The Indian Act bored the Grade 11s at St. Mary's Academy -- at first.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 8/7/2011 (3761 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The St. Mary's students present treaty commissioner James Wilson with a framed souvenir photo and their autographs.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The St. Mary's students present treaty commissioner James Wilson with a framed souvenir photo and their autographs.

The Indian Act bored the Grade 11s at St. Mary's Academy -- at first.

Social studies classes at the private school are theme-driven and the 2011 theme was power, so teachers settled on a people with a history of exploitation. They chose the Indian Act as the club that battered them down.

"At the beginning, we did not want to do this," Melina Venuto, 16, recalled.

"The Indian Act? I always thought it meant an unimaginable amount of laws I could never comprehend. Never-ending," classmate Janelle Stokotelny admitted.

The Indian Act governs the lives of status Indians, some 1.1 million, from the cradle to the grave on Canadian First Nations.

It's also a law that carved out a minority of Canadians from the rest of the country and left them to rot back in the 19th century, some experts claim.

Others go further and call the set of laws a form of legislative assimilation: the federal take on the treaty rights they're willing to honour at the expense of the ones they ignore.

Picking it apart turned out to be an eye-opener for the students.

Seven students out of the original 108 sat down on the last day of school with a reporter, a photographer, two teachers, the treaty commissioner and his co-ordinator.

Filling in the assignment kept the girls glued to their seats, surprising the school's head mistress, who'd allowed an hour for the session and saw it stretch to two.

The class presented Treaty Commissioner James Wilson with a framed picture of St. Mary's Academy they'd autographed under the commission slogan, "We are all treaty people."

For their part, the girls told the adults they're amazed at how the Indian Act altered history. And they feel cheated because they'd never known about it.

They also expressed frustration at how the Indian Act fed into prejudices they admitted holding.

"Now, I'm kind of insane about how the Indian Act changed our history. It was intense, the effect of it," Venuto said. "This is really important for us in Manitoba, to know what happened. It's part of our history, the dark side of our history."

At first, they didn't know any of this.

Erin Teschuk, who'd doubted there was enough in the Indian Act to turn into a project, learned she needn't have worried.

She and classmate Claire Aiello paired up; there was too much material for one person.

"We did deception within the Indian Act and the treaties," Teschuk said.

By deception they mean they stripped legalese to uncover false promises, dug up the roots of the 30 per cent funding shortfall on First Nations schools and found cultural and language barriers became an effective strategy to confuse First Nations and the rest of Canada about why the treaties were ever signed.

"It was a broad topic and we didn't want to narrow it down because our point was, how things happened are still having an effect today." Aiello said.

Elizabeth Rivera tackled the Indian Act as it played out in Indian residential schools.

She took the topic to heart, profiling life at school as if she were in a residential school in the 20th century. She learned there are debts to pay.

"I'm a Canadian citizen and if not for Canada, my family would be in the Philippines and living in poverty," Rivera said.

She feels as if she owes a debt to aboriginal people as unrecognized founders of the country.

Her eyes brimmed up and her voice quavered when she expressed the impact at home.

" I have a Métis foster brother and because of this research I feel I understand him better now, what he went through. I feel deep emotion when I'm with him now."

Stokotelny, the kid who thought the Indian Act was incomprehensible said she tackled its economic effect.

"I focused a lot on the baby boomers and the strain they're putting on the Canadian economy. And I found out every fact I'd hear about aboriginal people was wrong.

"It sounds awful to say but I'd assumed all the aboriginal people living on reserves were on welfare. That's not true. And for the ones who are, I doubt they want to be there," the 16-year-old said.

Lauren Hogarth focused on reserves, a township created as "Indian land" in the Indian Act.

"I wondered why in hell they were ever started. I found out that reserves were used by European governments to control aboriginal people. They were threatened by how different their culture was and they thought they had to assimilate aboriginal people... . It's relevant to the prejudice that's happening today."

Katrina Znavc ---- the first to speak up -- said she paired up with Venuto to probe the impact of the Indian Act on traditional spiritual practices. Like the others, they brought in aboriginal teachers, elders and people such as Wilson as speakers.

They learned the Indian Act was a legislative instrument that tried to replace languages and worship in traditional sweat lodges and sun dances with English, school, and Christianity.

"We focused on how the banning of traditional practices had a negative impact, the banning of traditional dress, being stuck on reserves and arrested for leaving," Venuto said.

Through part of the 19th and 20th centuries, reserves doubled almost as outdoor stockades. To leave, even for a few hours, took special permission from the de facto reserve headman, a bureaucrat appointed as an Indian agent.

Znavc said she looked at sun dance, the most sacred ceremony of the liturgical calendar. Participants forgo food and water for four days as part of a 24/7 act of prayer.

"You sacrifice yourself. I can really relate to that in my own life. It makes me think of the value of family, and being one with nature and... climate change. We need consumerism and modern society but we also need to come back to some of the past values. It seems to me we don't have that balance," Znavc said.

Treaty education is part of the treaty commission's mandate in Manitoba and it worked with the province to launch a pilot program on treaties this year in grades 5 and 6.

Even so, Wilson was unprepared for what the kids laid out, he said. Most First Nations people don't study the Indian Act at such depth, he said. The kids even learned that treaties and the Indian Act, often confused as the same thing, are entirely different legal entities.

"These students went at this in depth. It's breaking down stereotypes. You guys took the research to a whole new level... . The teachers, what they've done here... and St. Mary's Academy, it really impresses me," Wilson said.

The mood lightened when talk turned to labels: What do you call aboriginal people these days? Status Indians, aboriginals, natives?

"It kind of changes every year," Venuto said. "I never knew what it was."

Legally, aboriginal people is a designation for status Indians from First Nations, Métis and Inuit.

"Indigenous" is a current term that draws grins. Quipped Stokotelny; "Maybe that's because it has so many syllables. It sounds smart."

 

alexandra.paul@freepress.mb.ca