The power of the pen ... pal

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The power of the pen ... pal

Mary K. Nolan
The Hamilton Spectator
CALEDONIA (Jun 19, 2009)
It has been a long time since words like "peaceful" and "harmonious" were used to describe relationships in Caledonia.

But it was all about friendship and understanding yesterday as 200 kids, half from the nearby Six Nations reserve and the rest from local public schools, met at the community arena.

There was no mention of the ugly land dispute that has divided the town along native and non-native lines for the past three years.

This day was for celebrating new friends and old cultures with such timeless activities as play and art and food.

It was an occasion for five classes from four schools to meet the kids with whom they have been corresponding since September.

Suzie Miller calls it "a peace project."

The Grade 3-4 teacher at Emily C. General school in Ohsweken is the dreamer and doer behind a pen pal exchange that has united hundreds of kids from the town and the reserve since the dispute began in the spring of 2006.

Miller, the daughter of a Six Nations mother and Caledonia dad, was devastated by media reports and images of violence as the situation escalated on a site adjacent to a Catholic elementary school.

"The visuals on TV of what was going on ... with those kids right next door ... I know about my culture and I know the teachings are absolutely beautiful.

"We are a peaceful people," Miller says. "I did not like what was happening in our communities and I didn't like how the communities of Six Nations and Caledonia were being portrayed. It was so sad to see that perception of us and our culture. I didn't want any children to have those perceptions."

The beleaguered separate school was hesitant to get involved in Miller's proposed pen pal project just then, but Miller managed to forge a partnership with Centennial Public School.

Kids from one class at each school -- about 45 in total -- began exchanging personal letters in October and met face-to-face in Caledonia at the end of the school year.

"My students were so impressed that Centennial had a tetherball," Miller laughs.

Last year, two classes from each school took part in the project, meeting at year-end at Six Nations where they shared Three Sisters soup, strawberry juice and scones, made friendship bracelets for each other and watched native dancers.

This year, students from Jameson Elementary in Ohsweken and River Heights Public in Caledonia joined classes from the original schools for the annual pen pal project.

Yesterday, they poured out of school buses and into the arena to meet their letter-mates and work together on activities at stations set up on the arena floor. Many of them wandered around arm-in-arm or hugging each other, beaming as if they'd just met Mr. Right on a blind date.

The mural they created was a riot of handprints, rainbows, hearts, suns, native peace symbols and smiley faces, images that have been in short supply in the town these three fractious years.

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