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Musical connects newcomer students to Indigenous ways of learning

In Denise Montgomery’s Grade 6 music class at Hess Street School, students are learning about pitch, volume and pacing. They’re also learning about the symbolic importance of Indigenous instruments, the role of women in Métis communities, how to pronounce words in Michif and the proper way to ask for an Elder’s help.

The Song-Bird and the Healing Waters is an innovative musical production facilitated by the Métis Women’s Circle. Dr. Carole Leclair, a Red River Métis and a Circle member, has helped the students learn a song. “The play is about the healing energy in the natural world and how to care for it,” Carole tells the 21 students who stand in a circle around her. “The song has sounds, not words. That way, everyone can sing about caring for the earth, whatever language they speak.”

Carole believes strongly in the power of the project to build a bridge between Indigenous cultural values and Hess Street students, who come from more than 30 countries. “Newcomer students are sometimes confused by expectations around integration,” she says. “They respond very positively when I talk about the comfort and affection Indigenous people have for our heritages—that we can take part in the Canadian mainstream and still cherish our values.”

Students perform a variety of roles in the production. Some are singers and drummers. Others will work with a Métis sound engineer to record nature sounds and incorporate them into the score. Then there are the actors, who will learn from renowned storyteller, Aaron Bell, how to embody their animal characters. Others will learn about the interconnection between music, nature and animals from acclaimed Ojibwe flute player and artist, Rene Meshake.

Denise, the music teacher, is Métis-Cree-Dene and also a member of the Women’s Circle. She adapted the traditional Indigenous tale into the musical. “I wanted people to see the beauty of our culture and the importance of taking care of Mother Earth,” she says. The students are paying attention. “Canada is a country of diversity and we need to acknowledge the traditions and culture of the people who were here first,” says the Grade 8 student who narrates the play. “It’s not like a regular play,” says a Grade 6 student. “This is actually important. If we keep polluting the world, there will be no world to live in.”

 

Excerpt from 2019 Annual Report