s how they learned about the lack of clean water in the Shoal Lake First Nation. The reserve is located on the same lake that feeds the city of Winnipeg, but has been under a boil-water advisory for decades. The lack of an access road to the community has made it difficult to build a water treatment plant. The news enraged the students.

“Does it seem fair to you that we get this wonderful clean water every day while the people who live right on that lake have to have their water delivered to them?” Nour asked.

The students put the question to Fontaine when he came to visit their class. While he didn’t have any answers, he shared the good news that the government was finally building an all-season road to the Shoal Lake Nation. The road should help facilitate the building of a water treatment plant.

The students wanted to help in any way they could. They needed to raise money, but how? What would the sell? Then they remembered the winter garden.

Over the winter, the group had planted an indoor garden to learn about crops. The peppermint, a hearty, fast-growing plant that spreads quickly, was their most successful. They could easily grow more. Fresh peppermint doesn’t last long, but its leaves can be dried and turned into tea that has a much longer shelf life. It’s also a popular home remedy, and a traditional beverage for many of Stewart’s students of North African and Middle Eastern heritage.

For months, Stewart and her group worked to carefully grow, dry, press and cut the plants. When the peppermint was ready to be bagged, they put it into individual sachets decorated with logos they’d designed themselves. They called their product “Bon Appa-tea” and planned to sell it at the annual Canadian citizenship ceremony that would be held at the school in June 2018.

“Everything was kind of an experiment,” admitted Stewart.

On the day of the ceremony, the group sold packets of dried tea leaves and cups of brewed tea. When the new Canadian citizens stopped by the tea booth, students shared what they’d learned about Indigenous history and culture. By the end of the day, their stock was sold out, and they’d raised $100. It wasn’t much money, Nour admits, but that wasn’t the point.

“We need people to realize how important these things really are,” she said. “It doesn’t matter when they happened—today, yesterday, last month, even a hundred years ago—we still can make a change and do better.”

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