BY JASON MOTA
If you walk into Room 1A103 at Conestoga’s Doon campus, just off of the atrium, chances are high that you’ll come face to face with a wolf.
Myeengun Henry is the wise, silver-haired, culture-clad co-ordinator of Aboriginal Services, and when a person as driven as him is put in charge of making change happen, change happens.
The Ojibwa native’s very name means wolf – an animal which was deemed a vicious creature when humans first encountered it, and that stigma still lingers today. He connects this to the way the damage caused by residential schools long ago continues to linger like a scar, never truly going away.
Henry was born 55 years ago in Detroit to parents who had been stripped of their culture. Both his mother
and his father grew up in residential schools, and had been robbed of even the ability to show the love they felt for their family.
Residential schools were institutions with a simple purpose; for native children to have their culture, teachings, beliefs and values plucked away and replaced with Christian ones. These institutions were infamous not only for their reason for existence, but also for the nearly endless list of cases of abuse, both physical and sexual, toward the students by the teachers. Students were even taught not to show affection to the ones they loved.
Henry’s parents moved to Detroit, away from their culture altogether. He and his five siblings were sent to a “normal” school. His parents sternly discouraged their children from taking interest in their native culture.
As Henry grew up, however, he began to wonder more about his culture. He started to meet and talk to elders, and his interest only grew – much to his father’s displeasure.
Throughout his teen years, his relationship with his father became increasingly strained. As Henry’s investment in Ojibwa culture grew deeper, he and his father grew further apart, until they stopped talking altogether.
“A couple years ago when my dad was passing away, it was really tough to be in a room with him,” Henry said. “I didn’t know what to say to him because our paths took such a different road.”
But his father told him it wasn’t that he didn’t want his son to be involved in their culture; in fact, he was honoured that Henry took the path he did. But the way he had been raised to hate his culture and the pain he had suffered because of it were things he didn’t want his children to have to face.
“He hid that his whole life,” Henry said. “So I realized how deep the wounds that residential schools laid on our people were.”
Henry’s mother died of a broken heart a year and a half later. His parents loved each other deeply, but they never showed affection to each other, because the residential schools had also taught students not to show affection for their loved ones. Henry grew up without being hugged by his parents or being told that he was loved by them. This was normal to him, and he found it curious how other families were so different.
When Henry had his own family, however, he realized how much this had affected him when he found it difficult to show affection to his own children. Even today, Henry said, it feels completely unnatural for him to hug his daughter.
He developed a deeper and deeper interest in helping other native people after knowing of the pain his parents experienced. He saw people in his reserve living in poverty, he saw reserves in northern Ontario where people struggle to get clean drinking water. He saw elementary schools in reserves that are used as stepping stones for beginning teachers who rarely stay longer than a year, with children as young as eight learning tactics to scare away teachers they don’t like. Henry realized that he wanted to make people, both native and otherwise, more aware of aboriginal matters.
When he was offered the position of co-ordinator of Conestoga’s Aboriginal Services six years ago, Henry decided that this was an excellent way to work toward his dreams.
Henry’s next goal is to put together a class specifically focused on Aboriginal Studies at Conestoga, because of how little most people seem to know about the matter. And it’s important that people know, Henry said, because of how close it is to us as Canadians.
For now, Henry both organizes and takes part in ceremonies and other cultural events through the college, such as a teepee rising, where a teepee is erected on school property, and is left there for students to investigate and experience. The teepee regularly stands for the entire year, withstanding the elements without issue.
This year’s teepee was erected on the morning of Sept. 18. Henry chanted a native prayer song as he beat a drum before the work began, asking the wildlife to allow us to borrow a bit of their territory. He told everyone who was pitching in that a hawk always shows up when the teepee is put up, and it’s a good sign when it does. Sure enough, a few minutes later, a red-tailed hawk flew over the field, circled a couple of times, and then departed as quickly as it came.
“It’s like the Earth and sky are connected,” said Jerry Cardinal, a graduate of Conestoga College, as he sat inside the completed teepee looking up through the open smoke flaps.
The teepee is sure to last for months. It can be found by the satellite dishes behind the A-wing building for anyone interested in checking it out.
So our school’s local wolf may not have razor-sharp canines or fur, and he certainly doesn’t bark or growl. But his spirit is as strong as the wolf is hardy and loyal, and he fights to achieve his goals with as much strength as the wolf when it hunts.