CMPS students create quilt blocks

Joshua Daniso and Jonah Balfe stand behind one of the quilt blocks they created as part of a history project at Central Manitoulin Public School. Students learned of the role Canada played in the Underground Railroad, a secret abolitionist movement that rescued as many as 40,000 people from slavery in the southern United States prior to the American Civil War. photo by Michael Erskine

MINDEMOYA—The students of Central Manitoulin Public School (CMPS) took part in a history project with a difference this spring and at the end of it there were 34 barn quilt blocks destined for various locations around the Central Manitoulin communities.

The CMPS Grades 3, 4, 8 classes, and even the Kindergarten crew created two of the distinctive heritage blocks, painted on four by four plywood panels.

Students Joshua Daniso and Jonah Balfe took The Expositor on a tour of the various blocks located in the storage closets and hallways in the school prior to these creations heading out to their forever homes.

The project was made possible thanks to a grant from the Ministry of Education for Experiential Learning Community Connections. “We studied the history of the Underground Railway and how quilt blocks had meanings for the slaves to stay safe and get to freedom,” in southern  Ontario explained teacher Cori Davy. “The star block means ‘to go north follow the Big Dipper,’ the Monkey Wrench block means ‘the tools you need for your journey are here’ and the Bow Tie block means ‘you need to change your clothes and go in disguise’.”

The students were the creative force behind building the blocks, but the community played a major role in its success. “We contacted businesses and the township to hang them as a community art project,” said Ms. Davy. “We looked at the two on the covered bridge at the Mindemoya Pioneer Museum to start and then the students wanted to make more to hang.”

“It was a lot of fun,” said Joshua, who along with Jonah took time out from the school’s Water Day events to act as quilt block tour guides.

“Mine will be going up on my family’s property,” said Jonah. Joshua’s block is destined for a business location.

Both Jonah and Joshua were fascinated with the story of the Underground Railroad and the part that many Canadians played in rescuing refugees fleeing the slavery of the American south before the outbreak of the American Civil War and the eventual emancipation of the slaves in America. Slavery was legal in many of the southern states until then, but had been outlawed in Canada by the The Slavery Abolition Act, which came into effect on August 1, 1834. The Act abolished slavery throughout the British Empire, including British North America as Canada was then known. The Act made enslavement officially illegal in every province and freed the last remaining enslaved people in Canada.

The Underground Railroad was a secret network of abolitionists (those who sought to outlaw slavery) who helped African Americans escape from enslavement in the American South to the relative freedom in the northern states or Canada. The Underground Railroad was the largest anti-slavery freedom movement in North America and it was responsible for bringing between 30,000 and 40,000 fugitives to British North America (Canada).

In fact, the earlier 1793 Act to Limit Slavery stated that any enslaved person who reached Upper Canada became free upon arrival, a small number of enslaved African Americans in search of freedom began to enter Canada at that time, but the number escalated dramatically following the War of 1812, when southern African Americans learned of the free blacks serving as soldiers in the British and colonial armies.