Tonia Lenk and son Adam, 9 – with the help of volunteers – teach a modified entry dance to Peace Arch Elementary students and staff Thursday, as part of the pod-renaming ceremony. (Tracy Holmes photo)

Heart of reconnection beats at White Rock elementary school

Ceremony renames Peace Arch Elementary’s buildings, helps ‘heal wounds’

The beat of drums resonated through Peace Arch Elementary’s gymnasium Thursday, the slow, rhythmic sound creating a soothing heartbeat.

“The drum for us… is just like being in our mom’s belly,” Semiahmoo First Nation Chief Harley Chappell explained to the students, “and we can hear and be connected to her.

“And it’s a tool that we use to connect to our moms up there, to Mother Nature… the rivers and lakes and trees.”

The ‘heart’ song performed by Chappell was part of a ceremony that was all about connection, but specifically about the White Rock school’s efforts to reconnect – both with each other and with the area’s history.

Chappell and principal Carol Davison agree, it couldn’t come at a more appropriate time, as the subject of reconciliation continues to gain momentum.

READ MORE: New chief for Semiahmoo First Nation

READ MORE: Tackling reconciliation: Group tries to understand Indigenous perspectives

The problem began in schools, and can end there, Davison noted.

Built 53 years ago, “This school is kind of from that era and we have these institutional numbers (for the buildings) – 100, 200, 300…,” Davison told Peace Arch News following the renaming of the school’s five ‘pods’ from numbers to animals, using words in the SFN language: Orca (queholmech ten), Salmon (schaanexw), Beaver (sqw’elaw), Bear (sch’et Kwan) and Wolf (st’equiye).

“The opportunity we have to help heal that huge wound in our country… it’s an opportunity you can’t pass up.”

Davison arrived at the White Rock school in September 2017, and said the idea to rename its buildings has been “percolating in my head for a while.”

She and staff worked with Chappell and other members of the SFN on language, and artwork to complement it is to be designed by SFN councillor – and school parent – Roxanne Charles. Students will help with the painting of the art, Charles noted.

The animals offer different lessons, gifts and strengths, Chappell told the students – from determination and teamwork to leadership and creativity.

“They show us how to be in the world,” he said.

Chappell and Charles are both intricately connected to Peace Arch Elementary, as they attended the school as kids themselves. Charles’ mother also attended, and her daughter is currently in Grade 7 there – now part of the Orca pod.

Charles was one of four attendees asked to stand as witnesses to the renaming, along with trustee Laurae McNally, superintendent Lynda Reeve and teacher Colette Chalifour.

Chalifour became emotional in her address to students.

“I don’t think you guys realize just how lucky you are,” she said, describing the renaming process as “a small little step that we should’ve taken a long time ago.”

“I am so proud that Peace Arch has taken this step, and I hope that all of us… can rise to the occasion and be…” she said, gesturing to a banner bearing the animal symbols, “and take part of this spirit.”

The ceremony included the teaching of a modified entry dance by student Adam Lenk, 9, and his mother Tonia, who dressed in traditional garb for the occasion. The mother and son also joined Chappell in a final drumming.

Chappell thanked the students and staff, describing the renaming as “a recognition and understanding of our language and… our traditional territory.”

“I hope that other schools take note,” he said. “You are the front-runners.”


Adam Lenk, 9, and his mom Tonia Lenk, drum the heart song with Semiahmoo First Nation Chief Harley Chappell to close Thursday’s ceremony. (Tracy Holmes photo)

Semiahmoo First Nation Chief Harley Chappell explains the heart song, prior to drumming it with Peace Arch Elementary student Adam Lenk and his mom, Tonia. (Tracy Holmes photo)

Semiahmoo First Nation Chief Harley Chappell shows his culture’s way of giving thanks. (Tracy Holmes photo)

Tracy Holmes photo Peace Arch Elementary staff and students give thanks during the pod-remaining ceremony.

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