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Building bonds, one note at a time

Courtesy Penny Berg-Patton

Ia’kwanienkehaka Kahnawakehró:non.

Tete’weneren ionkhi’nistenha ohontsa tanon sken:nen ieion’kwatre’hatie.

(We are the Mohawks of Kahnawake.

We are connected to Mother Earth and we want to move forward in peace.)

Those are grade six student Lila Rice’s favourite lines from A Bridge to Last Forever, a song written in collaboration between students from Kateri School and St. Edmund Elementary School in the West Island. 

“It felt amazing and exciting at the same time because Kateri School had never really done anything like this before,” said Rice. 

The cohort of 70-plus grade five and six students wrote the song on April 4 at Kateri School with singer-songwriter Rob Lutes, who led the session. Earlier this week, they met up at St. Edmund to record the song.

This project came to be in the framework of McGill University’s “Walking Alongside” initiative led by Mindy Carter that helps teachers and teachers-to-be learn about Indigenous history and reconciliation – and more importantly, how to broach it in their classrooms.

“As a music teacher, I have a passion for that,” said Jenifer Hayden, music teacher at St. Edmund, adding that teaching the youngest of students all the way to the oldest puts her in a position where she can talk to the entire school about it. 

She knew that this year, she wanted the project to include Indigenous students too and reached out to Penny Berg-Patton from Kateri School to propose the collaboration.

Upon getting acquainted at Kateri, the students from both schools eventually broke out into two groups to write their respective verses of the song and came back together to write the chorus.

“It was fun. I think everyone had a blast. They made new friends, and we’re making something special now,” said Austin Zachary, another grade six student from Kateri. 

“Anytime you bring art into difficult subjects… you make it accessible for everyone,” said Berg-Patton, who teaches music at Kateri. “It’s a really shameful part of Canada’s history when we talk about the truths in truth and reconciliation, and it’s hard for people to digest.”

The project made room for difficult conversations – it brought up the story of a student’s mother who remembered having rocks thrown at her and her own mother while crossing the bridge when it was still blocked during the Siege of Kanehsatake. 

The rocks broke the window, and they were covered in glass; her mother (the student’s grandmother) had leaned over to protect her.

That story became the first verse of the song.

Little by little, more students shared stories of their own past, of that of their families. 

Hayden also noticed discussions among the students develop through the icebreaking and artistic activities, and ultimately through the songwriting. “It gives you a jumping off point for dialogue, because you’re creating something together rather than just talking about it,” she said.

Although a few moments of discomfort arose from conversations – which Hayden also addressed with her students’ parents – the students were able to bridge the gaps in their understanding of each other’s perspectives, and feel they walked away having learned from one another. “It was fun to put together with different people that we didn’t know,” said Dyllan Delisle, another grade six student at Kateri, who enjoyed interacting with new students. 

“It’s so much more hands-on than learning from a textbook. It’s so much more meaningful,” said Hayden. “We didn’t sugarcoat it either. If you listen to the words of the song, they’re very raw and very real, but they came from the kids, so we can see that the kids are ready to have the difficult conversations because they’ve learned the history.

“I just think music is such a powerful tool also. It brings people together in so many different contexts, and this is no exception,” said Hayden. 

“We have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, because it’s the only way that we’re going to move forward, to have those tough talks,” said Hayden, adding she feels youth are often underestimated in terms of what topics they can handle.

Hayden hopes this initiative will encourage other teachers to broach difficult subjects.

“Our students change every year. We’re going to have new students coming in. And to keep this momentum going forward and making a difference with young minds, because they’re our future leaders,” said Berg-Patton. 

“It’s just a little start, what we’ve done here, but the fact that people are sitting up and listening to our song, maybe it’ll be a little more far reaching than we had ever dreamed.”

This article was originally published in print on Friday, June 16, in issue 32.24 of The Eastern Door.

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Nanor is a reporter and copy editor with The Eastern Door. She was previously the managing editor and creative director at The Link.

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Nanor is a reporter and copy editor with The Eastern Door. She was previously the managing editor and creative director at The Link.