Hot Docs Documentary: Chasing Asylum

YMCA Academy students attend Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema to watch Australian documentary Chasing Asylum

As teachers, many of us believe that documentary films are often excellent resources for exploring, and exposing, the realities of our world, as well as for looking at the different ways this reality can be shaped. And so, more than 30 Academy students headed out on a chilly morning this past Thursday to attend a special screening at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema of the Australian documentary Chasing Asylum, which exposes Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers, including their indefinite detention in bleak offshore camps.

The film, from Eva Orner, had just won Best Feature Length Documentary at the AACTA Awards (a.k.a. “the Australian Oscars”) only a few hours earlier, and is notable for combining secretly filmed footage from inside the detention centres with more traditional interviews and clips. Viewing it wasn’t exactly an easy or pleasant experience, but was a powerful and revealing one. I believe that many of us left the cinema with great appreciation for the efforts of all those involved in the documentary, some of whom could, under current Australian law, face up to two years in prison for exposing injustice and abuse from a government that claims to respect the rule of law, freedom of speech, and international human rights agreements including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1951 Refugee Convention, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Around the world, December 10 marks Human Rights Day, and every year around this date, the Docs for Schools program features a rights-themed film that includes a speaker from a collaborating organization as well as a Q & A with the filmmaker. This year, the discussion had to be held via Skype, but Ms. Orner had risen at 3am (in Australia) in order to answer the thoughtful and perceptive questions posed by some of the few hundred youth in attendance, including from a keen young Academy attendee.

This is the second year in a row that a group of Academy students has attended the December event, and students have enjoyed a number of other Docs for School screenings. Coming back from this particular film, students here were full of probing questions, deep concerns, and impassioned pleas for action. On the other hand, most of the seats were empty when Chasing Asylum screened at the Australian Parliament, with only one MP and one senator in the small crowd that turned out despite thousands of invitations being sent out. Most other screenings of the film, including ours, have been fully booked. Hopefully, this is a sign that the next generation of decision-makers will be more willing to at least inform themselves of what is happening to some of the most desperate and vulnerable people of our world.

Feast of Thanks

On Tuesday, October 11th, the YMCA Academy community celebrated the school’s Feast of Thanks for the fifth year. With dozens of families contributing food — from savoury turkey and ham to delectable desserts — for the potluck feast, we gathered in the cafeteria at lunch, to hear and view presentations from students and from our special guest, and, of course, to feast.

Students from Katie’s Aboriginal Voices class presented to the whole school their research and ideas on the Indigenous past and present of the Toronto area, as well as inquiring into the question of how to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday in a way that is inclusive and respectful of Indigenous experiences and perspectives. Meanwhile, Brandon’s Origins and Citizenship class contributed visual displays looking at Thanksgiving and related festivities from a newcomer point of view. As teachers committed to inclusiveness and other social justice principles, we cherish this event as an opportunity for diverse voices to be heard, and for our community to gather together in learning from and sharing with one another. And while students were most vocal in expressing their love of meat and homemade cookies, they also expressed plenty of thanks for such opportunities, and desires to learn more.

For the second time, we were fortunate and honoured to welcome Darlene King, who took time out of her busy day at the nearby Native Women’s Resource Centre to speak briefly to students about her own experiences, as well as to bless and open out feast. After thanking our students for their thoughtful presentations, Darlene spoke of her own background and the importance of learning about, and in some cases reconnecting with, Indigenous knowledge and cultural traditions. She also opened our feast with an Anishinaabe prayer, and then began it by preparing a “spirit plate,” a plate of food reserved to acknowledge our ancestors. Darlene would later take this food with her in order to return it to the earth.

The Academy community is also thankful for the contributions of students from the Literacy class, who helped set up on Tuesday and had created posters to advertise the event.

Of course gratitude should never be confined to just one weekend, but we look forward to seeing this particular tradition of learning, sharing, and thanks continue for years to come.

Check out more photos from this event on our Facebook page!