Connecting Youth Through Art, Language and Culture

By Salima Punjani 

“My hope for the future is that everyone will care about other people regardless of who they are or where they’re from. I hope that they will strive for peace and happiness and respect the rights of those in need.” – Fatima Vakily

These wise words come from a 15-year-old student at Cornwall Collegiate and Vocational Training School in Cornwall, Ontario. She was one of 96 students who provided canvases for the Wish150 exhibition that recently took place at Galerie Mile End Ame Art in Montreal, Quebec. These canvases captured the students’ wishes for their communities in the next 150 years.

In addition to creating pieces for this exhibit, on October 4, 2017, 36 students, many of which are Mohawk students from Akwasasne, visited the Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Centre and the Wish150 exhibition in Montreal. This gave them an opportunity to see their work on display and feel a sense of belonging as part of the larger Wish150 project. They also had a chance to participate in a poetry workshop with Mi’kmaq multidisciplinary artist Tara McGown-Ross

While the students were visiting the gallery, Ms. McGowan-Ross facilitated a poetry workshop. She invited students to read each other’s wishes and facilitated teambuilding and grounding exercises. She also shared some of her poetry, including Google Search History as well as the poem, In Like a Lion by Janet Marie Rogers, a Mohawk and Tuscarora poet

Wentanoronr Roundpoint is a co-curator of the Wish 150 exhibit and also had a few of her pieces on display. She hopes that in the next 150 years, people will have the opportunity to live their lives with dignity, without discrimination and with access to basic services. Wentanoronr appreciated how her fellow classmates took an interest in Kahnawake language and culture. Seeing the dedication the Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Centre has to its youth and maintaining language and culture was meaningful for her.

Wentanoronr      Roundpoint

“I wish it was like that in my own community, to have that type of health for the youth, to see how they are really trying to move forward and come out of their oppression, out of our oppression,” Wentanoron told us. We had the opportunity to speak a little further with her about her experience participating in the exhibition and field trip with her classmates.

Why do you feel it was important for your class to see their work displayed? How do you feel it contributed to building a sense of belonging?

I wished for the class to see their work displayed because I wanted them to get the feel of what it is like for the world to hear them through their art. For the world to see and feel what they wished for them to see and feel. I also wanted them to experience the joy and pride in having their artwork up for strangers to see and for them to know that they will and can be heard. Personally, I feel that it created a new space for them to become comfortable and for them to gain the experience of having their pieces viewed through the eyes of a stranger. A sense of pride, importance and belonging would have been amplified for they were standing amongst others who had done the same, who had risen their voices through the strokes of their pens, pencils, paint brushes and other mediums of art.

Why do you think it is important for youth to have an opportunity to participate in an exhibition like this? Also, why do you feel it was relevant and meaningful for your class to visit the Kahnawake Cultural Centre?

Allowing the students the opportunity to participate in an exhibition as this one opens up the doors of perception for themselves, and they are able to gain the experience and feeling of others across the globe who do this as an occupation. For their artwork to be exhibited the way it was, they now know that their wishes are out there, that people know who they are, and that society has heard the voices of the youth. As the generation that will inherit many troubles that will need to be dealt with, this was an opportunity for them to show that they have a wish, that will be turned into a goal, and it will be accomplished. All those wishes will be recorded, remembered and eventually fulfilled. They are the marks that those students will leave on this world. I feel it was relevant for the students to visit the cultural centre because of the large population of Indigenous peoples that live right next door to them. For them to learn the history and to gain the knowledge that what is said in the textbooks is not the actual facts of what occurred and should be shown and explained the reality of what happened, no matter how ugly it was. It is history.

We also had the opportunity to speak to a few of the other students who participated in the field trip. Kashaf Khan said visiting the cultural centre and learning about Mohawk Iron Workers and the struggles and conflict they had to go through made her feel more connected to Kanien’kehá:ka people. “It made me feel like I could feel their struggle. We need to come together and be compassionate to solve it together,” she said. 

For Camaron Loran, the exhibit made her feel a sense of belonging. Having the opportunity to take part in the field trip aligned with her wish to have more positive minded people in the world. “Today made me feel an overall sense of positivity. It makes me feel like part of a bigger project.” 

If you would like to learn more about or visit the Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Centre you can learn more on the website. You can also follow Tara McGowan-Ross’s work on Facebook. Although the exhibition in Montreal is now concluded, you can still get involved in TakingITGlobal’s Wish 150 project and share your wish for Canada in the next 150 years.

Student artwork from Cornwall Collegiate and Vocational Training School