This week at Patrick Fogarty Catholic Secondary School (PF), teachers and students are sporting black-on-orange buttons and stickers that read “Every Child Matters” under the silhouettes of three Indigenous children holding hands.
A symbol of remembrance for those affected by the residential school system, the buttons and stickers are meant to encourage awareness and education during Truth and Reconciliation Week, say PF staff.
The design is no ordinary drawing though - it’s the work of 17-year-old Mya McGee, a student at the school and member of Rama First Nation.
Staff approached McGee asking to use her design, and she was happy to lend a hand.
“I was super excited, and really thankful and happy they asked me,” McGee said.
McGee noted teachers have been eager to talk about her work, which she said she’s glad for.
Principal Brian McKenzie said he and the rest of PF are proud to don McGee's designs as a symbol of reconciliation.
“It’s one thing to say we need to have and celebrate a new relationship with our Indigenous partners,” McKenzie said. “It’s another thing to say the very symbol of how this school will celebrate is by encouraging our Indigenous students to have a hand in creating those symbols.”
McGee first sketched the image this summer as a sweater design. As the Every Child Matters movement grew in June, she said she felt compelled to support community members impacted by the residential school system.
She drew up a design fit for t-shirts, though with Canada Day quickly approaching and orange shirts in high demand, pivoted to printing the design on masks.
Around then, she recruited her friend and PF graduate Evan Savoie, age 18, to help with money and logistics.
“We did not stop working at first, it was very stressful,” said McGee. The pair used their own savings to kick-start the project, said Savoie, noting that added extra pressure to the fundraiser.
The pair placed their first order for 50 masks. They sold out within 18 hours of posting about the fundraiser to social media.
Once she and Savoie had the hang of fundraising, McGee drew up the image of three kids holding hands and had it printed on sweaters.
On the side, McGee painted a small canvas with another Every Child Matters design which she raffled off as a fundraiser.
Both teens credit their friends, family and community’s support for making their fundraising possible. Their boss at Rama Country Market, Mary-Anne Willsey, said their own intelligence and capability powered the project.
“I did little else other than encourage them and tell them how proud I was of them. It was almost entirely their own energy and thoughtful planning that pushed this forward,” said Willsey.
Savoie and McGee raised just over $5,000 in sales and donations from the mask and sweater project, plus $200 from the raffled painting. All funds went toward the Rama Pathways of Commemorative Space initiative - a trail system to honour the community’s past generations, particularly those who attended residential schools or were separated from their families in the Sixties Scoop.
Seeing the pathway for the first time had the greatest impact on Savoie.
“Going there and seeing a physical manifestation of all our hard work, that was the most heartwarming moment for me,” said Savoie. “It (hit) me that we really did something with our summer.”
For McGee, that moment came when dropping off the donations to Rama council members.
“That’s when I realized how much of a difference we did make for our community. I think I almost cried,” she said, starting to laugh.
The teens wrapped up the project at the end of the summer as Savoie left to study at the University of Toronto. There, he’s double-majoring in criminology and socio-legal studies as well as Indigenous studies.
McGee’s former Indigenous studies teacher, William Benoit, bought the last hoodie this September after McGee told him of the summer’s fundraisers.
Benoit, now an itinerant teacher of First Nation, Metis, and Inuit studies with the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board, said McGee has been “very eager to learn (and) take on projects” related to Indigenous issues as long as he’s known her.
Amazed by McGee's leadership, Benoit directed PF’s guidance department to McGee when asked how they could partake in educating students this Orange Shirt Day.
“That’s what Mya’s about - raising awareness, helping educate but doing it in such a modest, humble and strong (way),” Benoit said. “It’s great to see as an educator. Our future is in good hands.”
Students of PF can pick up buttons and stickers in the main office this week.
The school also purchased Every Child Matters shirts for staff with a pre-printed design from Kutting Edge, who donated the profits to the Binoojiinyag gaa-bi-giiwejig, The Children Who Came Home initiative. Donations by staff for the shirts will go to the Rama Pathways of Commemorative Space project in honour of McGee and Savoie’s summer fundraiser.
This Truth and Reconciliation Week and Orange Shirt Day, McGee said she hopes people lose the fear of taking passionate action.
“Stay inspired by everything you see. If you see something happening in our community that upsets you, take action,” McGee said.
And if you’re unsure where to start, Savoie encourages people to educate themselves.
“Even if you can’t support a business, even if you can’t spread a message, just educate yourself on the land you live on, what came before you, the teachings that we live by,” Savoie said.
“We need to make sure ignorance gets replaced with educated discussions on how we treat the people this land rightfully belongs to.”