Winnipeg – what a place. Right now, it’s dirty and depressing. But in a few months the sand and snow will be gone, the leaves will return to the trees, and all will be beautiful again.

To help pass the Winnipeg winter blues, I’ve been meeting with artists and art educators as part of the Contemporary Indigenous Art and Education Project – a joint project between the Winnipeg Art Gallery and the University of Manitoba. We meet semi-regularly and discuss issues of indigenous storytelling, contemporary concerns, application of artistic process and style, and how we can design curricula to support these topics.

I am neither an artist nor an art educator – but that doesn’t stop me from contributing to the discussion. Because really – the perspectives of white, cis-gendered, heterosexual males has been ignored for far too long. Okay – not funny…

But I am a strong contributor in discussions where content delivery is on the table. And, on Thursday, the question of an appropriate metaphor for the Indian Residential School system came up. As were had been talking about the residential school at 611 Academy Road – only a few minutes from my home – I couldn’t think of a more appropriate symbol than the elm bark beetle.

Pictured above – this little bug feeds on Elm trees and is a carrier of a nasty fungus. This fungus produces a toxic substance – to which the tree reacts by shutting down the water transportation systems in the cells of the tree. In effect, the tree kills itself while trying to kill the fungus.

The residential school system was terrible. But, like the beetle, it was only a transportation mechanism for the true horrors which afflicted the population.

I don’t want to misrepresent the atrocities committed by the residential school system. Please forgive the continuation of the metaphor; hope is on its way.

Also in this session, I learned that Winnipeg’s Elm Tree population is as strong as it is now because of the genetic biodiversity within our trees. Instead of purchasing identical seedlings from a tree farm, early architects of Winnipeg’s streets plucked seedlings from the riverbanks. This ensured a diverse system of trees with different abilities and defences against all sorts of nuisances, not just the deadly Dutch Elm Disease.

My students often hear that “diversity makes us stronger” – and here’s a real-life, local example of how this is true. As a teacher, I need to be innovative in my design and application of diverse teaching styles, activities, and experiences. Typing this, looking out from my second floor office window, I see the bare branches of a lovely Elm on the boulevard… and I can’t wait for spring to bring back its leaves, and the protection the tree provides me. The stories of individuals, their differences, and their struggles with both “beetle” and “fungus” need to be shared and respected. These stories, this local diversity of experience and triumph over evil and other diseases, can provide protection for my students, me, and our entire community.