Free the Children launches Aboriginal awareness campaign We Stand Together

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About 30 Montreal high school students listened attentively as Mohawk Elder Ka’nahsohon (Kevin) Deer said an opening prayer and sang a song of gratitude at the launch of the We Stand Together Aboriginal awareness campaign at the Ashukan Cultural Centre in Montreal’s Old Port May 25.

Deer prefaced his prayer and song with a quick lesson on Mohawk culture, explaining the importance of the three sisters – corn, bean and squash – and the relationship with the earth that is so intrinsic to his people. “The drum hits the skin and vibrates into the world giving thanks,” he said.

A collaboration between the charitable organization Free the Children and the Paul Martin Aboriginal Education Initiative, We Stand Together aims to get people talking about the unique challenges faced by Indigenous Canadians and also highlights First Nations’ contributions to Canada’s past, present and future in schools and online.

The students took part in sharing circles to discuss the spiritual, mental, emotional and physical elements of the medicine wheel – how to address them in relation with current issues faced by First Nations communities.

Later, the students presented their ideas and solutions to the crowd. One group went so far as to prepare a skit in which they meet with the Aboriginal Affairs Minister and Finance Minister to request improved funding for Aboriginal education.

“As a former finance minister myself, I was delighted to hear your skit,” said Paul Martin, who also served as prime minister from 2003 to 2006. “You have a chance to make history.”

We Stand Together- Mohawk Elder Kevin Deer

Mohawk Elder Ka’nahsohon Deer

Many speakers echoed Martin’s optimism. “You’re not only the leaders of tomorrow, you’re the leaders of today,” AFNQL Grand Chief Ghislain Picard told the youth. “It’s been five centuries we’ve been coexisting on this continent, we know a lot about you but you know so little about us. It’s time to reverse that.”

Alexandre Bacon, a First Nations political consultant from the Innu Nation of Mashteuiatsh, encouraged students to learn more about Aboriginal history in order to pass that knowledge on to the world.

“Civilizations survive best when they are in contact with other cultures,” Bacon said. “Before colonization us Natives were allies… assimilation forced us to fight to protect our identity. It’s time to acknowledge cultural diversity. First Nations have something to bring to the world today: their connection to the land and their gratitude for all it gives to us.”

Craig Kielburger and Paul Martin - We Stand Together

Free the Children founder Craig Kielburger and former Prime Minister Paul Martin

We Stand Together is part of the We Schools initiative that focuses on education. Participating schools are provided with lesson plans that cater to different grade levels and subject matter specifically designed by We Schools to teach Indigenous culture, history and experience.

From June 7-20, an online awareness campaign will see students across the country take to social media to share facts and statistics that show the reality of life in different Indigenous communities in Canada. The hope is to spark conversations on how to address various challenges those communities face.

Free the Children founder Craig Kielburger says the ultimate goal is to see the curriculum and online initiative culminate in action. Schools will be campaigning, fundraising and participating in cultural exchanges. They will also be challenged to find their own ways to pressure the Canadian government to ensure that First Nations have the equal access to education, health care and social services.

“We’re looking at some huge, critical issues and we need your help,” said Kielburger. “I loved hearing about your actions… I love that you did a skit about meeting a government official to lobby them, in front of a former Prime Minister. That takes a lot of guts.”

For his part, Paul Martin acknowledged the history of how Canada has treated First Nations people is not something to be proud of.

“We’re going to change that,” he promised. “If you go out and tell the students in your class to talk to the rest of your school and if you tell your school to go talk to other schools then this thing is going to take off. And the terrible history of Canada is going to be turned into something far more beautiful.”


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