CALEDONIA – A very important Art Show opened at the Edinburgh Square in downtown Caledonia last week. You will not find any Monets, or Picassos, or Renoirs, but you will see creative and expressive works done by Six Nations, New Credit, Caledonia, Brantford and surrounding area elementary school students.
The show is part of the annual Pen Pal’s program, which was started eight years ago by Six Nations’ Emily C. General Elementary School teacher Suzie Miller.
“Usually we have some way to document the friendship the children have created and usually in some sort of art form, and we have since the first year when the kids got together and created a mural,” says Miller. “This year we started with images of peace between our communities, that bring us together and teach us about peace, love and friendship.”
The same year that townsfolk from Caledonia and residents of Six Nations were facing off on Argyle Street over a land claim, Miller had a bold idea to help lower the levels of tension, racism and misunderstanding between the two communities, at least for the children.
“The fire was still burning at the reclamation site when I reached out to a class from Six Nations and Caledonia, wanting to bring the children together so that they wouldn’t have negative images and thoughts of each other,” says Miller, a Six Nations woman who lives in Caledonia but teaches on reserve.
Miller’s idea was to try to protect the children of both communities from being tainted by the political turmoil and racially fueled clashes then going on near the former Douglas Creek Estates lands on Argyle Street, in Caledonia. She reached out to a teacher at Centennial School in Caledonia who bought into the idea and the children from these two classes began writing Pen-Pal letters to each other.
From there it began to evolve and this year, the Pen-Pal program has grown to include 70 classes with elementary school students participating from Six Nations, New Credit, Caledonia, Dunnville, Brantford, Hamilton and Burlington.
“Last year there were 100 classes,” said Miller. “Every year varies a bit, but the overall numbers are always growing.”
Pen-Pals began with the younger grades, but now includes Grades 7 and 8 students as well. A spin-off Pen-Pals program began this year in Alberta between on-reserve Native students and students from a nearby town.
Eight years after it began, some of the first year kids are now in high school and many have developed lasting relationships through the program.
“One boy that I taught for a couple of years . . . started high school in Grade 9. The first day he was there he met his old Pen-Pal, and now they are high school buddies,” smiles Miller.
“Going off to high school is so scary,” she says. “On that first day I saw him waiting for the bus so I pulled over and said, ‘have a good day’. That was the same day he met his Pen-Pal, so that was kinda neat to see the effects of having them bridged when they were young.”
The program has now become too big for the usual annual gathering of Pen-Pals, which is the culmination of the program. Last year there were 2,000 kids participating.
“It’s become too much to manage all at one place at the same time,” says Miller. “We are considering breaking the gathering up into smaller age divisions so we can make the activities more age-appropriate for everyone, and to help with the logistics of feeding and looking after the children.”
The 2014 Pen-Pals Art Show is running until May 16th, between 9 and 4. For more info and look at some of the art, go to the website at penpalproject.ca