Ontario First Nation helps Centennial College students learn about heritage: Walpole Island

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By: Rebecca Raveendran, Centennial Journalism


Passion, respect, gratitude.

Three words that portray the emotions people living on Walpole Island have towards the land they live on.  Centennial College students Kanisha Charles and Amanda Christopher spent their 2012 March break living on Walpole Island, a first nation community located in Canada’s most southern point.

Reminiscing about the trip, they said what attracted them the most to the island was the respect people gave to the land on which they reside.

“To be able to appreciate the ground like they do, they pray to it before they take from it. You can tell they are really passionate about the way they live,” Christopher said during an interview with Centennial journalism students just days after they returned.

She notices a great difference between the amount of importance given to technology in Toronto compared to Walpole, where peoples lives still mainly revolves around the land.

“It is so different from being here. Here, it’s all about the new technology and the future,” she said. “Over there, they are completely all about their resources, what they have and living off the ground. And the way they go about doing that is really inspiring.”

Before the students’ global citizenship trip week came to an end, they learned a lot about the culture of First Nations including the language, rituals and daily activity. With everything that they learned, respect for the earth was somehow tied in.

“We learned about their medicine, we learned about their history, we learned about the endangered species and with every aspect of it, the respect to the land and the way that they pray to it, and the way that they gather stuff was all tied in,” Christopher said.

Even a drum making process is considered equivalent to the birth of a child.

“The way that they make the drums, the weaving of the strings, they consider the end of the strings the umbilical cord and when you cut it, it’s kind of like the birth of your child,” Christopher said.

A song and dance is conducted to bring birth to the child, followed by a naming ceremony for the drum.

Charles explains that tender care needs to be taken while making the drum.

“You are not supposed to put it face down like you wouldn’t put a baby face down. You can’t leave it unattended,” she said. “And if you do, you kind of have to say ‘Hey can you watch my baby.’ It’s just like babysitting.”

Aside from respect, another characteristic that stood out for the Centennial students was the generosity they felt from the Walpole Island residents.

They brought the students banana bread, handmade skirts to wear for the drum-making process and more importantly, offered their insightful experiences.

“Their generosity was crazy. They would give us gifts. They showed so much love to us,” Charles said.

Christopher was touched with the kindness expressed because she was told that the residents are usually reluctant to trust outsiders.

“One of the teachers who was with us, she’s like ‘ For her [the lady who made and offered banana bread] to be able to bring you food, and make you food is a huge deal’,” she said.

Along with the memorable gifts, the stories shared by the residential school survivors were unforgettable for the students.

Jenny Blackbird is one of the people living on the island who had been to a residential school. It was only Blackbird’s second time telling anyone her story.

“She told us what they would go through. There were people on the island that would take the kids away from their parents either from school or wherever they were,” Christopher said. “They would kidnap them and bring them onto schools, on the main land, and they would basically try and rip them out of their heritage and culture. They would teach them all the white ways. They would diminish their language.

“It meant a lot for us to be the second people she told and be privileged to hear that,” Christopher said.

Charles and Christopher were able to learn a lot about the First Nation people living on Walpole Island and about their culture, which not many Ontarians are familiar with. It is an island that is full of Canadian history barely discovered.