The Moccasin Project teaches students about Indigenous child welfare and inspires them to take action
The Moccasin Project teaches students about Indigenous child welfare and inspires them to take action. MOIRA FARR
“YOU ARE LOVED and welcomed by everyone around you.”
The handwritten note, fastened to a tiny pair of moccasins, may be short, but the message’s compassion and generosity speak volumes. The deerskin baby shoes, sewn by a highschool student in southern Ontario, are on their way to an Indigenous newborn taken into foster care in the northern part of the province. This small yet profound gesture is part of Da-giiwewaat—“So they can go home” in the Anishinaabe language—otherwise known as the Moccasin Project.
Indigenous educator and activist Nancy Rowe launched the campaign in 2016, along with Jodie Williams, co-chair for the First Nations, Métis and Inuit Education Association of Ontario. “Making the moccasins humanizes Indigenous people for the students,” says Rowe. “They know that these are going to be on the little feet of real children.” Through citizen action, the women wanted to promote healing and teach young people about Canada’s practice of removing Indigenous children from their families.
In the same year, according to Statistics Canada, First Nations, Métis and Inuit youth made up 52 per cent of foster children younger than 14 in Canada, despite representing eight per cent of that age group overall. Jane Philpott, federal minister of Indigenous services, has called this
imbalance a “humanitarian crisis,” and “very much reminiscent of the residential school system, where children are being scooped up from their homes.”
The Moccasin Project has grown steadily over the past two years, conducting hundreds of workshops and responding to requests for curriculum input from teachers around the country, as they seek meaningful ways to participate in the work of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.
In one case, a principal in Mississauga put on a diversity conference at which 300 students learned about Indigenous history, met elders and crafted moccasins. A high school in Prince George, B.C., also donated backpacks full of school supplies to children in foster care. The program isn’t limited to classrooms, however: last year, staff and commissioners for the Ontario Human Rights Council made moccasins, too.
The seeds of the project took root after Rowe heard a speech by Cora Morgan, Manitoba’s First Nations Family Advocate. According to Morgan, in one month in one Winnipeg hospital alone, 40 Indigenous infants were removed by child services. That’s when Rowe, along with other women in her southern Ontario community of New Credit First Nation, gathered 40 baby eagle feathers to be gifted to each child. This act inspired the idea of sewing moccasins for children in care to wear, then keep—a symbol of their culture, and a key to a positive sense of identity and belonging.
A GoFundMe page initially raised money to buy leather and other materials; later, a supplier provided deer hides at cost. Now kits can be purchased online, with all proceeds flowing back into the project. Along with moccasin-making tips, the initiative provides teachers with curriculum resources. For example, one suggested topic of exploration for Grade 2 students is family traditions; in Grade 10, the project links to lessons about Canada’s relationship with Indigenous peoples in the early 20th century.
The workshops can have a significant effect on students, says Williams. “Kids don’t hold the biases of adults—they can’t believe some of the history. They feel good, because they’ve contributed to changing it and they can say, It’s not hopeless.” For certain participants, the ones who have had personal experience inside the foster care system, the exercise carries even greater weight. It has led them to share their stories, says Erica Zombolas, an Indigenous-education consultant for the District School Board of Niagara who has held workshops with high-school students.
The Moccasin Project keeps on growing, but Rowe is modest about her contribution. “The work is now beyond me,” she says. “I just had a bit of vision.”