St. Mike’s High School is showing a commitment to Indigenous studies that goes far beyond wearing orange on the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation.
On Oct. 19, St. Mike’s students walked from Kazabazua to Low on their annual Walk for Wenjack. The 23 students in the group were ferried by bus to Kaz in the morning and then walked back to the school, a 21-km, approximately six-hour trek along the old train track path, which runs parallel to Hwy 105.
The students stopped at the halfway mark at the old train station in Venosta for a rest and a lunch break.
When asked why they were walking, St. Mike’s student, Jackson Brennan Haight, said: “The walk is to raise awareness for Chanie Wenjack, who tried to run away from residential school, but he didn’t make it the whole way.”
“I joined because I know if I do something, a lot of my family will try to do whatever they can to support me and the cause,” Brennan Haight added.
Chanie “Charlie” Wenjack was a 12-year-old Ojibwe First Nations boy, who ran away from Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School near Kenora, Ont., in 1966. He died of hunger and exposure, while trying to walk 600 kilometres back to his home on the Marten Falls reserve in Northern Ontario.
When asked about his reasons for joining, Shawn Pilon said, “Me, I joined the walk because my family has the Native side to it, so pretty much, we are part of the culture of [Chanie] Wenjack.”
The first Walk for Wenjack in Canada took place in 2016 and retraced Wenjack’s steps from Kenora to Redditt, Ont. Since then, people across the country have hosted their own walks to educate and raise awareness about residential schools’ true history and impact. The late musician Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip was instrumental in organizing the walks and raising funds for Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) initiatives. Money raised this year by St. Mike’s was donated directly to the Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Fund.
St. Mike’s principal Debbie Picard explained that this year the students’ “reconciliation” is learning about two or three of the 94 Calls to Action listed in the TRC report. Teacher Codie Richards added that the school used the Spirit Bear Youth Guide as a resource for students to help with their understanding of the Calls to Action. She explained that the TRC report is fairly text-heavy, and the guide helped kids understand the issues.
In previous years, students in the Walk for Wenjack group created their own Truth and Reconciliation learning resources. While the whole school isn’t directly involved in this research and exploration, Richards says that the students in the group can act as “ambassadors or experts, just like informed citizens” in their classes at St. Mike’s. As issues relating to Truth and Reconciliation arise, they can help by sharing their knowledge.
Picard said she noted that the Walk for Wenjack is not just a way to get a day off school; the students meet and learn together throughout the year. “It’s a day where you have to do some work to get that day off school. And then do the 21-km walk!”
Of the approximately 200 students at St. Mike’s, 13 identify as Indigenous, according to Picard. She commented that St. Mike’s cultivates a culture with a strong student voice.
A few years ago, “there were a couple of students that were requesting more celebration of who they are and where they come from and their culture,” she said. This prompted the school to reach out to the Friendship Centre in Maniwaki — a connection that has built from there, Picard explained.
She said that staff members at St. Mike’s are encouraged to incorporate Indigenous perspectives into all curricula and to be aware of Truth and Reconciliation issues in Canadian history.
Referring to the difficult truths learned about residential schools, including the 215 graves of children discovered at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in the spring of 2021, Picard commented: “It’s about educating everyone. Just because someone is not Indigenous doesn’t mean that they don’t need to understand what has happened and why.”
St. Mike’s education about Indigenous issues isn’t over.
The Walk for Wenjack is the big event of the year for their group, but students will continue to meet and learn, said Richards.