Canadians were deeply saddened and shocked by the discovery of 215 children’s remains at the Indian Residential School in Kamloops, BC. Students across the province looked for ways to acknowledge, respect and honour the children. On Wednesday, June 23, Riverside teacher, Mr. Mike Gosselin, and his grade 10 Social Studies class found a way to do so with an installation of donated shoes organized in the shape and colours of the traditional Medicine Wheel.
Gosselin was inspired to do something in part due to his own Metis Heritage; his grandma, or Kokom, went to Lebret Indian School in Saskatchewan. When the news of the discovery broke, the theme of “We Hope Their Spirits are Dancing” began to germinate in Gosselin’s mind. He wanted to find a way as a teacher to help his students learn the importance of moving forward as Indigenous and non-Indigenous partners. His class also wanted to do something to honour the memory of the children. So, Gosselin began with an Inquiry project, asking his students what questions they had about this tragedy. According to Gosselin, some of the questions students had were: “What can I do to be an effective ally to Indigenous people? How can I spread awareness about the Indigenous experience in Canada? What can I do to recognize the 215 children found in Kamloops?”
Gosselin and his students saw the news of the Vancouver Art Gallery’s installation of the shoes and were inspired by it. Gosselin also wanted to ensure that whatever came out of the Inquiry project would be thoughtful and respectful, but also have a celebratory tone. He saw a social media post image with the message, “… and a small voice whispers, ‘they found us.’” The message that the children will no longer be unknown, the shoes and Gosselin’s knowledge of the traditional Medicine Wheel became the core components of the installation.
With June being National Indigenous Month, Gosselin wanted to move beyond just teaching the history of residential schools to celebrating connection, resiliency, and that “Indigenous identity is part of the fabric of Canada.” His students connected to the symbolic concepts that the four quadrants of the medicine wheel represent. “I’m a firm believer in ‘if kids don’t believe it, they won’t learn it.’ The kids were excited; they understood,” said Gosselin. The four quadrants of the wheel represent the four directions, the four seasons, the four elements, the four stages of a lifeline: infant, youth, adult, and elder, the four colours of the people of the world, as well as the four values of Indigenous people: the physical, the mental, the spiritual, and the emotional well-being of an individual.
Once the idea and theme came together, the task of collecting 215 shoes in time for the installation was set in motion. Gosselin reached out the Riverside community of students, parents, and staff, as well as other schools in the district, such as Gleneagle Secondary, and all the shoes were collected. In preparation for the ceremony, coloured tissue paper, matching the colours of the Medicine Wheel were filled in the shoes organized into the four quadrants.
Grade 10 Riverside student, Ahmed Amara, found the project empowering. “The installment is going to help people learn about, respect and commemorate the children, which can lead all of us to reconciliation,” said Amara. “Doing this project made me feel as if I was making a change or educating people about things that have been overlooked.”
On the day of the installation, students reflected on the process in front of invited guests, walked clockwise around the circle and listened to a song by Northern Cree.
Now that the installation is complete, Gosselin and his students are preparing to give the shoes to various charities who will distribute them.
Listen to the Northern Cree song here: