InsightOut: Stolen Canoes – A Story of Loss and Healing 

Alexander Gomez is a first-year Life Science student at the University of Toronto hoping to double major in Neuroscience and Criminology. Apart from that, he states he has no idea what to do with his life. He was born in Mexico but raised in Calgary, Alberta, which he claims causes people to yee-haw whenever they see him. In his spare time, he enjoys acting in plays here at U of T, and his biggest roles include playing an 80-year-old illegal Albanian immigrant and a little kid in Cuba. 

Good morning, evening, or two am for anyone reading this! My name is Alexander Gomez and I want to share the story of a course I took, so make yourself a cup of cedar tea and enjoy. 

Last semester, I was invited to join the “The Christianity, Truth, and Reconciliation Seminar”, one of the SMC One first-year seminars at the University of St. Michael’s College designed to introduce students to university-level studies in a small classroom setting.  Honestly, I didn’t have huge expectations for this course. I expected it to be an easy ‘bird’ course –I know many of you love ‘bird’ courses just like me–but it turned out to be one of the hardest I’ll ever have to do, and not for the reasons you might think. Not because the professor was a harsh marker or because it was a lot of work, but rather because of the emotional journey I had no idea I was about to take.  

In the first couple of classes, we were quickly thrown into weekly readings that gave us insight into the lives of the Indigenous Peoples of Canada before and during the settlers’ arrival from Britain and France. I had been exposed to this concept a lot during school, talking a lot about Indigenous cultures. I’ll be honest: at first, I was skeptical that I would take anything of value out of this course. The same old stuff I’d heard year after year. That started to change a few weeks in when we handed in our first reflection piece. Through the readings –- including first-hand journal experiences from many Indigenous people –- I started the journey of healing without even realizing it. Because of our small class size, we were able to have more meaningful discussions about the texts being read and our own biases towards this group of people and their culture, some of which were blinding me due to my having been exposed to them my entire life.  

Then reading week came, and we went to the Shingwauk Residential School in Sault Ste. Marie. If you haven’t heard of Residential Schools, I suggest you take a break, do some research, and then come back with your cup of tea to this blog. A quick summary: federally, the Residential School System really started in the late 1800s, and the last one closed officially in 1996 (I know! Not even that long ago). These were schools created by the government and led by various religious communities.  These schools were meant to assimilate the remaining Indigenous population into Canadian culture, taking kids away from their parents and stripping their cultures away, placing them in these schools, scattered all across Canada. 

With that in mind, as we arrived at the school a strong silence overtook the van as the building loomed over us. The knowledge of the things that went on inside this school made it almost too difficult to walk in through the same doors so many kids walked in through and never came back out of years ago. But then inside…everything was different. The sounds of laughter and talking were heard down the halls. This dark school had been transformed into a university, a place where the true vision of what this system was supposed to be was taking place: a place where the Indigenous and the settlers could learn from each other in harmony. A place of suffering was taken back by the community and turned into something beautiful.  

During this week, we got a tour of the facility and the historic sites of the school. We met a lot of the workers there (many of them Indigenous), and learned a lot about Indigenous culture. They even gave us some cedar tea! On the first day we learned about smudging, which is the burning of sacred herbs. The one conducting the ceremony walks up to participants and they take the smoke and ‘wash’ it over themselves. They’ll wash it over their eyes or their heart to symbolize what they want to improve. We visited a garden where they were growing their four sacred plants: sage, sweetgrass, red cedar, and tobacco. We talked about the plants they’d use for healing and their connection to Mother Earth. My peers and I were brought into their culture in a way I’d never experienced before. Each night before dinner we joined together as a class, along with someone very special to us who used her knowledge of healing through the arts and her own Indigenous past to debrief about what we learned and process it all. We met two Residential School survivors during our time there — people who went through that system and made it out, fighting every day for Indigenous Rights and equality. And that only made the trip so much harder – seeing how much was really taken away from them. That feeling of community, their culture, and their families, stripped away so quickly. 

In a short film created by Indigenous artist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson called How to Steal a Canoe, the Indigenous culture is symbolized by canoes, taken from their natural area of water and left to dry and get old on a hanger. An elder goes to save the canoes and one of the canoes whispers, “Take the young one and run.” It’s been a constant fight for Indigenous identities since Canada was formed – a fight they’re not willing to give up. It’s also been a journey of healing as a community, one that caused me to recognize the healing that also needed to take place in my own life, moving on from a past I hadn’t let myself acknowledge.  

This trip changed my worldview, both externally and internally. The bonds I formed with my peers are something I’ll never forget. The beautiful culture I got to witness first-hand is something I’ll never forget. The strength of the Indigenous communities of Turtle Island in moving on and fighting for their cultures every day, working towards healing, is something I’ll never forget, and a lesson I’ll apply to my own life.  

When opportunities arrive for experiences you don’t see a lot of value in, take that jump anyway, because you never know what is waiting for you on the other side. When you see an opportunity to hear someone’s story, listen. Because you never know the value of someone’s past until you really hear it. 

To learn more about the Christianity, Truth and Reconciliation Seminar, please visit the program’s web page. 

Read other InsightOut posts.