16 Project of Heart Can Work for All of Us

Sylvia Smith

Sylvia Smith

I begin my contribution to this remarkable compilation by thanking Dr. Brenda Anderson from Luther College at the University of Regina for requesting it. I also say chi meegwetch to the Algonquin people on whose lands Project of Heart got its start. To the Elders and Survivors who became a vital component of Project of Heart and who accepted my students’ invitations to teach them in ways they’d never experienced, I also say, thank you.

To add my part to the dialogue around the relationship between Indigenous people and settler folk, I’d like to tell the story of Project of Heart—how it was created and why it works for all of us, Indigenous and settler alike.

The story starts in 2006, when I had been an educator in the public system for twenty-seven years in a so-called “alternate” school. In Ontario, alternate high schools are a way to help learners who have difficulties coping in mainstream high schools, for as many reasons as there are students. For most of that period, I had done what I thought I was supposed to do; I told students what was expected from them and then passed on the received curriculum. They would be tested to see if they had taken in the required information, and at some point they would move on from my classroom. I might never see them again. We would part knowing scarcely any more about each other than we had known on the first day of class. That was all about to change, though I didn’t know it at the time.

One of my history students was a young woman called Andrea. She was a typical teenager whose needs, it was fair to guess, were not being met in mainstream school. She was conducting research into the Indian Residential Schools era when she came upon an eighty-year-old report by the Federal Inspector from the Department of Indian Affairs. His name was Dr. Peter Bryce, and his report into the conditions of the schools was shocking to her. Going through his findings, she found out that there was even a published ‘death rate’ at the schools. Andrea could not believe what she was reading. It was plain to her that the schools were really prisons for tens of thousands of children. Prisons with poor heating, rotten food, cruel instructors—and annual death rates as high as 70 percent. Almost as shocking to Andrea was that these tragic facts about the IRS era had never been taught to her . . . ever!

Andrea’s emotional response presented a challenge. As a teacher, I could downplay the import of her discovery and cajole her into a more positive space, conveniently avoiding her main question: “Why hadn’t I heard about this before?” Or I could choose to listen to her, admit my own dearth of knowledge, read the historical evidence she had presented, and collaborate by becoming a learner with her. I chose the latter course and suggested that we work on this together. I didn’t realize it then, but it was one of the best choices I ever made.

It was the beginning of a journey of discovery, as Andrea recruited more students, and the students she brought into it then went on to seek funding from the school so they could acquire the materials they’d need to reach other students in the school. These students were determined to bring back the memory of the forgotten children and give their story new context by relating it to today’s tremendous losses—the thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women and the thousands of Indigenous children who, under the guise of child protection, are growing up without culture, language, and community to care for and love them.

They brought in guest speakers and then they found that art could speak when the mouth could not. So creating beautiful artifacts became the touchstone for making gestures of reconciliation. They found a company that produced small wooden artifacts and decided that one small wooden tile could be decorated to represent the life of a child that never came home from the schools. These decorated tiles would become the proof that young people were sorry for the actions of their ancestors who had built and maintained the schools that forcefully assimilated Indigenous children. The students reached out to the Aboriginal Healing Foundation for hard-copy resources and DVDs so they could share them with other teachers, hoping that they, too, would begin to teach historical truths. They reached out to Indian Residential School Survivors and interviewed them. They researched present forms of colonial violence happening to Indigenous children and women. Their researches brought them to Amnesty International where they participated in Amnesty’s Stolen Sister campaign. This in turn led them to the Native Women’s Association of Canada’s Sisters in Spirit campaign, and the students were there on October 4, 2006 to participate in the first annual vigil on Parliament Hill. Learning that at the international level Canada is known for its poor record at protecting Indigenous women, the students also learned of the systemic discrimination against First Nations children. Concepts were coming together for them. The more they learned about the past, the more they saw the connections to present-day injustices. Their efforts in school were fueling their desire to learn more, and for once, they weren’t just writing exams for marks or handing in tired essays for the sake of the teacher. They were connecting on an emotional level with their learning, then ‘doing’ something with their learning. And it was infectious.

In fact, it was so infectious that what my students and I were accomplishing began to resonate with learning communities all across the country; communities eager for a template to do work that was both respectful and change-making. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission began its work just as Project of Heart began to spread its message in schools all across Ontario. Our school became the ‘go to’ place for news media inquiries about schools teaching the true story of Indian Residential Schools. And after Project of Heart received national attention through winning a Governor General’s Award, history teachers across the country were eager to get involved in it.

So, what was the recipe for success in Project of Heart? Well, over a decade after it began, after it has been showcased at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, the Organization of American States in Washington, every province and territory in Canada, and even in schools in Europe, I believe its success is down to the fact that it was about youth and their unbridled belief that what they were doing and how they were doing it could make a difference. Project of Heart made their lives matter at the same time they were demanding that the lives of the lost children should matter. In the end, it’s all about connecting with what really matters—heart and the spirit.


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Global Femicide by Sylvia Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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