Spiritwood commemorates Truth and Reconciliation

Sask Bulletin
December 15, 2021

Walk into Spiritwood High School, continue down the hallway to the ramp, and you will find a school community’s grief, hope, heartache and resiliency beautifully expressed and stitched together in a quilt that hangs on the south wall.

Students and staff undertook their quilt project to mark Orange Shirt Day and Canada’s National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on September 30. Hearts and handprints, feathers, written messages and other images adorn each square in different shades of orange brought together to create the shape of an orange shirt.

The symbol of the orange shirt, honouring the survivors and victims of Canada’s residential schools, comes from the story of Phyllis Webstad who had her orange shirt taken away as a child on her first day at one of these schools.

Spiritwood has commemorated this day in creative ways in the past but wanted to do something new for the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, and in remembrance of the children whose unmarked graves continue to be discovered at former residential school sites across the country.

Teacher Kurtis Hamel came up with the idea and design for the quilt. He brought the final project together with the help of his colleague and fellow quilter, Janice Prefontaine. Hamel and Prefontaine cut squares and passed them out to each student and staff member at the school, inviting them to create their own designs and express themselves on an issue where words often don’t do justice to feelings. Once they collected the squares from students and staff, Hamel and Prefontaine spent a Saturday carefully stitching them together.

Spiritwood High School teacher Kurtis Hamel and educational assistant Janice Prefontaine stand next to the hand stitched quilt to commemorate Orange Shirt Day and National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

“There is a lot of symbolism in a quilt. To me, it is about warmth and embracing people, and passing that warmth on to someone else,” said Hamel.

Hamel took up quilting six years ago as a winter hobby. He was previously a member of the Prince Albert Quilt Guild but stepped away from the group “to preserve sanity” as an already too-busy teacher during the pandemic.

Prefontaine is an educational assistant at the school and has been quilting since her teen years, having learned the skills from her mother and grandmothers. “It is quite the process to make a quilt, and I want to keep that tradition alive.”

Both Hamel and Prefontaine have previously been involved in making quilts to donate and lift the spirits of people experiencing hardships, such as after the Humboldt Broncos bus accident and the 2020 Nova Scotia attacks.

The finished Spiritwood quilt was unveiled during a virtual assembly at the school on November 19. Witchekan Lake First Nation Councillor Ivy Bell joined them to smudge the quilt and speak to students about the significance of the smudging ceremony and sacred medicines.

Spiritwood High School has approximately 22 staff and 190 students in Grades 7 to 12. The town of Spiritwood neighbours the First Nations of Witchekan Lake, Big River and Pelican Lake.

Many students at the school have relatives and loved ones who were victims or survivors of residential schools and have known the intergenerational trauma that continues today, caused by the horrendous conditions that were the norm within these schools for more than 160 years.

The quilt project has helped facilitate ongoing conversations in the school community, and Hamel has noticed groups of students often stop to admire, point out their squares and talk about the quilt in the weeks since it’s been on display.

Teachers have the gift of bringing together a range of individuals and inspiring them to express their unique and creative ideas. It’s part of what makes them so impactful as professionals.

Weaving a common thread between people and connecting concepts; like the thoughtful stitching that connects the patches of fabric in a quilt. When this work comes together in a tangible, deeply meaningful and emotional project that will hang in a school hallway and inspire students for years to come, it is a very special thing to see.