Read a full description of how this book came about, written by Ann Graham Walker, below.
Sometime earlier this year, when BC days were a dark monsoon, I emailed Wendy Morton to get her thoughts on things the Federation of British Columbia Writers might do to better serve Aboriginal community. Wendy is the organizer and instigator of thirteen Elder Projects that bring together Aboriginal schoolchildren with their storied relatives (www.theelderproject.com). It is an exercise in memory retrieval, in generational bonding, in celebrating Aboriginal culture and memory through the eyes of the young — and for each of the young participants, it is an invitation to write. Wendy barely hesitated in answering my email. She told me about the young Elder Project participant who once expressed the invisibility she feels. It may be 2016, but—real or perceived—for an Aboriginal teenager navigating the halls of his/her school, there is still the feeling of being on the other side of a divide, whether you want to be there or not. Do non-Aboriginal students know that divide as well, and wish it weren’t there? “What I’ve always wanted to do is a variation on the Elder Project,” Wendy said. “It would be to get First Nations and White or Metis students together, writing poems about each other.”
An interesting idea, rich with possibilities. Imagine finding yourself partnered with someone you may not have had an opportunity to talk to, because of cultural distances, in this case Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal. You get together and don’t just talk, but write a poem about one another. I have participated in exercises like this, in poetry workshops, and can say it really did open doors to shared understanding and compassion. Could the Federation of BC Writers play the role of making such an event happen?
Yes, the Board decided, as long as proper procedure is absolutely followed, as long as the participants are carefully chosen by a responsible, professional person,bearing in mind that the students are minors. There was a perfect place to pilot the idea. Wendy called Barbara Stoochnoff, teacher and counsellor at Chemainus Secondary School—a school that has successfully participated in numerous Elder Projects, with huge support from teachers, students and Elders. Barbara embraced the idea, and so the project began.
On April 28, seventeen students (selected by Barbara) ranging from grade eight to grade twelve congregated in a classroom at Chemainus Secondary School for a poetry workshop lead by Wendy and Barbara: There were eight not-Aboriginal students, nine Aboriginal students—three of them published “graduates” of a previous Elder Project. Barbara had organized them into pairs. Wendy gave them a list of questions to ask each other, and each student wrote a poem, not about themselves, but about their partner. The poems will be published in a chapbook to be given to the students and to school libraries.
What did the students think of the experience, at the end of the two hours?
“We talked together about what we are feeling” said one student. She and her partner talked about their upbringing and experiences, found common ground—as well as differences.
“I enjoyed the writing. It gave us a connection because we were writing about each other,” said a grade twelve student, in the circle discussion that followed the exercise.
One White student admired the deep pride his Aboriginal partner held, despite a sometimes difficult and impoverished childhood. That student, in turn, expressed his surprise in discovering his partner had gone through difficult, impoverished times during childhood as well. Another student commented on how interconnected everyone was.
So much happens in a conversation.
-Ann Graham Walker
Here’s another Who We Are project, One Wingspan At A Time, produced by the students of Nanaimo District Secondary School.