Art exhibit gives outlet for Native youth

In October of 2011, Kristiina Montero saw an opportunity to do something special.

The professor in Wilfrid Laurier University’s faculty of education was looking for a way to introduce her students to Aboriginal culture and teach them about working with Native youth. That was when she started talking with Guelph-based artist and Ojibwa elder, Rene Meshake.

“In the faculty of education, we have the responsibility to teach our teachers who will be going into the field about working with Aboriginal youth,” said Montero. “Then I started talking with Rene and he told me he had an idea of collecting art for storytelling and that’s how the idea began.”

From there, Montero met with Beth McQueen and Carole Leclair, teachers at Sir John A. MacDonald (SJAM) high school in Hamilton, which offers courses geared towards Aboriginal teachings, such as Aboriginal English and Native arts and culture, the latter being taught by McQueen. And Songide’ewin, a celebration of Aboriginal art created by SJAM students and Laurier education students, was born.

The exhibit opened at Laurier’s Robert Langen Gallery on May 22 and runs until May 31. At the opening ceremony of the collection, Meshake told the audience that Songide’ewin, the name of the exhibt, means “the strength of the heart,” which he thought was a perfect way to sum up the program. “With one heart, we beat,” Meshake added.

Over the course of this past school year, the SJAM students and the Laurier students, along with Montero, would come together to create the over 30 paintings and written pieces that came out of the program. According to Montero, the atmosphere was meant to be one of community, not a traditional student-teacher dynamic.

“The teachers were students, the students were teachers,” she said. “When we all started painting together, the hierarchy was removed. I think it really helped the students from [Laurier’s] faculty of education understand what learning was like for these students.”

For the students involved, they not only got a chance to create a piece of art, they also got an opportunity to reconnect with their roots.

“I really had to open up and ask some questions about who I am as a person,” said grade 12 SJAM student Cassandra Bice-Zaug, who wrote one of the written pieces in the collection. “As I started writing, the writing grew with me. I felt like I became one with the art and the community.”

WLU’s senior advisor of Aboriginal initiatives Jean Becker was thrilled to see this kind of commemoration of Native culture on campus.

“It was fantastic. It wasn’t just a good product, it was a very moving experience for everybody I think,” said Becker. “I think [celebrations of Aboriginal heritage] are critical given the climate in the country and the lack of understanding of Aboriginal people. There’s a lot of stereotypes and a lot misconceptions, but these kinds of things really bring people together.”

Becker is extremely proud of the work Laurier’s Aboriginal initiatives office has done in its young existence.

“Ever since we started the initiative, the support we’ve gotten has been strong and I think it will only grow with time,” she said.

“We’ve done so much in less than two years, we’ve created Aboriginal student centres on both campuses, we’ve hired staff, I think that as time goes by, we’ll see more and more Aboriginal issues being discussed here.”

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