Lisa Upton – Principal, Norgate Community School, Xwemelch’stnSep 19, 2014
Norgate Community School is also called Xwemelch’stn, meaning Capilano River in the Squamish language. The school is located on the traditional, unceded territory of the Squamish Nation. The staff are grateful and recognize the fundamental relationship that they share with the Squamish Nation to help with reconciliation for all students.
Norgate Community School has reconciliation actions woven into its educational activities: Squamish elders perform ceremonies throughout the year, parents come to teach traditional songs and even a canoe has been carved in the school to teach the children how their multicultural group needs to paddle together to go forward. The school is located near the Squamish Nation’s reserve in North Vancouver and about sixty percent of the children are Indigenous.
Principal Upton was inspired to create an island of strength in the school after she read a children’s book entitled The Lost Island. This book tells the story of a powerful elder who has a vision of a desolate future in a big city where his people’s culture, strength and medicine will be lost. The elder prayed and placed his strength and wisdom onto an island near Vancouver for future generations to find it. This story propelled Upton and her colleagues to imagine a symbolic island of strength in their school. As homework, children were asked to look for a stone with their parents. The children then painted on the stone a word which represents their family’s strength which they could share with others. Pride, warrior, love, music, creativity and peacefulness were some of the words children wrote on their stone. This activity gave parents an opportunity to talk with their child about who they are, and where they come from. Upton believes that when you are connected to your own family heritage, you are also able to appreciate the culture and the heritage of others.
A special ceremony was held in the school where children presented their family’s strength to Squamish elders, teachers, school district dignitaries, Reconciliation Canada’s ambassador Chief Joseph, their families and schoolmates. The stones were then placed together in the courtyard to form the school’s island of strength. When students make a mistake and need take time to think about it, they go for a walk to the island of strength. Upton says “you can go look for your strength on the island or you understand that you need to borrow someone else’s strength such as honesty. By admitting and taking responsibility for mistakes, and borrowing from the strength of others, you grow. That’s how we work on reconciliation”. For Upton, reconciliation means “hopefulness for our children to understand that part of being human is learning from your mistakes and that strong people ask for help”.
Upton believes reconciliation in Canada is a shared story: it is about all of us. We have to know and understand our past to move forward. The challenge that Norgate Community School faces is that there is still a lot of racism and prejudice towards Indigenous people. For Upton, anytime there is racism, discrimination or hatred that is a time for all of us to stand up and make a difference. As a Canadian of Ukrainian descent, Upton’s family has also suffered from the wars in Europe and the internment camps in Canada. When elders and community members thank her for the reconciliation work she does in the school she says: “I do this for my grandparents as much as I do it for your grandparents because all of our kids are going to learn from this.”
Upton believes that schools are essential in developing a sense of shared humanity and reconciliation is a deep, meaningful work that every school can do in its own way. Upton says “it’s not about tolerance of other people; we need to care about each other.”
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