Brittney Annand, a 26-year-old woman of Algonquin descent, concedes members of her family weren't particularly proud of their identity. It took her grandfather until he was 84 to admit he was indigenous. He died a year later.
"Both sides of my family are native and both sides hid who they were," she said.
Ms. Annand now has a chance to leave those attitudes of the past behind and share in the cultural resources that were cut off from her family.
During the next six weeks in Toronto, she will learn the age-old art of moccasin and mukluk making through classes at what has been dubbed the Storyboot School.
"This is a skill that my family lost," she said. "I'm here because I really want to rekindle that connection with part of my past."
On Sunday, 18 students started crafting pucker-toe or gathered-toe moccasins in a teaching space at the Bata Shoe Museum, meticulously taking measurements and cutting thick cowhide. Next steps will include sewing shoes with sinew and designing glass beadwork patterns for the vamp – the flat piece of leather above the toes – just like some of their ancestors did. Displayed in a corner of the room are different styles of knee-high mukluks adorned with vibrant flora patterns – a before and after glimpse of what can be done with the proper know-how.
The school's mission is to reconnect indigenous people to their traditional culture and, in the process, help to preserve it.
The Storyboot School is an outgrowth of Manitobah Mukluks, a 20-year-old indigenous-Canadian enterprise, based in Winnipeg, specializing in the authentic, fair trade of hand-crafted mukluks and moccasins. So far, it has offered mukluk-making classes in Winnipeg and Toronto. A $20,000 grant from the TreadRight Foundation will help the school's reach be more comprehensive this year.
Waneek Horn-Miller, director of the school and a 1999 Pan Am Games gold medalist, who grew up in Kahnawake, a Mohawk First Nation near Montreal, said the creation of moccasins makes the process of reconciliation personal.
"When you sit here and you learn this art form and you help preserve and claw back a little bit of what was lost, that is an act of reconciliation," she said. "It's a skill they'll have forever."
The overarching philosophy of the school is no different from the one that propelled Manitobah Mukluks into the national fashion spotlight: cultural revival of indigenous traditions for the benefit of indigenous artists, who make a 100 per cent profit for their work.
"Government should be involved in the community and be taking the reins on improving the conditions for indigenous people, but private enterprise has a huge capacity to do so, too," said Tara Barnes, director of brand development at Manitobah Mukluks. "Without survival, there's no culture and without culture there's no survival."
"When you say you're indigenous you have a community to answer back to," Ms. Horn-Miller added, her newborn baby fast sleep on her shoulder. "This isn't an option, this is who we are."
Courses aren't reserved for indigenous students: At one table sat Fatima Animer whose parents immigrated from Africa.
"After I got my first pair [of mukluks] last winter, I was really inspired by it," she said. "I would like to help out the community by making mukluks [given] the fact that aboriginal people are losing their culture."
The process itself can be laborious. The work on a pair of traditionally made mukluks – from hunting for deer or elk to beading – can take upwards of 100 hours, according to Ms. Horn-Miller. The cultural significance behind them, however, is profound and long-lasting.
"When a baby's born, you give a pair of mukluks. When couples get married, you give matching moccasins. When you die, you're supposed to be buried with new moccasins," she said. "It's a physical reminder of those teachings and stages in life."