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Staff posing in front of mural

Not the Mural of the Story

Embedding Indigenous Education in Our School Community
Jennifer Matsalla

“Can we go the long way, past the mural, Ms. Matsalla?” some of the students ask when I arrive to pick up their class to take them to the art room. When I ask the students why they want to go past the mural, April shyly shares, “I want to see the squirrel I helped make.”

The mural is located in the main entrance of the school. It is not bound by a frame or border. Seven local animals – identified by the students – arch around an oak tree, one of the symbols of Oakridge Junior Public School in Toronto. Beside the tree are native pollinating plants, some of which were planted in the school’s star garden last spring. The trunk of the tree is the thumb of a hand positioned sideways, symbolizing the connectedness to the land we live and learn on. A henna design is on the tips of the fingers and roots anchor the tree to remind us of the interconnectedness between us and all living things. The focal point is a circle, where there is no beginning and no end.

The story of the mural is a winding one, which started in the summer of 2021.

Up to that point, I had struggled as a white settler to incorporate First Nations, Métis, and Inuit (FNMI) education into my Kindergarten to Grade 4 arts program. While I wanted to honour Indigenous histories, stories and voices, I was concerned about doing it “wrong” or doing something that would inadvertently be a form of appropriation. I also knew that inaction was not an option. So, in the summer of 2021, I looked for an opportunity to collaborate with an Indigenous artist. That was the start of the Caring for All Our Relations project (CFAOR).

As I thought about different ways of blending Indigenous Knowledge and community building with the visual arts to cocreate a school mural, CFAOR began to take form. I looked into different grant opportunities, perused the school board’s list of local Indigenous artists who collaborate with schools, and then made several cold calls. One stood out.

I connected with Cree-Métis artist Rebecca Baird on a crisp fall afternoon in the thick of the pandemic. Her artistic sensibility and openness to collaborating was a breath of fresh air and we instantly connected. We decided to form a partnership within the first five minutes of the call.

We agreed to apply for an Ontario Arts Council (OAC) grant. Our application envisioned Rebecca giving presentations to the school, leading workshops with staff and community members, and working with students to paint a mural. The work itself would focus on Indigenous Traditional Knowledge and environmental teachings and practices (such as beaded rosettes). Students’ art explorations over the year would culminate in a mural that aimed to reflect their learning. The goal was to gain a deeper understanding of Indigenous Ways of Knowing at Oakridge JPS while centring Indigenous voices.

As Rebecca and I talked, we realized that the project needed to push beyond the product that we would create. We wanted it to also be about the process. We knew we had to involve more voices from the community and decided to establish a planning committee, which would add Indigenous and non-Indigenous parents and community members, school staff and former Indigenous students. Marissa Hill, a parent and member of the Métis Nation; Amber and Bev Cassie, parents and members of the Dokis First Nation; along with parent Janice Peters Gibson, Kindergarten educator Andrea Menezes, and Grade 4 teacher Chris Grady all joined the committee. School administrators also joined and we connected with the school board’s Urban Indigenous Education Centre for guidance.

Working in collaboration with the committee, I put together an OAC grant proposal and submitted it in April 2022. The following September, we found out our grant application was successful. We were awarded $11,000 by the OAC and an additional $5,000 from the superintendent’s office.

During her first student presentation, Rebecca transformed into a storyteller as she shared her art. She talked about the significance of the materials in her creative process. Her work connects traditional Indigenous practices with her unique contemporary perspective, illustrating an example of Indigenous joy and excellence.

When working with educators, Rebecca shared the process of creating a two-row Wampum bracelet. As she walked us through the steps, Rebecca shared anecdotes and wove in teachings around the intricate symbolism behind Wampum Belts.

From what we learned from Rebecca and supporting texts (such as the children’s books Alex Shares his Wampum Belt and Dakota Talks about Treaties), our class began our learning journey by exploring treaties.

Watching the students transfer their learning was exciting to see. “I think a treaty is a promise,” Zara shared on our second day. “I have an agreement with my sister to take turns washing dishes,” Ayan chimed in.

Students considered agreements in their own lives and we co-constructed vocabulary. Not only did we learn about the Dish with One Spoon Treaty, but students also adapted those ideas to our classroom.Students considered agreements in their own lives and we co-constructed vocabulary. Not only did we learn about the Dish with One Spoon Treaty, but students also adapted those ideas to our classroom.

“Let’s leave the pencil crayons sharpened for your next class, Ms. Matsalla,” Mohammed suggested. “Let’s count out the gems so that there is enough for everyone,” Zoey proposed.

We started doing more collaborative art projects that centred Indigenous values of working together in a collective as opposed to individually. When Siam referred to the art in the class as “ours” instead of “mine,” I realized just how much the project was impacting everyone’s perspectives. We were becoming more of a collective every day.

Drawing from Theresa “Corky” Larsen-Jonasson’s story The Sharing Circle, students practised listening to one another and taking turns to talk and share. What does it mean to listen to each other? What does it mean to try to be more equal? I shifted myself to the carpet with the students instead of sitting at the front in a chair. My own teaching was changing as a result of this process.

During one of the school-wide presentations, Rebecca shared teaching on the symbolism of circles and cycles. Classes looked for examples in their natural world and each developed their own inquiry.

Kalio ran in one morning eager to share how he knew it was spring. “I saw a bud in the tree!” he exclaimed. His Grade 1 class explored the repeating cycle of seasons and created a collaborative drawing.

“What animals are out at night?” Allie wondered. Her question ignited the inspiration for that particular Grade 2 class’ collaborative collage about animals in the neighbourhood during the day and at night. After that, students burst into the class with neighbourhood sightings.

Rebecca and her assistant, Renee Loza Goycochea, led two workshops for staff and parent community members. Rebecca shared teachings about Indigenous Ways of Knowing, treaties, relationship to the Land, and symbolism as we sat in a circle and learned how challenging it is to create beaded rosettes. We were learning as we were sitting and connecting in a community.

“My henna looks like Chief Lady Bird’s ‘Hope’ painting!” Sana exclaimed. She shared this in May 2023, just as students were celebrating Eid. A number of students were noticing the visual similarities between the henna designs on their hands and the contemporary women artists we were exploring (such as Christie Belcourt).

Later that month, Rebecca came into the school, excited to see all the artwork the students had created. Hallway bulletin boards were overflowing with collaborative art and the art room was filled with sketches and posters. It was amid all this creativity that the mural design was created.

The design highlights learning from the CFAOR process and is rooted in Kindergarten to Grade 4 student work. It captures student investigations of our local natural environment, connectedness, and circles/cycles around us, and incorporates elements of henna design.

The following fall, Grade 3 and 4 students, members of the planning committee, and various staff members painted elements of the mural. During this process Rebecca, Renee and I collaborated as Indigenous students took leadership of the project, coming into the art room every recess and lunchtime to paint. Slowly, carefully, the mural took form.

CFAOR directly responds to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action 62 and 63 about developing public school curriculum to educate students on First Nations, Métis and Inuit cultures, histories and experiences to build “capacity for intercultural understanding, empathy and mutual respect.”

The Calls to Action also aim to build the capacity of educators and administrators to do this important work. From September 2021 to the present, Oakridge JPS has been firmly rooted in this initiative. My arts program last year was based solely on my learning from Rebecca and other Indigenous voices.

In January 2024, the mural was installed at the main entrance of our school. Though the mural is complete, the learning is only beginning. We are still inviting Indigenous guests to our school to offer different teachings and perspectives. Committee member Marissa will share teachings with our staff in the spring and I intend to create lessons based on the mural to share with staff. The planning committee will also gather later this spring to celebrate the culmination of the mural and provide an opportunity to thank everyone involved for their generous contributions.

As I think back to the origin of the project and consider how it has unfolded over the past two years, I am struck by the connections formed along the way. Although the initiative culminated in a beautiful mural, the learning and the relationships built were the most powerful parts of the project and fueled my deepest learning.

I remember sitting quietly with Marrissa as she showed me how to make a tobacco offering. I recall sharing lunches and stories with Rebecca as we talked about our lives and the project. Students have transferred several Indigenous values into the art room community, and they all connect in different ways. There is less “me” and “mine” and more “our” in their artmaking. This transition has led to fewer conflicts.

I am still learning how to include sharing circles and centre student voice. CFAOR has been a rich collaboration that embodies respect and reciprocity. Those involved were generous to share their knowledge and time, which enhanced our understandings of Indigenous practices and strengthened the school’s arts program. For this, I feel a deep sense of gratitude.

Indigenous education benefits all students. It benefits all educators as well. It helps us, as Canadians, to better understand our relationship with the Land we occupy. As an educator nearing 50, I am still learning and figuring out my role and responsibility in reconciliation and the ways I can respond to the Calls to Action. Taking ETFO’s First Nations, Métis and Inuit Studies AQ course, I am reflecting on my practice and learning ways to intentionally weave FNMI history and perspectives into my program. I am also critically looking at the colonial practices I still hold. Reconciliation is for all Canadians, and we are all accountable for learning the truths and impacts of colonialism. We are all responsible for the Calls to Action, especially as educators. After all, ours is a role that is both privileged and impactful.

I would like to recognize and thank all members of the planning committee and funding supporters. This was a collaborative experience and all members have been essential.

Jennifer Matsalla is a member of the Elementary Teachers of Toronto Local.

What I Learned from This Experience

  • A great place to start is to learn about the Land the school is on. What are the treaties? What is the history?
  • Be open to being vulnerable about what you do not know.
  • Learn and lead with humility, and when you don’t know, respectfully ask.
  • Be a learner alongside your students.
  • Centre Indigenous voices. Ideally, invite Indigenous artists, storytellers and Elders into the classroom and school when you can. If you are not able to, find other ways to include Indigenous voices (authors, artists, activists). Use first-hand quotes and speeches instead of sharing your interpretations with students.
  • Recognize that there are multiple Indigenous perspectives. From Nation to Nation and person to person.
  • When a teaching has been shared, ask if and how this can be relayed in the class.
  • Find out about local organizations and reach out to your Indigenous school community.
  • Weave in a contemporary perspective. Indigenous education has a place in the past, present and future. I referenced other contemporary artists and authors in my program who are working and advocating for rights and justice right here, right now. Explore current issues facing Indigenous communities and individuals.
  • Ensure resources are current and written by Indigenous voices. Explore Indigenous sources/publishers (such as Good Minds and Inhabit Media).
  • Seek guidance within your school board. My board has an Urban Indigenous Education Centre offering support, resources and professional learning. Find out what supports are available.
  • Link Indigenous education within your existing program. Where can you connect this learning to other areas of the curriculum? This should not be “extra.” It needs to be woven into the fabric of the curriculum beyond social studies.
  • Be patient. This work takes time. If you decide to apply for a grant or subsidy, know that this is a lengthy process and requires consultation and reflection. I included “working alongside an Indigenous artist” in my annual learning plan six years ago. It’s an investment that is deeply transformative and worth it, but it has to be done in a genuine way.


There are several ETFO resources to support your learning available at, such as Starting from the Heart: Going Beyond A Land Acknowledgement, An Introduction to Treaties, and Cultural Appropriation VS. Appreciation

Ontario Arts Council’s Artists in Communities and Schools Projects grants (visit for more information)

The Sharing Circle by Theresa “Corky” Larsen-Jonasson, illustrated by Jessicka Von Innerebner (available through

Alex Shares his Wampum Belt and Dakota Talks about Treaties by Kelly Crawford, illustrated by Don Chretien (available through