Area First Nations weigh in on new culture strategy for Ontario

John Beaucage facilitates discussion during the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport Cultural Strategy engagement session held in Aundeck Omni Kaning. photo by Robin Burridge

AUNDECK OMNI KANING— Representatives from several area First Nations and  organizations met with the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport (MTCS) to provide input on a Culture Strategy for Ontario.

The engagement session was held in Aundeck Omni Kaning (AOK) and included representatives from the community, Sheguiandah First Nation, M’Chigeeng First Nation, Batchewana First Nation, Whitefish River First Nation (WRFN), Sagamok Anishnawbek First Nation, Serpent River First Nation, Wikwemikong, the Wiikwemkoong Art Gallery, Wikwemikong Heritage Organization, the Wikwemikong Library, The Ojibwe Cultural Foundation, Weengushk Film Institute, Debajehmujig Storytellers and Kina Gbezhgomi Child and Family Services.

John Beaucage, past Grand Council Chief of the Anishinabek Nation, currently of Counsel Public Affairs welcomed the group and led introductions as well as discussion following an overview from the MTCS on the Culture Strategy.

The ministry representatives discussed how the MTSC is developing its first Culture Strategy to guide the government’s support of culture in the future. As part of the strategy development, the MTCS is holding culture talks, public engagement sessions with Ontarians across the province (11 town hall meetings) as well as specific sessions with First Nations, Metis and Inuit people (four sessions including ones in Fort William First Nation, Native Canadian Centre of Toronto, Chippewas of the Thames First Nation and the AOK session).

Shirley Cheechoo, founder of both the Weengushk Film Institute and Debajehmujig Theatre Group on Manitoulin, was present for the meeting, noting that she is also a member of the Culture Strategy Advisory Group.

“I joined the advisory committee because I wanted to take part in a plan that is going to be implemented, not just a report that is going to be filed away,” Ms. Cheechoo told the group.

One of the area First Nation representatives questioned if the ministry was planning on investing more money into culture or simply shifting funding.

The MTCS replied that they were planning on maximizing existing resources and that at the present time, no additional resources were planned.

Another question was what percentage of the ministry’s budget was allotted towards First Nations.

“Since 2003, the government has invested $64 million in arts and culture initiatives benefiting indigenous populations: $25 million through the Ontario Arts Council, $22 million through the Ontario Trillium Foundation, $11 million for First Nation public libraries, $1 million through the Ontario Cultural Attractions Fund and $5 million through other sources,” the MTCS explained.

Batchewana First Nation Councillor Greg Agawa commented that the First Nation doesn’t recognize consultation and read a statement from his community, which noted that they would like a cultural building and an investment made in a language program.

Another comment was made about what culture is. “It is our way of life and how we relate to each other,” commented an elder from Whitefish River First Nation. She explained that whether it is an artist’s painting or a storyteller, the individual is putting their spirit into their craft.

“We need resources to support our way of life and pass on our traditions to the next generations,” the elder continued. “And we need to keep our language alive. We also need to look at how to put our families back together and bring balance to our communities.”

A question was asked regarding how the ministry was going to incorporate all the different ideas, taking into account the diversity that exists in Ontario.

The MTCS recognized that it will be a challenge, but that their plan is to highlight the key points from each of the conversations and then narrow them down into main initiatives for the strategy.

The MTCS stressed that developing the Cultural Strategy was going to be an ongoing process, and that individuals could continue to make suggestions throughout the process.

It was also suggested that the government needs to correct the history being taught in schools pertaining to indigenous people, and that Ontario youth are still being taught incorrect history.

Michael Cywink of the Wiikwemkoong Art Gallery sad that more support needs to be added for artistic community outreach, referencing art programs he had led in Northern communities and their success, but that he quickly ran out of travel funding despite good response of the program.

A statement was made about the importance of culture and how it is lived everyday in First Nation lives. “It is who we are.”

Joe Osawabine from Debajehmujig stated that “culture is a part of our everyday.”

He responded to the first discussion question, ‘Tell us about a cultural experience you’ve had that was significant. What made it special?’

“Growing up in the Debaj Theatre Group, I started with the company when I was 12,” said Mr. Osawabine. “Shirley (Cheechoo) started the company because there were no other indigenous stories on stage—you couldn’t see our lives on stage. My first production with Debaj was all in the Anishinaabek language and we worked with elders. I have had many other great cultural experiences with Debaj.”

Mr. Osawabine also spoke of the company’s project ‘Elders Gone AWOL,’ and how it not only revitalized the elders, but connected elders with youth and created many shared cultural experiences.

Bruce Naokwegijg, also from Debaj, spoke of working in Northern communities and revitalizing community spaces and the difference that can make to a community and to its cultural activities.

During the discussion of First Nation libraries, AOK Chief Patsy Corbiere noted that people aren’t using the libraries and that they will become non-existent unless the ministry puts more money into them and added that the First Nations don’t have the money to support them alone.

“The ministry of culture needs to make culture a first priority,” an individual commented. “The committees know what they need—we are experts in our unique community.”

“I ask that the ministry speak our truth and respect the information they heard today,” shared another First Nation representative in attendance. “Be humble and treat us as equals. Take what you learned and turn it into wisdom to help our people. Show us your love from your people to our people.”

Mr. Beaucage gave closing remarks and a closing prayer was given following the conclusion of the meeting.

The MTCS discussed that the next step, following engagement sessions, was a draft Cultural Strategy that would be released in the spring of 2016 for comment followed by the final draft.

Anyone wishing to join the conversation and provide feedback on the Cultural Strategy can submit comments through the Environmental Registry www.ebr.gov.on.ca until December 7, 2015, or join the discussion at ontario.ca/culturetalks/ or on Twitter using the hashtag #ONculture.