A year-long multi-phase partnership project between the Sechelt Arts Festival and School District 46 comes to fruition with syiyaya. Our Families. Our Stories. premiering at the Sechelt Arts Festival October 6. The project, funded through a Canada 150 grant, had students from Chatelech Secondary and West Sechelt Elementary interviewing seniors and elders in the community to capture their stories of life in Sechelt over the years. “We realized a lot of our elders are leaving us sooner than we’d like,” says Diana Robertson, co-producer of the Sechelt Arts Festival. “We thought we could capture their stories in a different way that engaged students.” Forty-five students from English, social studies and shashishalhem (shíshálh) language classes interviewed seniors from Shorncliffe Village, Totem Lodge and shíshálh Nation elders on a variety of topics. “It’s been a great community-building opportunity to reach a variety of elders and they have amazing stories to tell,” says Robertson. “Remembering their parents and grandparents back in the early 1900s to residential schools, how these things affected them, to what it was like living in Sechelt during the war and what it’s like today.”
Kerry Mahlman, District Principal, Aboriginal Programs and Services, for School District No. 46, acted as a liaison between the participating schools and the Festival. “It connected students experientially to their community,” she says, noting that the goals of the project fit the new curriculum. “This process has given kids a sense of history, a sense of place, a sense of belonging and [an opportunity to] develop relationships,” says Mahlmen. “Yes, it’s important for kids to know about ancient Greece, but it’s extraordinarily important for kids to know about the place where they live and the people who’ve made this place.” Students responded to what they heard from their elders by creating literary, visual and cultural projects, including paintings, weavings and fishing spears. “The end result that we’ll see throughout this festival, is that indigenous people were here long before the concept of Canada was confirmed 150 years ago,” says Mahlman. “This project clearly acknowledges that.”
The interviews and creative projects that the students created are just the first two phases of syiyaya. A multi-media performance has been produced, featuring a multi-cultural cast, incorporating live music, live action heritage vignettes and present day interviews recorded by Tamar Kozlov, Festival videographer. “We’ve pulled together stories from both First Nations and European settlers to tell a broader story of how Sechelt came to be and what life was like before European contact,” says Robertson of the two-hour storytelling presentation. “I played a small role compared to the teachers and the kids,” says Mahlman of her involvement in the project. “It’s been an honour to work with [the Festival] and watch our attempts at reflecting back what we heard from an elder made into something quite extraordinary by very talented people in our community [while] honouring children’s work in that process.”
Syiyaya students’ projects will be on display as part of BC Culture Days on Sunday, October 1 at the Seaside Centre from 11am to 5pm. Admission is free and everyone is welcome. The Sechelt Arts Festival features visual art, dance and musical performances and runs October 5-22. Complete listings on the Festival website. Syiyaya. Our Families. Our Stories. premieres at Raven’s Cry Theatre, Friday, October 6 at 8pm. Tickets $15-$25 available in advance at Sechelt Visitor Centre or online at secheltartsfestival.com.