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The Honour Drum

Written on June 12th, 2017

Long after the final curtain call had ended, the residual vibrations of the beating drum were a reminder of the powerful message about the importance of community, expressed by the students of Northumberland Christian School (NCS) in Cobourg through their performance of the musical “The Honour Drum”.

Inspired by the children’s book The Honour Drum by Cheryl Bear and Tim Huff, the musical was written by three senior students at NCS to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Canada and also the 180th anniversary of Alderville—a First Nation community about fifteen minutes south of the school.

“Our two communities have enjoyed a relationship for almost twenty years,” shared NCS principal Ginette Mack. “Over that time, we have had many students from Alderville attend the school. So when we began talking about a theme for this year’s musical, we knew that we wanted it to include highlights of the learning and discovering that we have been doing as part of our Indigenous studies over the past number of years.”

Specifically, these studies have formed into a three-year plan at NCS, with the intention to build even stronger community ties with the First Nations people in Alderville through listening, learning, and responding. Last year, students engaged in activities designed to teach them to become good listeners to the stories of others and to appreciate the values of those whose historical backgrounds and cultures are different than their own. In one such activity they participated in a blanket exercise—a teaching tool used to build relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada through listening to their stories.

At the beginning of this school year, the students at Northumberland Christian School were invited to respond to what they had learned through listening. “This is an important year of celebration in our country—we are celebrating the 150th anniversary of our country and also the anniversary of a community of people that have been living here for 180 years,” shared Ms. Mack. “It was important for us to use this opportunity to share our passion for both, and the musical was an excellent way for our students to do that.”

The uniquely envisioned play, written by two students that are members of the Alderville community and a third student that lives in Northumberland, extended an invitation for the audience to join the actors on a journey of listening to the voices of Canada’s past and present—stories of beauty and celebration and stories of heartbreak and suffering.

“One thing we really wanted to incorporate into the musical is the rich past that is held by the Alderville community,” shared Naomi, a grade 8 student at NCS. “Because I come from an Eastern European descent, I didn’t know a lot about their culture or history until we started focusing on it in school over the past few years, and I was excited to have the opportunity to share what I’d been discovering with others.”

The play was written in a story-telling format—one that was especially meaningful to Mya, a student in grade 7 who currently lives in the community of Alderville. “A big part of the First Nations culture includes teaching,” she shared. “It’s something that we take very seriously. Mostly that’s done through story and song—two things that we purposely incorporated into the musical.”

Her classmate Lyric agreed. “The musical is like a teaching tool that helps others understand who we are.”

Putting together a musical was not an easy task for the three girls. “We had a lot of trouble getting started,” admitted Naomi. “We had lots of ideas and things we wanted to say, but putting it together into a story that can be shared and understood was a huge challenge.” The girls spent many evenings after school working to ensure that the cultures and historical backgrounds of each of the students at NCS were recognized and honoured in the celebration of their significant anniversaries.

Their solution to these challenges was to write the play as a series of short vignettes, which helped immerse the audience in the lives and stories of Canada’s people throughout history. One such scene was used by the girls to share the story of the Mississauga Anishinabe, who lived on the shores of Lake Ontario before the first treaty with the British was ratified. Soft moose skin wigwams and a hand-carved canoe decorated the stage as students recreated a river scene where rice harvesters collected the last bit of harvest after a bountiful season and women stirred a large pot of rice over an open fire, keeping an eye on young children who were playing nearby.

This story-telling format was also instrumental in allowing the writers to take on the full range of issues surrounding past and present concerns within First Nations communities like Alderville. Rather than backing away from the challenging issues that are a part of Canada’s history, the students were encouraged to give voice to them as an important part of the story that needed to be shared.

“We played around with different ideas about how to share parts of our history that were more sensitive,” shared Naomi. In the end, the three students decided to use black lights to create a scene in which they could depict the misunderstanding and painful interchanges that occurred between the First Nations people and the European settlers. Colourful clothing and choreographed dances to a drum beat were juxtaposed by darkness and silence to represent the squelching of and eventual restoration of pieces of First Nations culture over the past century in Canadian history.

“This was a chance to be transparent with people,” shared Mya. “We don’t have that opportunity every day.”

Amidst the sensitive and honouring mise en scène that followed the play’s benediction, Naomi, Mya, and Lyric ended the musical with a resounding call for unity and reconciliation, inviting audience members to join hands and participate in a traditional native circle dance. The dance was led by Ryder—a grade 3 student at NCS and member of the Alderville community—who beat the honour drum in the centre of the newly formed circle as the community chose to embody the powerful message of the musical.

Imagine if there were an honour drum

Where all would gather, wherever they’re from

To listen, respect, to learn, to share

For this is the way to learn to care.

(The Honour Drum)

After their initial performances on Grandparents Day and the following Sunday, the three student writers were especially excited to hear the reactions of those who came to watch the play and their stories of how it changed their perception of Canadian history. “Most of all, we wanted the message to touch people’s hearts,” shared Naomi, “and for their eyes to be opened to the richness of the diversity that exists in our country as we celebrate these two important anniversaries.”

Even though the writing and performing of The Honour Drum musical is finished for the students of NCS, its story certainly isn’t. “Our school has a unique opportunity to help other communities broaden their understanding of the significance in celebrating Canada’s 150th anniversary,” shared Ms. Mack. “We want to extend our celebration to communities beyond our own and to invite them to join us in understanding and embracing our country’s story.”

To engage others in the telling of their story, the students of Northumberland Christian School will be performing their musical at other Christian schools in Ontario. “On Friday we will be performing at Immanuel Christian School in Oshawa,” shared Ms. Mack, “and we’d be happy to come to other schools next fall if they are interested.”

In the end, the hard work of these three students, with the support of their peers, demonstrates the impact they can have in their community and our nation. “I love that the musical allowed everyone at our school to express and celebrate their culture through the clothing they wore,” Mya reflected after their initial performances. “It was fun to see everyone dressed differently in a way that’s meaningful to their own story.”

“Canada is one of the most multicultural countries in the world, and each of our students has a unique story,” shared Ms. Mack. “Because of where our school is situated and the relationships that have been formed through our school community, we wanted to acknowledge all sides of the story—to remember the experience of many of Canada’s Indigenous people as we celebrate Confederation and Canada 150.”