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West Hants Middle School students learning about human rights, wrongs with trip to Winnipeg museum


West Hants Middle School Grade 8 students (from left) Tanner Caldwell, Ainslie Gibbon, Lauren Crosby, Kaylee Harding, Jillian Beaver, Lily Frost and Shay Berkvens hold up some books the Nova Scotia Department of Education and Early Childhood Development recently distributed to schools across the province, which deal with subjects that may be difficult to teach or talk about. The students are heading to Winnipeg this month to visit the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
West Hants Middle School Grade 8 students (from left) Tanner Caldwell, Ainslie Gibbon, Lauren Crosby, Kaylee Harding, Jillian Beaver, Lily Frost and Shay Berkvens hold up some books the Nova Scotia Department of Education and Early Childhood Development recently distributed to schools across the province, which deal with subjects that may be difficult to teach or talk about. The students are heading to Winnipeg this month to visit the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. - Heather Desveaux

Thirty-seven years after the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was enshrined into law, eight Grade 8 students from West Hants Middle School (WHMS) are about to embark on a journey few student groups from Nova Scotia have done before.

They are travelling to Winnipeg to visit the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, the world’s first and only museum dedicated to telling stories of global struggles for humane treatment and equality.

“Most of my English class is taught around social justice, so we’ll talk about The REDress Project, residential schools, the Holocaust, LGTB,” said Grade 8 teacher Colin MacKenzie. The students going to Winnipeg participate in MacKenzie’s extracurricular human rights education group, which includes weekly lessons and community work.

“We all live in these small areas; we don’t always get to understand the world or the impact of other cultures,” he said. “But to understand the news about immigration and refugees and all of the stuff that’s going on, we only have so much exposure in rural Nova Scotia. It’s allowing [students] to look at things from a broader view and be able to make judgments and opinions on the larger world view instead of just what they’re getting from their friends or TV,” said MacKenzie, adding, “which isn’t always bad. It just gives them a greater exposure to challenge what they’re thinking or reinforces and provides more support.”

The students said they are looking forward to their excursion, which will include a visit to the Manitoba legislature and the manufacturing facility for the Royal Canadian Mint.

Jillian Beaver wanted to be in the group because she said she’s always been interested in history, “but it’s not something that is not always taught now, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to learn more.”

Fellow student Kaylee Harding agreed with Beaver. “Before this year, there have been brief mentions of the Holocaust happening, but it wasn’t really taught. But now we know a lot more and it is a lot more shocking,” she said.

In August 2018, a 4-H group from Barrington visited the museum for a self-guided day on an exchange trip, but the West Hants Middle School students will be the first from Nova Scotia to participate in a full-day national human rights leadership access component, in order to deepen their understanding and in order to inspire a generation of human rights leaders, said Mireille Lamontagne, the museum’s manager of advanced and professional programs.

“We’re not an advocacy or activist organization because we’re a museum and our mandate is an educational one,” said Lamontagne in an interview from Winnipeg. “We want to make sure ... that we’ve built within them a fundamental understanding of human rights and giving them some tools in their toolbox, such as learning how to negotiate, how to investigate, building critical thinking skills, learning how to influence others, how to conduct a respectful dialogue. These are really critical skills for young people today,” she said.

In addition to touring six levels of the interactive museum, the students will have an opportunity to listen and speak with a Holocaust survivor, in order to hear someone’s stories of lived experience.

“Once their heart has been opened, they can ask themselves some critical questions, like how in the world was this allowed to happen, what in the world allowed it to happen and what are we going to do about it?” said Lamontagne.

Coincidentally, the same year the museum opened (in September 2014) was the same year every province and territory completed the integration of human rights into the elementary and secondary school curriculum.

“Having the museum as a reliable source for human rights education is really important to schools and teachers right now and they need all the support,” she said.

The West Hants Middle School students have been doing their own fundraising for the trip, but are able to travel this year with the assistance of a grant from The Asper Foundation Human Rights and Holocaust Studies Program, which aims to promote respect for others and raise awareness of the consequences of racism for students in Grades 7 to 9.

“It was a huge gift for us and made it feasible,” said MacKenzie, who is leading the group.

A GoFund Me campaign (gofundme.com/whms-human-rights-and-holocaust-education-trip) hopes to continue this as a tradition for students next year.

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