It’s never too late for a Project of Heart

By Costa Maragos Posted: October 17, 2017 6:00 a.m.

Sylvia Smith, founder of Project of Heart, taking Teddy to her work for "Bear Witness Day" (May 10th), bringing awareness to Jordan's Principle and the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society's 10 year battle against discrimination of First Nations children.
Sylvia Smith, founder of Project of Heart, taking Teddy to her work for "Bear Witness Day" (May 10th), bringing awareness to Jordan's Principle and the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society's 10 year battle against discrimination of First Nations children. Photo courtesy of Evan Thornton

You can excuse Sylvia Smith for taking a few extra years to complete her master’s thesis in Education.

It’s been quite an academic journey for Smith and it will lead to Fall Convocation October 20 where she will receive the President’s Distinguished Graduate Student Award.

Smith, a recently retired teacher who lives in Ottawa, is the inspiration behind Project of Heart. The project is an interactive teaching tool used across the country to tell the story of the troubled history of residential schools in Canada. The program has had a major impact in classrooms across the country.

In 2011, Smith received the Governor General’s History Award for Excellence in Teaching for Project of Heart.

However, Smith was still surprised when she received news of the graduate student award.

“I was rather in disbelief,” says Smith. “I just thought,‘Oh my God’ are you actually kidding me?”

While Smith makes Ottawa her home, she saw the U of R as a perfect fit for her Master’s journey. She arrived in the city in 2007 for summer classes.

“At the time my parents were alive and I had family in Saskatchewan,” says Smith. “My two children, partner, and myself went there every summer to visit. Since I was a teacher and had summers off, it seemed like a fruitful way to combine my interest in graduate work and keep the family connection going.”

The idea for Project of Heart came while she was still teaching.

“The fact is, as a teacher I couldn’t justify to my Grade 10 History students why the education of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools, a major part of our history, was invisible in the curriculum,” says Smith. “Young people will challenge their teachers if something doesn’t make sense, and they saw a huge gaping void in the teaching of residential schools in Canada, one student in particular who took it upon herself to present a proposal to the staff, for money to buy the small wooden tiles.”

Smith and her students pushed forward and transformed the idea into something much larger than a classroom project.

In classes across Canada, students learn the history of a local residential school. They also learn about the children who died at that school and how government policies and practices then, and now, aren’t so very different. That’s when the kids learn how to be allies of Indigenous kids today.
The idea caught on early, and Smith used Project of Heart as the basis for her master’s thesis at the U of R.

“Managing Project of Heart made it difficult to finish my master’s. I was interested in finding out what teachers’ perceptions were of doing Project of Heart. I had done all of the interviews and when the tough work began, we had an illness in the family and I too became very over-stressed. My work suffered,” recalls Smith.

Her thesis is titled Teachers’ Perception of Project of Heart, An Indian Residential School Education Project, supervised by Dr. Marc Spooner, Professor in the Faculty of Education.

“Sometimes I can’t believe it’s actually finished. I never considered myself an academic and certainly, with ‘life’ intruding the ways it tends to, I never thought I would finish the darned thing,” says Smith. “I’m just so lucky to have a wonderfully supportive spouse and thesis committee. Dr. Carol Schick actually came out of retirement to help me. I am so grateful for all of the committee’s support because they certainly didn’t have to do what they did.”

Having pursued graduate studies later in her career, we asked Smith for her advice for others thinking of doing the same thing.

“If I could do it over again, I would prefer to connect with a few like-minded people and go forward with an academic inquiry that would see us pooling our talents. I thrive working with others. I can envision “built-in” support if this modus operandi were followed,” says Smith. “I have no idea if this could even be allowed, but I’d be willing to try. I don’t believe that it builds character to have your ‘forty days in the desert’ so to speak. There are far too many graduate students who don’t complete their projects because it’s such a solitary experience.”

Smith retired from teaching in August of 2016.

She’s looking forward to her short Regina visit to take in Convocation and spend some time with family members and her thesis supervisor, Dr. Spooner. Smith also hopes to meet with fellow Project of Hearters in Regina. And when she flies back home to Ottawa she will know her thesis will continue to make an impact.

“What excites me so very much is that my findings have already been referenced to support work being done around reconciliation and the necessity of teaching for justice,” she says.

The President's Distinguished Graduate Student Award is awarded at Convocation to the student at the Master’s or Doctoral level who has defended theses, or completed final exhibitions or performances, and is graduating at the current year’s Spring or Fall Convocation ceremony.

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