Students at Waterford Public School participated in the school’s first Walk for Wenjack event.
Grades 3 through 8 attended an assembly on Oct. 21 to learn about the story of Chanie Wenjack, an Anishinaabe boy who died in 1966 at the age of 12 when he escaped a residential school.
Megan Gates, a teacher at Waterford Public, helped the students prepare the assembly, and understand the concepts of what they were learning about.
The Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Fund created a graphic novel about Wenjack’s story. Every elementary school in the Grand Erie District School Board has a copy of the book in its library as part of the Indigenous education section.
“We briefly covered the events of Chanie’s life, and discussed that as a school and community we’re committed to reconciliation,” said Gates. Gates added that there are age-specific books about residential schools for the different grades that make the events more digestible for younger minds.
Grade 6 students Jessica Marr, Jillian Little, Charlotte Spence, and Ava Crombie spent recesses leading up to the event helping to make signs for the walk and to prepare for the assembly.
“The whole assembly was about Walk for Wenjack. He was in a residential school, he escaped and tried to walk home but he died,” said Little.
The girls all said that they had already learned a little bit about residential schools in Grade 5. Learning about Wenjack added a face to the concept of residential schools.
“People got killed there, some people never got to see their families again,” said Crombie. “They’re just kids and they got taken from their family.”
“They were told to dress a certain way and not speak their language,” Marr added. “It makes me feel grateful (to go to Waterford Public) because I wouldn’t want to be treated any differently. I feel bad because they’re just kids.”
The students were able to empathize with the events because they are the same ages as some of the children sent to residential schools.
“It helps them feel empathy, especially because it’s something that happened to children,” said Gates. “They’re able to put themselves in that position. I think it makes it more accessible for them.”
Waterford recently became a legacy school through the Downie Wenjack Fund. Legacy schools are provided resources by the foundation to help educate their students to further reconciliation.
“We have Indigenous students, and we have a lot of Indigenous people in Haldimand and Norfolk,” said Gates. “They need to know that we stand with them. We recognize their story, and it is not something we want to forget. It is something that we want to acknowledge to move forward.”
Gates encourages teachers from other schools to visit the Downie Wenjack Fund website to learn more about becoming a legacy school.