When Johna Hupfield first returned to the Ontario high school from which she graduated in 1984, she was flooded with painful memories.
Back in those days, she recalls being called derogatory names in Parry Sound, a town of about 6,400, which sits on what was once Ojibwa land.
"Some people of Anishinaabe background stuck together. I had to choose who I would be with," the Trent University education faculty graduate says of her school years, in which she spent trying to fit in two worlds.
But entering Parry Sound High School (PSHS) once again in 2008 to be the Indigenous program teacher, Ms. Hupfield was overwhelmed with emotion. "I wanted to do and say the right things. I wanted to be a bridge to walk in both worlds," the mother of five children says.
Before her high-school job, Ms. Hupfield taught in the same elementary school she had attended as a child. On her first day at the school, a young girl, with big brown eyes and long dark hair, looked up at her and said, "Are you an Indian? And you're a teacher. Wow!"
And thus began Ms. Hupfield's journey to personally make a difference for Indigenous students and non-Indigenous learners, a desire eased by the We Schools and Me to We programs.
At PSHS, with roughly 800 students in Grades 7-12, Patti Jenkins has been teaching for 20 years. When she started, she remembers that relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students were strained. Schoolyard fights, bullying and ostracization of Indigenous students, about half the school's population, had become common.
"Back when the clashes were happening, the First Nations in the school were almost invisible. Their voices weren't being heard. They were almost like shadows," Ms. Jenkins recalls.
During a particularly bad spell, Indigenous students went to their elders, looking for guidance to stop the battles. Coincidentally, non-Indigenous students approached their teachers with the same wish. Soon after, Ms. Jenkins helped to organize an anti-racism event at PSHS.
"It was such an amazing day," she says. Elders came to the school and the path to reconciliation was opened. As each new idea blossomed, the way forward eased.
A first move was to create a big drum. "We built a peace drum around the teachings of finding peace, the connection to Earth, the heartbeat. The drumming was a shift from aggression to more peaceful ways," Ms. Jenkins says. One of the first public schools in Ontario to have a big drum, the 2.5-foot by 1.5-foot instrument became a bellwether of sorts. "It created the opportunity to learn more about the culture," she says.
Next came a powwow, now an annual event, then smudging ceremonies, healing circles and the making of medicine bundles. The most recent student-run powwow was held in May where all students took part, for the first time, outside.
"It's a big deal," says Gracie Crafts, a 2017 Grade 12 graduate at PSHS, powwow organizer and member of the Wasauksing First Nation. The tradition and protocol around powwows were displayed, and traditional food, such as corn soup, berry desserts, wild rice and game, were prepared by the school's culinary students. "Ninety-nine per cent of what we do is led by students," says Ms. Craft, who is the daughter of Ms. Hupfield, the teacher.
"Because it's student-driven, it's very authentic," adds Mackenzie Elwes, a Grade 12 PSHS student. "There's the sharing of culture. When different students enter school, the non-Indigenous students see Indigenous students standing up for their culture."
As Ms. Hupfield recalls, during her early days at PSHS, she was amazed that some staff had no knowledge of Indigenous culture.
Today, both she and Ms. Jenkins follow leads from the students and make use of the We Schools Indigenous material. At the start, Ms. Hupfield had to develop an Indigenous arts program, suitable for all students, using limited tools from the Ontario high-school curriculum.
Key concerns for her were having an appropriate, comfortable and respectful space. In her classroom, there is food for students, a sense of humour is mandatory and teaching happens in a circle. Also key is teaching the Ojibway language. Drumming is a big part of class, as is bringing in Indigenous speakers.
"When you walk into my classroom, you are to acknowledge the land. You see the school drum, the birdwoman, the sewing machine, 20 hand drums, the Ojibway language on posters. It's a magical space and often feels like an island," Ms. Hupfield says.
Under the title "Building Bridges," and with Me to We material, Indigenous culture, once wholly ignored, is flourishing at PSHS. Each morning the school honours the land and the local five First Nations. The school has its Character Development and Leadership Club for all students to work on reconciliation and revival of Indigenous language and culture.
Last year, Ms. Elwes and Ms. Crafts worked on a 22-page, illustrated children's book. "It's a piece to further the understanding for future generations," Ms. Elwes says.
As well, each school year begins with a camp for Grade 8 students who are introduced to the school's big drum, B'maadezejig Dewaygunwaa. The students also participate in "Wendanmeg," a sharing of Indigenous culture via hand drumming and use of the medicine wheel and talking sticks.
In May, the CDL Club and Me to We organized a water walk where they carried heavy jugs of water from Georgian Bay back to PSHS for the annual powwow, highlighting the struggles of some people to have enough potable water.
As We Day approaches, and Me to We provides the cohesion, Ms. Elwes knows the road to reconciliation still needs to be travelled, but the journey is easier than two decades ago.
"I haven't seen the same amount of tension between our two groups. Over all, the high school and public school have worked really hard to build understanding between the two dominant cultures in the area," she says.
Students who were once invisible and voiceless have made their presence known, Ms. Jenkins notes. "Over the next 10 years I'd like to see more Indigenous content put into the curriculum. We need to learn about treaties, residential schools."
Ms. Hupfield, meanwhile, hasn't regretted the return to her alma mater, where the atmosphere for Indigenous students has improved since she graduated, where her daughter has graduated, and where she expects her young son to walk by the mural-covered walls, chattering in Ojibway.
"People are still learning. … But people want to do the right thing, to be respectful. The youth know so much more. They're the knowledge keepers. I call them the change-makers."