The Spruce Avenue School auditorium filled up quickly with Grade 7, 8, and 9 classes. The school’s 212 students stood out: they were all dressed in orange t-shirts to co-ordinate with the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

Sept. 28 was a special day. Everyone gathered to launch the Bridge of Reconciliation, a project aimed at transforming a decades-old pedestrian bridge over 97 Street at 115 Avenue with art based on medicine wheel teachings.  

Working with Nikki Houde, a success coach for community initiatives at The Family Centre, students enthusiastically grasped the medicine wheel teachings related to living a good life. They delved into humanity’s relationship to colours, animals, and plants and explored them in painting. “They picked up on the spiritual aspects so fast,” recalled Houde at the joyful gathering.

The unveiling ceremony began with a land acknowledgement by Grade 9 student Preslie Johner Piscia. She explained that the school was gathered to “celebrate diversity through the four colours of the medicine wheel.”

Combining learning with art, students painted their interpretations of the colours, animals, and plants based on what they had learned. One art piece combined the image of a tree growing in four seasons. Another piece centred around the word “love.” These creations were then transformed into panels and affixed to the walkway over the bridge.

“Many resources went into making the Bridge of Reconciliation,” said Kris Simpson, school principal. “The goal is to improve safety and well-being in the city.” Under the umbrella of NET (Neighbourhood Empowerment Team), the school worked with EPS (Edmonton Police Service), the City of Edmonton, The Family Centre, and others.

EPS Superintendent Derek McIntyre spoke of some concerning behaviour that had created a “darkness” surrounding the pedestrian crossing. Students were afraid to cross due to increased crime. “Art is a great way to bring light, beauty, and hope,” said McIntyre. “The police service is embedded in your city in a positive way.” Ongoing beat patrols will continue to enhance neighbourhood safety. The Edmonton Police Foundation donated funds and paint.

The City of Edmonton helped in several ways, including funding. The City’s Capital City Cleaning & Parking power washed the bridge, while Parks and Roads Services applied a fresh coat of paint and hung the artwork.

Surveying the students in their bright orange shirts, Elder Francis Whiskeyjack said, “It’s wonderful to see youth. It’s a beautiful gift to be alive.”

Accompanied by his hand drum, Whiskeyjack sang a vigorous spiritual song. He shared words of wisdom with the students, who listened intently. “What is a survivor?” he asked. “The past still affects us all. What does it take to make change? To be involved in a ceremony like this honours our physical self through our life journey.”

After leaving the school and walking to 97 Street, four hand drummers joined Whiskeyjack with invigorating songs and a smudging of the bridge.

As the first class walked across the bridge to view the installed art, I spoke with three students from the school’s Leadership Club. The club was closely involved in the project, shares Natalie Hendricks, a Leadership course teacher and head coach of the school’s soccer team.

What did the Grade 9 students get out of the effort to create a Bridge of Reconciliation?

Shawn Penner, a student, loved to see the rejuvenated bridge, which is close to his home. “The project was really fun,” he added.

Noah Villeneuve agreed. “I met more people in the community,” he said. He also felt he had grown as a person. “As far as my character, I talk louder now. I’m being heard, and that’s good.”

Brooklyn Idenouye summed it up, saying, “The bridge brought our school together.”