High school students packed the main hall at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg on Thursday to learn more about Indigenous cultures and why it’s important to have role models.
“I think it’s really inspiring knowing that we have our own ways of learning and learning about culture,” said Sophia Bird, a Grade 10 student from Maples Collegiate.
Bird was one of 225 students from the Seven Oaks School Division attending a two-day gathering called “Rise Up.”
She said that thanks to her grandparents, she is lucky that she was able to grow up with her culture. Bird is Ojibway from Black River First Nation and said she has been dancing powwow for most of her life.
She said one of her main takeaways from the morning was the importance of learning Indigenous languages.
“Throughout history we kind of lost our language,” she said.
“I feel like it should be an honour to learn our language, like Ojibway and Cree.”
Grade 11 student Troy Moneyas said he didn’t start learning about his culture until last year.
Moneyas, who is Ojibway from Hollow Water First Nation, said learning about his culture gives him hope for the future.
“They tried to get rid of Indigenous languages, but it was super strong and it stuck around anyway, even though everything was against it,” he said.
Although he is just starting to learn about his culture, he said he is grateful to be on that journey with his fellow classmates.
“I feel like I’m a part of something bigger, something more important than just myself and I’m excited to be here,” said Moneyas.
The gathering was organized by Sherry Denysuik, the Indigenous education lead for the Seven Oaks School Division. It was meant to give Indigenous students a chance to learn about identity, belonging and purpose.
“It’s just about bringing youth together and empowering them,” said Denysuik.
Throughout the school year, the Seven Oaks School Division runs a
“cultural exploration education” course that brings students from different high schools together to learn about Indigenous history, culture and contemporary issues.
She said it is open to Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, and it leaves them with a much better understanding of Indigenous issues as they leave high school.
One of those non-Indigenous students is Grade 10 student Kati Sawka-Siedler.
“It’s very interesting,” she said. “I like learning about the culture and the language.”
On Thursday students were greeted by elders Mary Courchene and Dan Thomas and were also given a presentation by former MLA Kevin Chief.
The former politician talked about the importance of learning a language, the importance of elders and encouraged the students to go home and ask their parents which nation they are.
The gathering also features workshops about filmmaking and writing with Sonya Ballantyne, language and anime with Westin Sutherland, art with Lita Fontaine and a mobile planetarium with Rockford McKay.
Day 2 of the gathering will take place on Friday and will feature a keynote presentation from NDP MLA Bernadette Smith.