Almonte, Ont. high school students take grassroots approach to National Day for Truth and Reconciliation

Students at Almonte District High School took part in a smudging ceremony Thursday, marking the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

In addition to wearing orange shirts - which has become a common practice in public schools on Sept. 30 - students designed a heart cut out for a garden display, decorated the school, and committed a page in their yearbook to truth and reconciliation.

"It is important that this year we really take charge, we really take action," said Grade 12 student Piper Maheral.

Maheral is one of roughly 500 students that attend ADHS, all of which who will eventually participate in two mandatory Arts and English courses taught through an Indigenous lens.

"I think it's extremely important that we get that education," says Maheral. "I feel that especially with Almonte District High School, we come from a smaller community where we might not get that information just living, if we didn't have it directly in our school."

A big part of the students' education on Indigenous culture and history took place outside Thursday at a smudging ceremony, led by Shabot Obaadjiwan First Nation Ambassador Larry McDermott, who cleansed all 500 hearts added to the heart garden.

"To come up with the idea of creating a heart to express their concern, that's powerful, it's awesome that the students came up with this idea," McDermott tells CTV News Ottawa.

"I feel like with the smudging ceremony, we got to be immersed into the culture that our history tried so hard to erase," adds Maheral. "And I think that was really important to see it first-hand."

McDermott has spoken at the school before, on previous Orange Shirt Days, but is pleased to see the students' education being taken out into the community.

"This is a perfect example of what can be done in a school, and I feel that way about the school board, but I'm not seeing that across Ontario."

"Well, the students today were dialled right in," said school Principal Casey Nelson. "I think having Larry here today and having the smudge is a really important way to capture their interest, and it goes a long way to boost what we do inside the classroom. I think today was really powerful for the students here at ADHS."

The sentiment felt around ADHS is that national holidays for acknowledgement is a good start, but grassroots actions and local initiatives are where the process of education and reconciliation begin.

"This is our school," says Maheral, reflecting on the day, "It's just a small part in truth and reconciliation, and I think that we should be setting somewhat of an example. Even with the hearts that we put up, hopefully people come by and they see that, and they take their part to speak up."

If you are a former residential school student in distress, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419

Additional mental-health support and resources for Indigenous people are available here.