Yesterday I visited a school in Winnipeg called Ecole Leila North Community School. It was their “treaty days” and they’d had a number of great speakers like my friend Kevin Lamoureux. I had the opportunity to speak to two groups of students, and in each group there were around thirty or so students. One of the things I love about what I do is it gives me the opportunity to speak to kids.
That’s why I started writing graphic novels—to engage with youth. Graphic novels are a great way to do that. I say that time and time again. Kids love them, especially boys, but girls too. They can teach kids about anything and get them excited to learn more; they graduate from graphic novels to textbooks. But the best way to engage with kids is to get face-to-face with them. I have a full time job at Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre, so I can’t get out to as many classrooms as I’d like to, but when I do get out to a school I love it.
Yesterday was no different. I told the kids about how I grew up detached from the Cree part of my heritage (I am not just Cree, but also Irish, Scottish, and English) and how it is important for all of us to understand where we come from, both from a family perspective but also from a broader perspective. From “your people,” whoever that may be. One of the things I’ve been engaging with youth about lately is to have them think about what it means to be ________. For me, what does it mean to be First Nations? What does that look like? I talk to the kids about how I felt lucky as a kid because I didn’t “look” First Nations. Or sound, either. But what does that mean? What does “First Nations” look and sound like? I ask the kids that, and I tell them to tell me without embarrassment. Because ignorance isn’t evil. When people don’t know, they just don’t know. If you haven’t been told otherwise, then how can you be blamed? So, they often discuss how they view First Nations people from a stereotypical view. And not always negatively, necessarily. You know, having braided hair isn’t negative. But the conversation becomes how and why we place those labels on people. And it comes down to: “that’s what I’ve learned.” So the process becomes, “how do we unlearn what we know?” We go through this interesting progression in our lives, where we start off not seeing colour, or, at least, not judging it. When I had a black friend in nursery school I didn’t play with her any different, I just loved running my hands across her hair and it was amazing. When my brother saw a black man for the first time at the airport he went home and coloured his face with paint because it was so fascinating for him as a young child. Those are innocent things. But then, as we grow up, we attach labels to those differences. Then it becomes: “that Asian boy must be good at math,” or something to that effect across cultural lines. And it’s not just culture, mind you. We can judge people based on orientation, based on what they’re involved in (when I was as bit younger some man got mad at me for calling him out because he was making racist jokes, and he said, “oh you’re probably an artist or something,” as though all artists were activists). I talk about context. So, I grew up in River Heights. I went to good schools. I had all non-First Nations friends. I learned nothing about First Nations history or culture. Consequently, I grew up not looking or sounding or being like a “First Nations” person. If I had grown up on the reserve where my father was born and raised, things would’ve been different for me, maybe. So, these aren’t innate traits associated to one group, but rather the context of our situation. So, what makes somebody First Nations? I think it’s something we define for ourselves, as long as we understand the whole of who we are and where we’ve been as a people. And that whole conversation is always so fascinating. Kids get it, too. Then I get them to look around the room and tell me how many cultural groups we have in the room. There’s always a lot. I ask them, “What would it look like if we all made the effort to understand each other?” Pretty good, right? Because that’s what it’s all about. Knowledge. The pursuit of it. And we cannot judge somebody for not knowing what we may know. If we do that, we aren’t any better. If I go online and look at comments somebody has made about First Nations people, and it’s clearly from a place of ignorance (racism is different, there is intent there), and I lay into them for their comments, judge them for their comments, I am no better than them. Instead, what I need to do is educate them. And hopefully they are receptive.
Finally, and this is aside from talking specifically about my work, I tell them this: they are teachers. I ask them at the start: who do we learn from? And they list the people they learn form. Always up there are their friends. If they learn from their friends then their friends are teachers, aren’t they? That means, if we have friends, we are teachers for them. We have to make the effort to ensure we are teaching them truth, in any circumstance. So let’s equip ourselves to do that. Let’s be teachers of truth. Imagine if we were all like that?
And that’s really, to me, the importance of school visits, to impart that knowledge to kids, and to send them away with motivation to learn and share that knowledge. Because that’s how change happens.