It’s only 500 miles from Barrie, ON, to the Cree towns of Moosonee and Moose Factory in Northern Ontario. But for Sheena McRae and Shannon LeBlanc, two teachers at Hyde Park Public School in Barrie, planning a school trip to the Cree communities was like planning a visit to the moon.
They first got the idea for their trip in October 2016, when McCrae and LeBlanc were coordinators for Hyde Park’s Grade-6-to-8 WE Club. The club members’ enthusiastic participation in several WE Schools campaigns had earned the group a ticket to WE Day Toronto.
Onstage, musician Gord Downie spoke about Canada’s discriminatory treatment of its Indigenous peoples and called for greater efforts to reconcile that past. The two teachers were so moved by his message that they revamped their planned ME to WE School Trip. Instead of going to Kenya or Ecuador, they decided to visit an Indigenous community in Northern Ontario, to introduce their students to an element of Canadian culture and history often missing from mainstream curriculums.
“I think that more Indigenous culture needs to come back into our children’s lives,” said McRae. “We need to go back to a lot of the teachings of respect for the environment, the earth and mother nature.”
At the time, Jonas Magnusson was a 7th grader with a passion for Indigenous history. When he heard that his WE Club was planning to visit an Indigenous community, he and 27 others signed up immediately.
“I’d learned a lot from textbooks, but I wanted to go there and hear from the communities themselves, from people who had actually experienced the truth,” he said.
But many in the school community weren’t clear why this trip was needed. So, whenever the club held fundraising events, they set up an information booth on Indigenous issues. The students also worked with the lead principal for Indigenous education in their school board to learn more about Cree culture and customs.
“People were very ignorant about our Indigenous communities, so it was a really cool way to get them to pay attention,” said LeBlanc.
By June 2017, they had raised $7,000. Now that they had the money, they needed to figure out the complicated logistics of getting there.
One problem is there is no all-season road to Moosonee and Moose Factory. During the deep winter, the communities build an ice road that links their towns to the Ontario highway system. But in summer and fall the only way to get there is by train or small plane. It was also a challenge finding places in the region where 28 students, two teachers and one school principal could stay.
They set out on a Sunday morning on September 24, 2017. After a 10-hour bus ride to the town of Cochrane and a five-hour train ride to Moosonee, they took a ferry to Moose Factory, where they were able to stay at the Cree Village Ecolodge for the first two days of the trip. For the last two days, they had to return to Moosonee and stay in a bed-and-breakfast, ferrying to Moose Factory during the day and going back in the evening.
On that first day, a Moose Factory resident opened up the family teepee in his backyard and students took turns learning how to pluck a goose, build a fire and cook moose and fish over an open flame.
“What was really cool was that students from Moosonee Public School had caught the food that we were cooking,” said McRae.
Over the course of the trip, the group also spent their days learning traditional arts like beading and how to make tamarack birds—decoys made by binding fragrant twigs of the tamarack tree into the shape of a Canada goose. In the evenings, elders shared “grandfather teachings”—telling folktales and teaching students the basics of the Cree language. One night, the stories were told by survivors of the residential school system. For the students, this was the most difficult part of the trip.
“When you see someone speaking about it, you can see them going through that moment—that day—while you’re there,” said Jonas, “you can feel what they felt, and you just understand it right there.”
On the last day, the students took a tour of the Moosonee Public School and were shocked by what they saw. The school has to share its sports equipment with nearby schools, and with no funds for a librarian, books were sitting on shelves without organization.
“It was really tough to see just how much of a discrepancy there is in resources for children in our own country,” said McRae.
After the tour, they gave the gifts they’d brought, including orange T-shirts that have come to symbolize reconciliation, library books, sports equipment and ME to WE Rafiki Bracelets. That night, the Moosonee students and their parents threw them a farewell feast.
“They brought in a fiddler, which is actually a pretty important thing in Cree culture, and they taught us how do to some Indigenous dances,” said McRae. “It was great. So much fun.”
When they returned to Barrie, the students wanted to share what they’d learned. They created a slideshow of the trip and presented it to parents and other students at an hour-long school assembly. They also met with their school’s district superintendent to propose how other schools could plan similar trips. Their efforts have also had a ripple effect throughout their school, inspiring more teachers to add Indigenous studies into their curriculums.
For 13-year-old Ilyssa Shulman, who was in Grade 7 when she went on the trip, it completely changed the way she thinks about Canada’s history.
“I do think that a lot of what we’ve learned has been solely from the perspective of settlers and not so much from the First Nations people,” she said. “Just having that extra knowledge gives me a different perspective than what’s being taught in the books.”
The experience has even inspired her to pursue a different career path. Ilyssa’s always wanted to be a lawyer, but now she has a specialization in mind.
“Getting new knowledge on the injustices done to First Nations people has been very motivating for me to perhaps go into the field of First Nations’ rights and perhaps become a lawyer for them,” she said.
Other members of the group, who have since moved on to high school, share a similar passion. Today, 14-year-old Jonas, now a freshman at Innisdale Secondary school in Barrie, has joined the WE Club at his new school. He’s hoping to move the group beyond just the tokenism of wearing orange shirts every Reconciliation Day on September 30th.
“All you can do is teach everyone else what you learned and what you saw, so that you can help them understand what we did wrong as a country,” he said.
“I’m a completely different person when I wake up in the morning because of that experience,” said LeBlanc.
Through their shared experience, those students and their teachers are now a part of the next generation of advocates for Indigenous rights and reconciliation.