It was a spring break road trip with a higher purpose. This past February, 21 university students set out on an eight-day journey to First Nations communities across Ontario to help bridge Canada’s cultural divide.
The first Canadian Roots Exchange, conceived by two U of T students, attracted native and non-native participants from five Ontario universities. “Everyone was incredibly passionate about engaging with one another about the core issues of Canadian identity,” says David Berkal, a peace and conflict studies major who organized and led the trip with international relations student Ronan MacParland and Aboriginal studies professor Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux. Two filmmakers also accompanied the group. The resulting documentary Shielded Minds, by ABALAK Productions, premieres at Innis Town Hall on June 20th.
The travellers visited seven First Nations communities, with every stop designed to foster cross-cultural dialogue between the students and their hosts. “We approached it as a way to show the young people what’s right about our communities, and to give the native leaders a chance to talk about where Aboriginal Canada is and where it’s going,” says Wesley-Esquimaux, who organized meetings with chiefs, band councils, elders, business leaders, school principals and local youth.
Aboriginal leaders addressed serious issues, such as toxic waste in Serpent River First Nation – located between Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie – and the implications of a charity casino in Scugog Island First Nation near Port Perry. However, there were also plenty of lighter moments. “We had a lot of fun along the way,” says Berkal, “whether it was community feasts, drum ming circles, tobogganing or sitting around the bonfire.”
The week ended in Ottawa, where the students attended a think-tank on the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The students spoke about Canadian Roots’ mandate to promote a deeper understanding of Aboriginal Peoples’ history, as well as their current strengths, challenges and successes. “It was incredible to be there with Aboriginal leaders from all over the country who are working on truth and reconciliation,” says Berkal. “It validated that what we’re doing is really important.”
The program has already expanded: a trip in B.C. took place in May, and Berkal and MacParland have also planned trips in Nova Scotia, Alberta and Ontario this summer.
Click play below to watch a trailer for Shielded Minds, a documentary about the Canadian Roots Exchange by ABALAK Productions.