“We are on Treaty One territory, the traditional lands of the Anishinaable, Cree, Ojibway, Dene and Dakota people, and the homeland of the Metis people.”
Canada has existed for 150 years. The struggle for the rights of Indigenous Peoples is much older than Canada itself.
There is a saying, “When one is ready to learn, a teacher appears.“ Sometimes those teachers appear in the most unlikely places.
I have a history degree but you’d never know it based on what I was (not) taught about Canadian Indigenous people. I owe my recent education of First Nations issues to a young man who volunteers with the Bear Clan in Winnipeg.
I had entered a draw for two tickets to Canada Day at The Forks last year. The prize I won gave me access to the VIP lounge with all the shooters and fixings. And the best seats to watch many hours of entertainment and fireworks.
What I came away with that day was an image that has remained with me all this time and has inspired my own personal search for truth and reconciliation.
Canada Day celebrations at The Forks 2016
You could tell he was nervous. You could also see he took his duties very seriously. The Bear Clan volunteer had a medical kit, an identifiable vest and a lot of guts to venture into the unknown of crowds at a large public gathering.
From our prime vantage point I was mesmerized by this ponytailed young Native man who exemplified what I consider to be an unsung hero. As he walked his beat, he was summoned by a call for help from people on the grassy slope facing the main stage. A woman had lost consciousness and could not be revived by her friends.
I watched as he took charge of the situation and called for paramedics. Observing him escort the stretcher from The Forks I wished we had the Bear Clan in my neighbourhood.
Since then I have often wondered, what’s his story? All I know about him is that he is young and represents the best hope this city has for reconciliation.
After that experience I started to tap into my personal archives of memories. Gloria Steinem nailed it when she said, “The personal is political.”
My challenge was to pick from two options: slide into my comfort zone of academic research and spend many a cozy day in the Manitoba Archives or hit the streets and get real. In the end, I did a bit of both. From Idle No More to Red Rising, there is so much to learn.
Meet Me at The Bell Tower
Going with my church’s Social Justice group from the First Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church of Winnipeg to a Friday night at Meet Me at the Bell Tower was powerful.
Not only did we get to see Michael Champagne work his magic with the crowd, as he has done for five years, we got to see the Bear Clan in action.
After a peaceful march in the neighbourhood dedicated to stopping violence, and after hearing stories from the street and climbing the ladder to ring the bell, we were invited to the Indigenous Family Centre. We removed our shoes and sat in a semi circle to hear updates from Michael.
A communal meal prepared by Food Not Bombs gave us the opportunity to meet people of all ages from the Selkirk Avenue area. They have many life lessons to teach and we’re definitely going back!
That same UU Social Justice group organized a Blanket Exercise and the consensus from all participants was that every school and indeed everyone should experience this unique teaching tool to fully appreciate some Canadian truths.
The developers of The Blanket Exercise is KAIROS, a Canadian faith-based ecumenical organization working toward social change through advocacy, education and research programs in Indigenous Rights, Ecological Economy, Women of Courage, Resource & Rights, and Watershed Discipleship.
The Blanket Exercise is a workshop that delves into the effects of colonization. We stood on blankets representing the land. Turtle Island. Home.
Our guide, Elder Sandra, great granddaughter of Chief Peguis, began with a smudging in recognition of the seven sacred teachings: Love, Honour, Respect, Truth, Knowledge, Humility and Courage.
Winds of Change Education Petition
Tired of the broken record of government doubletalk? Then consider this petition:
Dr. Mary LeMaitre is an activist helping to promote this petition and asks people to sign or to visit their MP to request provincial governments incorporate the residential school legacy, Treaties and past and present Indigenous contributions to Canada, be a mandatory part of the curriculum.
Dr. LeMaitre says, “I can tell you from the research I do on racial stereotypes about Indigenous Canadians that one of the biggest obstacles to overcoming racist attitudes towards Indigenous Canadians is lack of education about Canada’s colonial policies. Unfortunately, the majority of Canadians did not learn about these in school.”
The deadline for you to help remedy this is May 15, 2017. Click here to download this petition.
Send signed petitions to Winds of Change Campaign, c/o 156 Newton Ave. Winnipeg, MB R2V 1N2.
A Canadian problem
“We’re not the country we thought we were.” Gord Downie /The Tragically Hip
Gord Downie pledged to donate proceeds from his Secret Path project to support the honouring of the stories of residential school survivors. He was motivated by the story of 12 year old Chanie Wenjack who froze to death while trying to find his way home after running away from the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora, ON. In a written statement Downie wrote, “This is not an Aboriginal problem. It is a Canadian problem.”
The Indian Act is a law passed by Canada in 1876. It imposed government control over all Natives. Its primary purpose was (and is) to control Natives and assimilate them into Canada. If assimilation was proving too much then they were simply ignored. The kids especially were made invisible because of their colour.
Activist and rock legend Neil Young was in Grade 9 with kids from Rooster Town when he attended Earl Grey School. The yearbook in which he appears is still a treasured collector’s item of mine but now I’m seeing it with new eyes.
Did Neil Young know about Rooster Town when he went to this school? Did the teachers? I wrote to Neil to ask him if he’d been to Rooster Town. Stay tuned.
Rooster Town and systemic racism
Rooster Town was home to hundreds of Metis and Aboriginal people. They lived in homes made of scrap wood from CN rail yards. There were no city services of water or electricity even though they were bounded by affluent Stafford St. and Lindsay St.
They never received the land they’d been promised under the Manitoba Act, so their goal was survival via hard labour jobs, farmyard animals and gardens.
The children attended K-6 at Rockwood School and many went to junior high at Earl Grey School.
“They faced enormous prejudice,” said Winnipeg Tribune reporter Bill MacPherson in 1959.
He noted that at Rockwood School, when a teacher called for a group game and told the kids to join hands, “Nobody would dare join hands with the Rooster Town children. Just what those little episodes can do to youthful personalities can be left to the imagination.”
As I scoured my memory bank I did not have to imagine as I can remember all to clearly my observations of what racism can do to a young child. My husband grew up playing hockey with boys from residential schools; he lived all year round in tents heated by wood stoves in Pukatawagan, The Pas, Ilford and Russell River, which isn’t even on the map.
He fished and canoed and lived a life in nature thanks to his father who was a government bush pilot. As a white kid he had a free ride. Moving to the big city with an adopted Cree sister was a lesson in vicarious racism.
In Grade 12, I met my high school sweetheart and one of my first memories of visiting his home after school one Friday was an introduction to systemic racism. His sister in Grade 1 was there with her new friend. Her friend phoned her mother and asked if she could bring my future sister-in-law home for supper. The answer from the other end of the phone was a yes and off they went.
Within a few minutes a very sad little girl returned. When asked why she was back her reply was, “Mary’s mom says no Indians in this house.”
This past summer I met someone my husband went to school with in The Pas. The conversation got around to Helen Betty Osborne and the attitude of some townsfolk toward young Native women. He assured me that, “Everyone knew who murdered her.” One ratted, one got jail time but the accomplices are guilty. And they know who they are, he said.
When supervising volunteer practicum students one of the placements was Agape Table at All Saints Church on Broadway in Winnipeg. There I met street men who longed for the days of their youth up north and fishing and hunting and living on the land. They were lost souls in the city. That is when the term cultural genocide really hit home for me.
The Bentwood Box (pictured above) was carved by Coast Salish artist Luke Marston as a tribute to Residential School survivors and First Nations, Inuit and Métis students. It contains 1,300 items such as hockey jerseys, a miniature birch bark canoe and beaded moccasins. The box is permanently housed at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the Fort Garry campus, University of Manitoba.
The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliations (NCTR) was created to ensure the stories of residential school students are never forgotten.
Indigenous youth have a unique opportunity to explore their heritage and culture in the Louis Riel School Division‘s ECHO Program at Glenlawn, Dakota and Windsor Park Collegiates for students of First Nations, Metis and Inuit backgrounds. Traditional teachings are provided by an Indigenous leader in four core subjects.
There is also a monthly group meeting called Circle of ReconciliACTION of approximately 30 students who explore colonization, residential schools and historical narrative.
There was no bilingual programming for Indigenous students when Neil Young went to school. Now children in Winnipeg School Division can start learning Cree and Ojibwe in Kindergarten and Grade 1 at Isaac Brock School. For more info: 204-772-9527.
Pow Wows are defined as a time for Native North Americans to meet in friendship; a time of singing, dancing, feasting and prayer; a celebration of culture.
On May 20 and 21, the RBC Convention Centre will host the Manito Ahbee International Pow Wow. There is a jigging competition, as well as the opportunity to see more than 800 traditional dancers perform as well as an Indigenous marketplace and art expo. Click here for more information.
Another upcoming event everyone is invited to is the Anishinaabe Water Gathering, May 24 – 27 in Whiteshell Provincial Park, at the sacred Manito Api Site.
Indigenous Roots of Expressive Arts Therapy: Transformation, Social Justice and Social Change, Oct. 4-8, 2017 featuring Elder Dave Courchene, Niigaanwewidam Sinclair and Leah Fontaine. (Early Bird pricing until June 3, 2017).
There will be a public event on Healing Through the Arts: a conversation and music with Tomson Highway, 7:30 p.m. Winnipeg Art Gallery. Tickets are $35.
Walking with our Sisters is a commemorative art installation for missing and murdered Indigenous women that will be in Winnipeg next year, March 2018. Location TBD.
With compassion and insight Richard Wagamese “traces the decline of a culture” in his novel Indian Horse about Saul, a human face of the residential school tragedy.
In the non-fiction, Broken Circle, Theodore Fontaine shows the “dark legacy of Indian residential schools.”
Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail has gathered 15 stories of truth and reconciliation in her book, In This Together.
David A. Robertson uses fiction to show an all too real account of life on the rez for a single mother in The Evolution of Alice.
For a synopsis of how Canada managed to create a travesty for First Nations people, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, located at 1500-360 Main St. in Winnipeg, published a pamphlet entitled, Indian Residential Schools: An Overview.
All photos by Heather Emberley except where noted.