Sew­ing Change

The Moc­casin Project teaches stu­dents about In­dige­nous child wel­fare and in­spires them to take ac­tion

Reader's Digest (Canada) - - Contents - BY MOIRA FARR PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY MIKE FORD

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.”

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