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Call to Action # 62: Education for Reconciliation (62-65)

Northern Manitoba teachers use teddy bears to teach about truth and reconciliation

June 20, 2023

Bears represent truth and reconciliation at Thompson elementary school

A little girl in a ball cap holds two teddy bears wearing Indigenous regalia.
Five-year-old Talia Danyluk cuddles Spirit Bear and another stuffed animal at the Juniper Elementary School picnic on Monday. (Rachel Bergen/CBC)

CBC News: A Thompson, Man., elementary school wrapped a year of learning with its second annual picnic — a fun day at a local lake complete with teddy bears that symbolize a lot more than a good snuggle.

Throughout the year, teachers at Juniper Elementary School use books produced by the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society to provide reconciliation-based education and promote the safety and well-being of Indigenous children.

The books feature Spirit Bear, a small white teddy bear that is an advocate for children’s rights.

Monday’s picnic — with the school’s bears that signify love and respect for others, along with other stuffed animals in tow — celebrated a year of learning about truth and reconciliation, said kindergarten and Grade 1 teacher Alysa Ferguson.

“I hope that they they have a lot of fun. I hope they’re tired and cranky by the time they go home, but just to see that no matter what, we should all have access to clean water, medical, fun, learning, safety, safe schools, dreams, everything a kid should have,” she said at the picnic at Liz Lake, just south of Thompson. “They should just be allowed to be little, right?”

A woman with long dark hair in an orange shirt holds a white teddy bear wearing First Nations regalia.
Alysa Ferguson, a kindergarten and Grade 1 teacher at Juniper Elementary School in Thompson, Man., says her kids learn about truth and reconciliation with the assistance of teddy bears like Spirit Bear.(Rachel Bergen/CBC)

The picnic marked a culmination of the year of studies, Ferguson said.

Children made dreamcatchers out of pipe cleaners, painted tiles to make a wooden version of a star blanket and ate fried pickerel and bannock.

Cindy Blackstock, the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, took part in the teddy bear picnic and brought the original Spirit Bear along on her journey from Ottawa. “I’m here as kind of Spirit Bear’s carry person,” she said.Blackstock has carried Spirit Bear along to all the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal hearings on Jordan’s Principle, which was launched after Blackstock and the society filed a complaint in 2007.

A woman in glasses and a black and white striped top wearing a beaded white bear medallion smiles for the camera.
Cindy Blackstock, the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, made a trip up to Thompson, Man. to be Spirit Bear’s carrier. (Rachel Bergen/CBC)

The caring society argued the support the federal government provides for child welfare on First Nations is much lower than the support provincial governments give to children off reserves — even though on-reserve needs are greater. They said less funding for family support means more children end up in the child welfare system.

Spirit Bear was there throughout the process. “He’s been in every single hearing and he comes out to spend time with kids,” Blackstock said.

She believes children set the best example when it comes to truth and reconciliation, and students like the ones at the teddy bear picnic can help chart a path to a better future. “I want them to know that they don’t have to be scared about the history of the country, that by embracing it we can change the things that were wrong and we can uplift the things that were right,” Blackstock said.

“These children from the earliest ages are going to know, and they’re going to grow up knowing that they were part of making things better. And they hopefully will pass that along to their kids too.”

A child wearing a baseball cap holds a white bear.
Kayden Southwind, six, holds Spirit Bear — his favourite bear — at the Juniper Elementary School teddy bear picnic. (Rachel Bergen/CBC)

Part of the way the school is doing that is by upholding traditional teachings and land-based learning, Ferguson said.

Juniper was gifted Spirit Bear replicas from the caring society, which wear regalia and went through a traditional First Nations naming process where they were named by an elder.  “Those bears promote equality and love for all and all their teachings … making sure First Nation children have access to everything they need on-reserve and off-reserve and for all children,” Ferguson said.

Kayden Southwind, six, has a strong opinion on Spirit Bear. “He is one of my favourite bears … because I know he’s my favourite bear, because I actually like him,” he said, clutching the white bear.

Although he doesn’t mind the teddies, Grade 1 student Abel Anderson had other priorities at the picnic. “[I like blowing] bubbles and painting,” he said.


Rachel Bergen, Reporter

Rachel Bergen is a journalist for CBC Manitoba and previously reported for CBC Saskatoon. In 2023, she was part of a team that won a Radio Television Digital News Association award for breaking news coverage of the killings of three Indigenous women, allegedly by a serial killer. Email story ideas to