Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Forest and the poplar trees

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Parliament unveiled a tribute to residential school survivors this week. A beautiful stained glass window inside its central corridor, named Giniigaaniimenaaning, which means "looking ahead" in Ojibway. It depicts the journey of aboriginal people through harrowing times, and into a new era of hope.

It's a good gesture, which will be seen by MPs, prime ministers and visitors to Parliament for years to come. More such tributes, however, should dot the Canadian landscape in coming years.

Tributes are important. They remind us of our past; what we've done right and what we've done wrong. Tributes help us honour our heroes, our legends, and our history.

We can all move forward with markers to remember where we've been.

If I was a sculptor I would make a monument of iron to residential school kids. I wouldn't create a traditional monument, but a tribute with a more abstract design, like the infamous Louis Riel sculpture that sits at the Universite de Saint-Boniface.

Maybe my sculpture would be of larger than life children climbing up a junk pile of old residential school waste: a jumble of residential schools askew like toy houses, bed frames, books, airplanes that carried kids away, letter boards and cut-off braids.

Maybe some children would be near the bottom of that mound, struggling to reach the top. Other kids would be pulling their siblings behind them, and a few children would be at the crest of that great hill.

Then again, iron monuments are more of a western notion, so maybe something with a more aboriginal flavour would be fitting.

If I was a Haida master carver in B.C. I would erect 100 totem poles along the waters of the Coquihalla River, near Hope. I've been there once and I remember its peacefulness and beauty.

Each totem pole would represent 1,000 children. An estimated 100,000 kids went to school over the 100 years of the residential era.

The totem poles could be carved with faces, traditional clan animals, and the names of students and their home communities.

Totem poles are meant to be noticed, as they are markers for family wealth, deaths, good and bad deeds. They stand proudly for a time and then they gradually return to the earth over decades.

And finally, if I was a landscaper, I would plant 100,000 tree seedlings right smack in the middle of a flat prairie field in Manitoba.

I would plant each seedling by hand in a huge circle that would probably be as big as a football stadium. Each little tree would be a white poplar tree seedling.

Perhaps some seedlings would not survive our cold winters, but many would no doubt thrive as long as they had sunlight, rain to feed them, and enough room to grow.

After several years they would become a forest of breathtaking proportions that people could come and visit with their kids. They could even have a picnic, or just take a nature walk.

The forest would be a nice spot on a long road trip home. The sound of the poplar leaves rustling would be soothing, therapeutic, along with the swaying prairie grass.

After a while people would forget that forest wasn't always there in the middle of a field. All they would see is the beauty, and silent strength of the poplar trees.

Colleen Simard is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 1, 2012 J6

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