Signal Hill has one of the highest ratios of aboriginal students in the province — 40 per cent of the elementary age kids come from a First Nations background.
That means, two out of every five kids in the school come from a culture for whom school is not a safe place — not a refuge for fun and learning — but an institution with deep associations of abuse, fear and cataclysmic loss.
Vice principal Clare Hanbury has been at Signal Hill for 10 years. She said, “I’d noticed that there was not a big connection with the First Nations families here, and I knew that location wasn’t the only reason. Just because they live a little bit further out? That wasn’t the whole deal. There was something else.”
Hanbury’s hunch was right. But it took a thousand acts of courage before something could shift.
Two things happened when the Truth and Reconciliation Report was released in April 2015: Hanbury began talking about doing something in the school to address the issue and try to change that dynamic, and the educational curriculum changed.
“Learning about residential schools is part of the curriculum now,” said Hanbury, “which is a huge step.”
Hanbury and her colleague Tanina Williams, an aboriginal cultural support worker at Signal Hill, took the lead on teaching the classes about residential schools. But they didn’t want to deliver heavy-hitting material to the community’s five to 12 year olds, without offering something positive too.
The challenge of how to turn the topic into a healing opportunity was taken up by Williams, who is also a traditional Lil’wat wool-weaver. She conceived the idea of teaching the kids to wool-weave blankets. Each student in a participating classroom would weave a small piece that would be combined into a blanket to be given to a local elder, a survivor of the residential school system, as a gesture of love and healing.
“Traditional wool weaving is local to this area, so they’d be learning something cultural,” said Williams. “In our culture, when you learn how to make something, you gift the product of that learning. You don’t get to keep it because your gift was learning the skill. And when you make a garment, you put your love into it. As First Nations people, we call that ‘good work.’ I’d ask the kids, ‘If we’re going to make a blanket for somebody, what kind of energy do we want to put into it?’”
Wool-weaving is a frustrating activity, especially when you’re first learning. Every week, Williams would remind them: “If you get frustrated, put it down for a minute or two and centre yourself. It’s just a practice. I don’t expect you to be good at it. But I expect you to be mindful about it.”
In the meantime, Hanbury was working with other staff and volunteers to try and identify residential school survivors from the communities. Each survivor was then hand-delivered a personal invitation to attend a blanket ceremony on June 22, by a family member from the school.
It was a risky proposition. Williams and Hanbury weren’t sure how the invitations would be received, if they’d re-traumatize people, if anyone would even respond.
On the Monday before the event, Signal Hill was expecting 12 attendees. Hundreds of hours by 18 different classes had gone into making blankets, and a group of Grade 6 and 7 students had spent weeks preparing the ceremony.
Then things got out of hand.
“People were showing up here saying, I heard about this event, can I bring my wife? People we’d never met before. They’d just heard about it and thought it was a really good thing,” said Hanbury.
A last minute blanket-making blitz took place — Williams’ mom, Hanbury’s mom, a parent.
“We were not going to turn anyone away.”
Right up to the morning of the event, more survivors were being identified.
“One student said, ‘My parents went to residential school.’ ‘Well, we’ve got to call them.’ They came with absolutely no notice,” Hanbury recalled. “Another student said, ‘What about my grandma Linda?’ ‘Okay, I’ve got to call her too!’”
And as the assembly room began to fill, something incredible happened.
Children draped love-infused, hand-woven blankets around the shoulders of the most courageous people in our communities, the survivors of residential schools, who’ve tried silently for decades to protect their children and grandchildren from the worst experiences of their lives.
One 40-something father of a Grade 5 and a Grade 7 student set foot on the school grounds for the very first time, to attend the ceremony that day. “He’s been like a mystery man for the last seven years,” said Hanbury. “I think it was really hard for him. But he came. He even spoke.”
A couple of days later, he was back, right up front of the room proudly taking photos of his daughter’s graduation.
Another elder said it was the best day of her 73-year-long life. Recalled Hanbury, “She’s been working in this school since 1979 and she said she’s never felt fully truly welcome or appreciated until that day. She said this is what she’s been waiting for.”
“We all need to be brave,” said Williams. “All of Canada needs to be brave in this, to be able to face that this happened. How do you cope with it? It’s a lot. Everybody needs to heal from it.”
Said Hanbury, “The kids have done a great job. It’s been so amazing how they’ve managed to take it in.”
“And they put their love into it,” said Williams.
Echoed Hanbury, “They really did.”
Now, the Signal Hill Elementary School has meaningful relationships with 31 survivors of residential schools who are willing to come and talk to the students about their experiences. “It’s definitely going to change the way we talk about this. It’s not going to be me. It’s going to be somebody who had that experience,” said Williams. “I think that will really change our community.”
A door, just as Hanbury hoped, has swung open.