Elementary teacher Jacqueline (Jackie) Cleave, ConEd'86, says her recent visit to Quebec City to accept the Governor General’s History Award evoked mixed feelings - both fascination and unease “to be in a setting that was very foundational to the whole colonial process.”
Jackie, who teaches at Laura Secord School in Winnipeg, was recognized for leading a two-year project culminating with the 2019 publication of Answering the Calls: A Child’s View of the 94 Calls to Action. The book, written from the perspectives of 75 Grade 4, 5 and 6 students from her school, features each Call to Action alongside a more easily understood, plain-language version. It also outlines why each Call to Action was included in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
“One of the really compelling pieces of the book is spelling out the problems the TRC identified, because that isn’t part of the report. It became apparent to me early on that if the kids didn't understand the problems that were being addressed, the calls made no sense,” explains Jackie.
The Calls are diverse, touching on a wide range of topics that include education, health care, social services, missing grave records, museums, keeping families together, extracurricular sports, media, law and politics. To help engage students in the learning process, for each Call they completed a rewording plus a description of the problem addressed, along with poems and illustrations that were included in the published book.
So far, 10,300 copies of Answering the Calls: A Child’s View of the 94 Calls to Action have been printed. A UNESCO grant covered the costs of a graphic designer who helped assemble the book, along with 300 initial copies. Demand for more copies resulted in the school division printing 10,000 more copies. Many of these are now distributed in schools, libraries, churches and community centres across Canada.
Hearing the call, answering the call
Jackie worked closely with the Winnipeg School Division’s Chantelle Brown Cotton, who was the division social studies consultant and, along with Jackie, part of the UNESCO network steering committee. When the TRC report came out, Chantelle inquired with school parent Niigaan Sinclair, Commission chairman Justice Murray Sinclair’s son, about whether a child-friendly, accessible version of the TRC document was going to come out.
“Niigann checked with Murray, and there was no plan really for that to happen,” says Jackie. “And so Chantelle thought, well, we should work on that.”
Jackie quickly recruited her teaching partners Jilll Joanette and Stefanie Jones to come along on the journey. Nigaan agreed to support the teachers and students with the project, and the children presented him with tobacco to mark the covenant.
In order for the students to understand the colonization process and losses that occurred on account of the residential school systems, each of the classrooms started by exploring pre-contact Indigenous cultures.
“The goal was to counter the racist assumptions and world view that led to colonization. The children discovered that these were Peoples with vibrant cultures and political structures, who understood science, and medicine, and honoured their relationship with their world,” explains Jackie.
Their next stop was a visit to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and participating in a KAIROS Blanket Exercise, where they learned more about the effects of colonization including children being taken away from their families.
“The kids were justifiably and understandably outraged and angry. They felt guilt, and they felt sorrow, and they felt the injustice of the whole scenario. So we sat down to talk to them about how all these emotions make sense and they're justified…but what do we do with them? Because you can't just sit there in this negative space,” says Jackie. “You've got to take that energy that you're pouring into these negative emotions and find some way to make a difference.”
The students started out exploring the Calls all together before dividing them amongst the classes. The children then worked individually and in pairs to tackle the rewording of each Call, and completed poetry and illustration assignments in consultation with Indigenous elders, support teachers and specialists.
“There was lots of work to try and be respectful and true to the ideas of the TRC. There were some Indigenous kids in our classes, in fact more than we realized at the start, but the community was largely non-Indigenous,” said Jackie. “As the project progressed some students shared with us for the first time that they were Indigenous, which was very powerful. There was some growing awareness of the connectedness to the community as we went along.”
Impact in action
The process of working through the Calls took until the end of June. Jackie recalls on one hot day, she offered the children an early recess.
“One of my kids who would not be the child you would expect to ask to do more work put up his hand and he said, ‘But Jackie, don't we have two more Calls that we need to edit?’ I said yeah, but we've got a few more days. He urged, ‘Let's just do them. Let's get this done.’ To me that was a pretty huge indication that they were still engaged even at the end of the whole process.”
Jackie recalls another child in her class who struggled with reading and writing. When it came time to name the book, he suggested the title The Crunchy Calls. When she asked what he meant, the child explained, “you really have to chew on them to understand. At first they were really hard to chew on - they were crunchy. To me that was a pretty profound reflection on the process.”
“Working on the book kept reaffirming to me that this isn't stuff the kids can't deal with. This isn't stuff that doesn't belong in my classroom. I was amazed with the insights the kids came up with, and their lust for justice and their dissatisfaction with the inequities they discovered,” explains Jackie. “The kids give me the energy and the conviction and the hope to keep hacking away at reconciliation, both in my classroom and in my own life. This is the stuff that Canadian life needs to be made of right now.”
Copies of Answering the Calls: A Child’s View of the 94 Calls to Action can be obtained by emailing Jay Makwana at firstname.lastname@example.org. A donation of $45 per book, benefiting the Winnipeg School Division Children’s Heritage Fund, is requested.