Alex Knott didn't speak once in his first two years of high school. Not in the classroom or in the hallways.
Back when he enrolled in Teulon Collegiate Institute, he felt he came with labels -- a speech impediment that was barely noticeable and a cultural background that was impossible to miss.
Today, Alex defies those labels and, through his journey, not only has he found his voice but feels both compelled to share and determined to make a difference.
As is often the case, Alex's transformation began with a teacher -- one of those mythical, go the extra mile people who change students' lives not by catering to them, but by pushing them. That's Siobhan Faulkner, an aboriginal education adviser at the Interlake School Division.
"Sometimes it's the small things that make the biggest difference," Faulkner said, "like putting up a poster with a familiar face on it or referencing current issues in the First Nations community that affect people's day-to-day lives."
Faulkner is one of a growing group, now numbering 300 Manitoba teachers in 222 schools, who have voluntarily learned about and integrated the Treaty Education Initiative (TEI) into their classrooms. To Faulkner, it's an important dialogue that has been missing.
"The TEI allows the role of aboriginal people in our history to be addressed in a gentle, structured and respectful way," she said. "It allows really difficult discussions to take place that help students see different perspectives and change their views because of it."
Alex was the first student Faulkner met at TCI. "Through this journey, he found the voice for his passion and the belief that he has important things to share."
Water is the issue that really struck home for Alex as he is originally from a community where very few homes have running water. But what could he do, he asked? He is only one young man.
Encouraged by Faulkner, Alex and his friend Kris -- aboriginal and non-aboriginal -- planned an in-service for students to teach them about treaties, residential schools, and water rights. And there in front of his peers, the student who had never uttered a word, found the confidence to not only don his traditional grass dance regalia but to dance in front of his classmates.
"This program helps give kids a voice they didn't have before, which is the emotional piece that always moves me," said Faulkner.
In true teacher form, Faulkner kept pushing and the group of two quickly grew to eight students. Empowered and engaged, they were soon presenting to elementary students all across their school division, which was followed by an invitation to travel to Thompson to mentor and work with Grade 8 students to share their wisdom and insight into education and high school life.
To honour the Teulon Aboriginal Student Group for their work as role models in raising awareness of aboriginal issues, particularly that of water on First Nations communities, Faulkner nominated her students for the Manitoba Teachers' Society Young Humanitarian Award. Together, Alex Knott, Sunny Packe Peters, Darell Ryle, Alayna Knott and Kris Ponee won and were honoured this past May.
"These are the most amazing students I have ever come across," said Faulkner, "as they are true examples of the ripple effect that can happen when a young person dares to dream and to share that dream. They've inspired many people and are not only changing how young aboriginals are viewed in society but, more importantly, how young aboriginals view themselves."
The Treaty Education Initiative is a small program developed by a broad coalition in Manitoba's education and aboriginal communities but it is beginning to pack a big punch.
For so many who felt valueless, they now know they are valued. For those who were followers, they now know they can be leaders and for students, like Alex, who once barely spoke or wrote a word, there is now no silencing them.
If knowledge is power then Manitoba students are gaining the knowledge to have the power to change the relationship between us all.
James Wilson is commissioner of the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba, a neutral body mandated to encourage discussion, facilitate public understanding, and enhance mutual respect between all peoples in Manitoba.