Bringing the Past to Life in a comic strip

Andrea Shecapio (Supplied Photo)

By Patrick Quinn

 Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

An English and History project at Mistissini’s Voyageur Memorial High School is so successful that teachers are trying to find it a wider audience. In it, Andrea Shecapio uses a digital comic-strip medium to create a moving tribute to her grandfather, Peter Shecapio, who passed away in 2020.

Her one-page story contrasts his painful experience at residential school with accomplishments later in life, including supporting other survivors, playing music and starting a family.

Shecapio’s comic is now available on Voyageur’s Facebook page and is already motivating other students.

“That was my first time making a comic like that,” Shecapio told the Nation. “I wasn’t expecting all of the feedback. I found it really cool for my comic to get that much attention. I feel more motivated to create more stories.”

The project asked students to depict a historically significant event within the last 150 years, inspired by the graphic novel anthology This Place: 150 Years Retold, which collects stories of resistance and renewal from Indigenous creators. Several students chose to illustrate the impact of residential schools.

“He would talk about his experience a lot with me,” Shecapio said about her grandfather. “He would tell me how he was treated by the nuns. He would have trouble sometimes trying to tell his story, some parts were too much for him. It made me very sad and kind of angry.”

With classes currently online, Secondary 4 teachers in History and English developed a project that integrated both disciplines with technology to help students work from home. Shecapio embraced the task and impressed with her research, composition and artistic abilities.

“Andrea jumped on the project right away,” said history teacher Krista McNamara. “The late Peter Shecapio was so involved in the elementary school and such a big voice in the community. She did a beautiful job of connecting all the pieces and really thinking through which specific sections she wanted to highlight.”

Andrea brought her grandfather’s story to life by using the web app Pixton, which enables students to build personalized avatars, select from various backgrounds or even integrate residential school scenes. The medium helps explore historical events and narrative techniques while provoking students’ artistic talents.

“Many are gravitating towards difficult histories, but I think the medium of a cartoon depiction is not as jarring as something photo-realistic,” explained McNamara. “The big goal was to give students an opportunity to do additional research on a passion area of an event throughout history. We’re also hoping this creates a sense of ownership over their history and their stories.”

While some students used flashbacks to explore skills their grandparents had taught them, others featured events like the Oka and Ipperwash crises. Others focused on prominent figures such as actor Saginaw Grant or women’s rights activist Mary Two-Axe Earley.

A student in the Mikw Chiyam arts program is working on a hand-drawn chronicle of Francis Pegahmagabow, the greatest Canadian sniper of the First World War.

“It’s giving students a sense of voice in their own history,”  english teacher Logan Taylor said of the project. “Instead of doing a standard short story, they can choose something more creative and potentially more personal.”

One student is analyzing the impact of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreeement by inserting herself as a character in its development. Another interviewed former student Justice Debassige about his internationally recognized role in Mistissini’s youth-led stand against uranium mining.

“We want the students’ work to be at the forefront of all of this,” said Taylor. “We gave them a basic scaffold with a website, but the students are really owning it and doing such a great job.”

Project organizers would like to develop an anthology from this project, or at least a blog, for those who consent to sharing their work. They plan to make it an annual project, seeing it as a valuable learning resource for students and their audience.

By introducing this digital-media platform, students can pursue career paths they may not have considered. While Shecapio’s post-secondary plans currently focus on training as a helicopter pilot, her grandfather was always supportive of her artwork.

“He was very caring and encouraging,” the 16-year-old remembered. “I was very close with him. I’m glad he told me some of his experience so I could spread more awareness about what people went through at these residential schools.”

 Patrick Quinn        is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the  NATION. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.

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