Sylvia Smith, Founder of Project of Heart, received the President’s Distinguished Graduate Student Award at the fall 2017 convocation. This award recognizes outstanding academic performance and is granted to a student whose graduating thesis, exhibition, or performance and the corresponding defense was deemed meritorious by the examining committee.
In an earlier issue of Education News, Sylvia discussed the obstacles she had faced that had delayed the completion of her Master’s degree. She had started her degree in 2011 and was interested in finding out about teachers’ perceptions of Project of Heart, an inquiry-based learning project that examines the history and legacy of Indian residential schools in Canada and commemorates the lives of former students who died while attending Indian residential schools. The project had grown out of students’ demands for more information on this neglected aspect of Canadian history. Sylvia had finished interviewing her participants when, she says, “we had an illness in the family and I became very over-stressed. My work suffered.” Sylvia had to put her thesis work on hold, and by the time she came back to it, Sylvia said, “the landscape had changed so much. When I’d started, materials on Indian residential schools were almost nil…And Project of Heart had grown exponentially!” Her initial vision which was to be a “snapshot in time” had become much more, and she had to face the challenge of figuring out how it would all come together.
Not only did she work through these challenges, Sylvia was the recipient of this prestigious award.
Sylvia says it feels great to be finished. “I can’t believe it’s actually finished. I’ve never really thought of myself as an academic and certainly, with ‘life’ intruding the way it tends to, I never thought I would finish the darned thing. I’m just so lucky to have had a wonderfully supportive spouse and thesis committee (Dr. Carol Schick actually came out of retirement to help out) because they certainly didn’t have to do what they did.”
What excites her about her thesis, Sylvia says, “is that my findings have already been referenced to support work being done around reconciliation and the necessity of teaching *for* justice and more practically, *doing* it.”
Sylvia’s master’s thesis is called: Teachers’ Perceptions of Project of Heart, An Indian Residential School Education Project
The purpose of this study was to gain insight into how settler teachers took up an arts and activist-based Indian Residential School Commemoration Project called Project of Heart. More specifically, it sought to assess whether or not the research participants were led to transformation, demonstrated through disrupting “common sense” (racist) behaviours of teachers and students as well as through their engagement in social justice work that Project of Heart espouses.
Since 2007, Ontario school boards have been required by Ministry policy to teach the “Aboriginal Perspective” in their high school courses, yet at the time of the study (2010), there were still very few resources available for educators to do so. There were even fewer resources available to teach about the Indian Residential School era. Project of Heart was created by an Ontario teacher and her students in 2007 in order to address this egregious situation.
The study was guided by grounded theory methods and the findings suggest that while Project of Heart did not achieve “transformation” in its participants as assessed through teachers’ lack of completion of the social justice requirement, teachers indicated that both students and teachers benefited greatly because of the relevance of the learning.
Defended: April 2017
Supervisor: Dr. Marc Spooner
Dr. Cindy Blackstock, Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada and professor for the School of Social Work at McGill University
Thesis committee members:
Dr. Ken Montgomery, University of Windsor, Dean, Faculty of Education and Dr. Carol Schick, former Canada Research Chair in Social Justice and Aboriginal Education
Read more about Sylvia and the Project of Heart here: http://www2.uregina.ca/education/news/disrupted-studies-a-teacher-researcher-success-story/
The Shattering the Silence: The Hidden History of Indian Residential Schools in Saskatchewan ebook is a Project of Heart Saskatchewan resource for teachers published by the Faculty of Education, University of Regina.
This book extracts, reorganizes, and compiles the school-specific Saskatchewan elements of the NCTR reports and archived school files as well as incorporating other research and former student accounts that have been recorded and published online. It is an informative and accessible resource for teaching and learning about Indian residential schools in Saskatchewan.
Follow the link to DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY of Shattering the Silence: The Hidden History of Indian Residential Schools in Saskatchewan
Typically, our Teacher-Researcher story features teachers who have completed their M.Ed. programs, having successfully defended their theses. However, one of the realities of educational journeys, especially for adult learners, is that they are often disrupted by life and circumstance. The following is an interview with Ottawa teacher and U of R grad student, Sylvia Smith, whose academic journey has been disrupted mostly because of a grad student project that has been taken up nationally: the Project of Heart. In fact, Smith won the Governor General’s History Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2011 because of this project.
1. Why did you choose to do your graduate degree at the Faculty of Education, University of Regina? (especially given your location in Ottawa.)
At the time, my mom and dad were still alive and I had family in Saskatchewan. My family went there every summer to visit. Since I was a teacher and had summers off, it seemed like a fruitful way to combine my interest in graduate work as well as to keep the family connection going.
2. How would you describe your experience as a student at the U of R?
I have had nothing but GREAT experiences as a student at the U of R! Our second daughter was quite young and needed childcare when I started my course work in 2007, and we were able to enrol her in the summer programs that were held right at the University…in the gym in fact! So it was a very stress-free endeavour! We (myself, my partner and daughter) stayed in the residence there, had the childcare taken care of, and I was free to attend my courses!
3. While studying with us, you developed the Project of Heart. Briefly outline what a Project of Heart looks like.
Initially Project of Heart (POH) had five distinct parts, and now it has six. Part 1 dealt with learning about the Indian Residential Schools (IRS), why they were created, how many there were, what the conditions were like for the students, and so on. Because there were virtually no resources for teaching about the IRS at the time, materials donated by Legacy of Hope (LOH) filled the kits. With respect to the loss of life and deaths due to the IRS, I relied on primary source documents that I got from visiting Library and Archives Canada. The primary source documents were ways for the students to see that these children actually existed and that they never stopped resisting attempts to make their lives better, even if it meant fleeing the schools and many of them, dying while trying. These primary source documents brought the horrors of so many of these schools to life!
Part 2 is where the students choose a particular Indian Residential School and then learn something about the Nation on whose land that School stood, and their contributions to Canadian society. The facilitator or teacher can proceed with doing this part in whatever way that best meets the learners’ needs. Often, it is the first time that students find out the name of the Original Peoples of the territory that they’re living on. What students find out after doing this part, is that no matter how hard the Canadian Government tried to “kill the Indian within the child,” they were not successful. Students are able to see—and feel—that Indigenous peoples and their cultures must be incredibly resilient to have survived an onslaught that started 500 years ago and continues to this day.
Part 3 is the first gesture of reconciliation. It is the part where students take what information they’ve gleaned from doing Parts 1 and 2, and use their skill/talent at communicating, through art, their feelings. They may feel sadness, anger, or they may not even know how to feel. They may feel hope, especially after finding out that Indigenous people are not a dying race—that there are many who are devoted to rebuilding their communities and relearning their languages…and know that there is a place for them in today’s society. But whatever it is they are feeling, they communicate it through art. They decorate a small wooden tile, each tile symbolically representative of the life of one child who died. This child’s memory is brought back to life.
Part 4 is where an Indian Residential School survivor (or a cultural worker or an IRS intergenerational survivor, or an Elder) comes to the school (or church or business) and answers questions, gives a teaching, or just talks to the students about life. Normally, if it’s a survivor, she will answer questions from the group. This is where the lived experiential knowledge is transmitted to the learners.
Part 5 is the social justice piece, the second gesture of reconciliation where settlers who are doing this project, “walk the talk.” This part is missing from most government promises. Our Canadian Government, under the leadership of Mr. Harper, said we were sorry. But we didn’t mean it, because there were NO actions undertaken that would prove that we (as a country) were sorry. Project of Heart provides a way for its learners to truly enact our citizenship responsibilities, putting empathy into action, in a respectful way. (We want to build trust. We want to walk with, not over, Aboriginal people.) It demonstrates to Indigenous people that non-Aboriginals are prepared to act in support of their resistance struggles, whether it be for justice for the horrific number of Indigenous women and girls who have gone missing or murdered, or the over-the-top numbers of Aboriginal kids who are in state care through various ministries of child and social services.
Part 6 is a relatively recent addition. It was instituted after the TRC National Event in Saskatchewan while under the care of Charlene Bearhead. One of the teachers in Saskatoon Catholic Board, Lynette Brossart, and her students, who had completed Project of Heart, were invited to come to the National Event. Lynette was very concerned to find out that there were IRS Survivors there who had never heard of Project of Heart and felt the need to do something about it. She came up with the idea of the learner groups making cards for the survivors. With this step, when there are events that Survivors are attending, they could be given a card with one Project of Heart tile attached to it, that would let them know that the learners cared about them, and that they were learning about their situation so that this would never happen again. It worked! Project of Heart had now come full circle.
4. What were the circumstances that led you to develop the Project of Heart?
There were a few ‘circumstances’ that led to the development of the project, but the easiest to explain is the fact that I couldn’t justify to my Grade 10 students why such a major part of our history was invisible. Young people will challenge their teachers if something doesn’t make sense, and in the only mandatory history course there is in Ontario high schools (contemporary Canadian History), there was a huge, absolutely gaping void. When a particularly inquiring student, Andrea, was finding evidence in her research that was creating a cognitive dissonance for her (it was the number of students that had perished while at the schools) she would not give up trying to figure out why this egregious part of history was so neglected. I had no choice but to be gently led by her curiosity, fast-becoming-anger. Our textbook dedicated two paragraphs (63 words) to the IRS era. Andrea couldn’t believe it, and I couldn’t either. So between her righteous anger and my integrity on the line as a history teacher, we decided that if the textbook couldn’t tell us the truth, we would find it and learn it on our own! And not only that, but also we’d help others whom we knew were as ignorant, maybe even more-so, than we were! So Andrea got to work, continuing her research and at the same time, building contacts in both the Aboriginal and settler community that could help her and her classmates make sense of their past. They all felt betrayed. They had grown up proud to be Canadian, and now that identity was being challenged in a major way.
In a nutshell, there were a lot of relationships made, guest speakers invited, (IRS survivors in the community), and activists who supported the students in this educational endeavour right from the start. The students did what was within their capability to do (write proposals so we could get some money to buy the wooden tiles, and pay honouraria for Aboriginal guests to come and talk to us) and I did my part. Project of Heart began with the first ceremony to honour the children who had died.
This is where the U of R comes into the story: While the students were busy making poster boards, learning, and going class-to-class to invite students in other rooms to participate in their teach-ins and guest speakers, I was taking Dr. Spooner’s Social Justice course. I Skyped into the evening class once per week from Ottawa (I was the box-head that spoke through a TV)!
The first Truth and Reconciliation Commission had been struck, and there was a call for proposals to do “Commemorative Projects.” I thought, “Why not? Let’s do what we’re doing in the class already, and just formalize it?” I decided to ask permission to do a Project of Heart proposal in place of the essay assignment for the class: putting what we were doing, and the purpose for what we were doing on paper was the only thing that was missing. Articulating the project would allow other groups to join the effort.
Dr. Spooner accepted the proposal as my project, and Project of Heart became formalized: It was envisioned, and its parts fully explained. Supporters came through to help us build the teaching module. The Canadian Union of Postal Workers supplied all the boxes, free of charge. The Legacy of Hope Foundation gifted us with thousands of dollars worth of resources with which we would fill the kits. I would purchase the small tiles and fill the kit with a pre-arranged number. And perhaps the most important thing—cost—I wanted potential users to know that they could experience this transformative learning, for less than the cost of textbook. The only caveat was that their heart had to be in it, and they had to be willing to engage the Indigenous community. Project of Heart would only work if it was centered on Indigenous people and their experiences.
So, it is these resources that I sent out to any learner group who wanted them. It was truly a labour of love. My partner created the website (www.projectofheart.ca) where groups who do the project could upload pictures and a report on their experiences doing Project of Heart. This part was essential because as schools and other learner groups reported on their experiences, they gave ideas and inspiration to other groups. I insured that faciliator directions were packed in the boxes and that an inventory of what was included in the kit was included.
5. Has the POH made it difficult for you to finish your M.Ed. studies?
Yes, doing POH has made it difficult to finish my M.Ed. I started my thesis work in 2011. I was interested in finding out what teachers’ perceptions were of doing Project of Heart. I had done all the interviews and when the tough work began, we had an illness in the family and I too became very over-stressed. My work suffered. And the longer one leaves the work, the more difficult it is to come back to it. I’m also older, and don’t have as much energy as I used to have. But I am trying to complete it before next spring. In the interim, the landscape has changed so much. When I’d started, materials on Indian Residential Schools were almost nil. Now there are lots! And POH has grown exponentially! So what was supposed to be “snapshot in time” has now become much more, and figuring out how it’s all going to come together is challenging.
If you are teaching in Saskatchewan and interested in doing a Project of Heart with your class check out the Saskatchewan Project of Heart website: www.projectofheart.ca/sk Let us know if you are doing a Project of Heart so we can add a report to the site. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The Faculty of Education manages the Project of Heart Saskatchewan website found here: http://projectofheart.ca/sk/
In its deep commitments to anti-oppressive education and teaching for a better world, the Faculty of Education, situated on Treaty 4 land at the University of Regina, takes seriously the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) calls to action, particularly those specific to education. We recognize the many ways that education has been used as a tool for assimilation of Aboriginal peoples in Canada, and indeed as a vehicle for cultural genocide. Residential schools are not only demonstrative of the failures to honour the spirit and intent of treaties and the treaty relationship; they are also demonstrative of the power of colonialism and racism to shape national narratives and understanding. As such, the history and ongoing legacies of the Residential School experience for Aboriginal peoples in Canada must not be ignored; the Faculty of Education at the University of Regina acknowledges our shared constitutional, historical, and ethical responsibility in this respect.
As an important part of the formal structure of the Faculty of Education, the Indigenous Advisory Circle will provide recommendations and leadership regarding the TRC Calls to Action. They have already supported the work of the Faculty in teaching Residential Schools. For example, since 2014, the Faculty of Education has been the regional facilitator of Project of Heart, an inquiry into residential schools (www.projectofheart.ca/sk). This commitment continues as the Faculty actively seeks to expand this important initiative. Further, the Faculty has facilitated the 100 Years of Loss (2013) and the Witness Blanket Exhibits (2014-2015) at the University of Regina, which more than 800 school children visited; these children interacted with and learned from the Residential school experience. Many faculty and sessional instructors have integrated these exhibits into their undergraduate and graduate teaching, and will persist in finding more ways to teach meaningfully and intentionally about residential schools in Canada. Residential schools are also central to the research activities of several faculty members in Education.
- TRC Call to Action 62 urges governments to create “age-appropriate curriculum on residential schools, treaties, and aboriginal peoples’ historical and contemporary contributions to Canada a mandatory education requirement for kindergarten to Grade 12 students.” The Faculty of Education supports this call to action through its ongoing work in preparing preservice teachers for treaty education and the integration of Aboriginal content, perspectives, and teachings. Included in the Provincial mandate for treaty education is an assessment of the impact residential schools have on First Nations communities. The Faculty of Education is committed to ensuring our students are prepared to meet this outcome in their classrooms.
- TRC Call to Action 10 calls for the development of culturally appropriate curricula and for respecting and honouring the treaty relationship. The Faculty of Education is committed to building on our work in the development of culturally appropriate curriculum not only in K-12 schools but also in teacher education. As noted, our commitment to Treaty Education and our pedagogical and scholarly leadership in this respect are intended to actively respect and honour the treaty relationship, in the past, present, and future.
- TRC Call to Action 63 advocates building capacity for intercultural understanding, empathy, and mutual respect. The Faculty of Education has invited a part-time emerging elder in residence to support faculty, staff, and students in their learning and their understanding of our shared histories with Aboriginal peoples.
- TRC Call to Action 63 also calls for identifying teacher-training (sic) needs related to Aboriginal education issues. The Faculty continues to work collaboratively with First Nations University of Canada and in partnership with the Yukon Native Teacher Education Program, the Nunavut Teacher Education Program, the Northern Teacher Education Program, and the Saskatchewan Urban Native Teacher Education Program. These collaborations / partnerships are critical in addressing Aboriginal education issues. So too are current and future efforts in undergraduate teacher education within the Faculty of Education some of which involve Education Core Studies content and objectives.
In addition to the specific TRC Calls for Action, the Faculty of Education remains committed to indigenizing curriculum, pedagogy, and spaces in teacher education and in adult education, at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. It is the hope of the Faculty that through these continued commitments reconciliation becomes possible.
Dean Jennifer Tupper