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Behind the Scenes of the NAC20’s T-shirt Project
Ella Zubec /  Tue, 21 Jun 2022

“I think a lot of what we want to achieve is awareness. Awareness of the fact that a lot of Indigenous artwork is stolen, and a lot of the orange shirts we wear are sort of a form of tokenism, if they don’t genuinely give back. Awareness to issues in our country surrounding Indigenous people. As well as just awareness of what true reconciliation is.” – Elsa (student in NAC20).

For the past two months, the NAC20 class has been working hard on a project to design orange shirts for Indigenous Heritage Month that will directly give back to Indigenous communities. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to talk to the teacher of NAC20, Ms. Samuels, and one of her students, Elsa. The students in the First Nations, Metis and Inuit Peoples in Canada course learn about Indigenous communities on Turtle Island and the history that is often not told.

They worked with three people: Patrick Tenascon, who is an Algonquin Anishinaabe graphic design artist from Kitigan Zibi, which is the closest reserve to Ottawa, Pam Meness, who is the owner of the Kitigan Zibi based printing company Diamond Phoenix Creations, and Tony Quedent, an Ojibway Residential “School” survivor, who is committed to telling his story, and spreading the truth. He went to the Residential "School" of Pelican Falls and is from the Lac Seul community.

“Tony is amazing. Tony is just a beautiful soul. And he is willing to share so much,” said Ms. Samuels.

On Orange Shirt Day this year, Ms. Samuels was asked to be the Indigenous education liaison. Her responsibilities were to pass on information from the Indigenous education team to all the teachers at Nepean, and to ensure everyone received the proper resources in the classroom regarding Indigenous education.

“I was emailed a lot of ‘Where do you get an orange shirt? Where do you get an orange shirt?’ I didn’t really have a good answer, and it dawned on me that we really should have one that is authentic, and that is Indigenous created, led, made. It took time, but we built a relationship with Pam at Kitigan Zibi,” explains Ms. Samuels.

Elsa and I talked about the planning and execution of the project.

“With Pam, the owner of the company, as well as Pat, and Tony, we worked together to design a shirt that we thought was meaningful. We listened to Tony’s story, and from that we drew inspiration off of things that he spoke about, things that he felt were important, and Pat drew up wonderful artwork for the shirts and they’re all being printed there.”

When I asked Elsa for an explication of the meaning behind the art on the clothing, she sent me the following:

“The overall theme is based on the suggestion by the students that the design incorporates the image of unmarked graves as it appears on a ground penetrating radar screen. The symbolic graves in the design have been rendered in the shape of a child’s hand print, which has become a universal symbol of the residential schools issue in Canada. Also, the number of illustrated graves, 15, stands as a subtle commemoration by the artist of the initial 215 unmarked graves discovered on the Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation in 2021. Finally, the thicker black radar line along the top represents the ground that the unmarked graves lie beneath.

Like the front design, the back image is based on suggestions and thumbnail sketches from the students. An image grows up from the surface of Mother Earth. This image is an amalgamation of two other images: a feather, which symbolizes the identity and strength of First Nations people, and a cedar tree, which is one of the four medicines used in their ceremonies including those of a healing kind. A continuous sweetgrass braid, also one of the four medicines used in healing ceremonies, encircles the design and symbolizes a healing that continues still. The theme that every child all over the world matters is symbolized by the swirling direction lines that extend from thedesign and point to north, south, east and west.”

After they completed the design, NAC20 was responsible for advertising. You may have seen their posters taped up around the school, their posts on Instagram, or heard their announcements. The goal was to have the shirts done by Indigenous People’s Day, June 21st.

Students had the chance to order either the hoodie or t-shirt through school cash online up until May 23rd.

Though originally this class wasn’t Elsa’s first choice, she has grown to appreciate its importance. She thinks everyone should have the opportunity to take it. The First Nations, Metis and Inuit in Canada course covers Indigenous history from time immemorial to present day. As a non-Indigenous person, Ms. Samuels ensures that students learn from Indigenous voices. The students of the NAC20 are lucky to have the chance to hear from many speakers throughout their semester, who share their history and their culture.

When I asked Elsa to tell me about one thing from this course that will stick with her forever, she spoke of an Inuk guest speaker, Genova Angurimarik. Genova brought to her attention many social justice issues affecting Inuit. Some of these injustices are: food accessibility (how it’s so expensive), how Inuits are being forced to migrate to cities because of the lack of financial assistance up north, and how a lot of their traditional hunting practices have been lost or forgotten, due to residential institutions. Ms. Samuels met her through an Indigenous Education Instructional Coach, Kyl Morrison, from the OCDSB Indigenous Education Team, who has been a huge support to their class this semester.

Another guest speaker NAC20 had the opportunity to hear from is Kahente Horn-Miller, an Indigenous professor at Carleton University, who spoke with them on June 9th.

“As a white woman of settler descent, it’s really my responsibility to learn about the stories and histories of the people who’s land I'm living on,” says Elsa..

Since the start of our second semester, in February, Elsa has learned a lot from the NAC20 course. Students have the opportunity to learn about treaties and policies, and how they have affected the settler-Indigenous relationship throughout Canadian history. As well, they learn about current events and issues affecting Indigenous communities today.

This class is mostly discussion based. Students study and analyze texts; they self-reflect and journal about the material. While the primary objective of their t-shirt project was to always give back, students also learned a lot through Tony Quedent’s presentation.

At the end of our interview, I asked Elsa for anything she’d like to add that she hadn’t already mentioned. She spoke highly of her teacher.

“None of this would be possible without her; she is so ambitious and she’s really thoughtful with everything that she does, and she’s put a lot of work into this, so a huge thank you to [Ms. Samuels],” said Elsa.

Ms. Samuels mostly teaches French immersion science to grades 9 and 10, but she teaches English and NAC20 as well. Because she never got the opportunity to learn about the Indigenous people of Canada when she went to high school, she makes it a priority to include it in her teaching throughout all of her subjects. She wants her students to have a clearer view of what the true history of our country is.