Canadian Roots youth exchange builds reconciliation

Program participants Marlo Corbiere, Dalal Badawi, Emily Diemert, Jacqueline Neshkwa, Kennes Lin, Sage Petahtegoose, Hyenbu Kang, Sara Patino, Rachelle Hawthorn, Nimra Bandukwala, Ping Chen, Lynzi Taibossigai, Sheguiandah host Sunshine Sagutch and Canadian Roots executive director Vibhor Garg pose in front of the tipi the group erected on the Sheguiandah powwow grounds. photo by Michael Erskine

SHEGUIANDAH—Sitting in a circle within the tipi they had constructed on the grounds of the Sheguiandah First Nation powwow grounds, the young women participating in the Canadian Roots Exchange program joined M’Chigeeng O’gimmaa-kwe Linda Debassige in a discussion to learn about what the reconciliation process looks like to the Anishinaabe.

“This group is all girls,” said local Canadian Roots Exchange rep Lynzii Taibossigai. The groups, she explained, are normally co-ed. “I had thought about doing an all women group for some time, but this time it just all fell into place.” Only one male had applied to the program this year, and that individual backed out.

The all-women group added a different dynamic to the program, which the organizers were emphatic was not a “tourism” group. “This is not about tourism,” said Canadian Roots Executive Director Vibhor Garg. “I am sure the government would like to classify this as tourism, but that really does not encompass what we are all about.”

“Canadian Roots Exchange is all about bringing Natives and non-Native youth together and living together in a First Nations community to learn about education, history and culture,” explained Ms. Taibossigai. The importance of bringing divergent groups from across the Canadian experience together to learn about First Nations and indigenous people’s stories on a person-to-person basis is hard to overstate, she noted.

The mission of Canadian Roots Exchange is to “build bridges between indigenous and non-indigenous youth in Canada by facilitating dialogue and strengthening relationships through leadership programs,” and their vision is “we believe in a Canada where youth stand in solidarity to promote respect, understanding and reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples.”

Marla Corbiere, a Sudbury student, said that she had joined the program to “learn more about the culture here on the Island and to interact with other people of like mind.”

Hyenbu Kang is from Toronto and she said that she has been working with the CRE for some time and that it was a “great way to learn everything about the culture and life in the First Nations communities.”

Dalal Badawi is also from the Toronto area and she said that her interest in the program was “similar to Marla, to interact with like-minded people open to new experiences.”

Sara Patino is a community worker in Toronto and said that she wanted to connect to the land and how life is lived here on Manitoulin. “I don’t like living in the city, so I am looking at different ways of life in Ontario,” she said.

Emily Diemara is from the Halton-Waterloo region and works at Sir Wilfred Laurier University in the Anishinaabe department. “I am officially here for work,” she said. “Unofficially I want to connect to the land where I grew up. I also want to connect with like-minded people, strong women.”

Jacqueline Neshkawa is also a staff member with CRE and she is half Ojibwe. “I didn’t learn much about the language, land and culture growing up,” she said.

Kennes Lin, a youth worker, said that she has read a lot on the Internet, but to understand spirituality in life requires a more hands-on experience.

Rachelle Hawthorne is from Ottawa and she was seeking to learn more about First Nations and what reconciliation meant to aboriginal people.

Nimra Bandukwala is originally from Pakistan and has been in Canada for two years, she was seeking to learn more about what the importance the land has to aboriginal peoples and to understand more about the country she now calls home. “And to share experiences,” she said.

Ping Chen is originally from China, now living in Markham and working as a social worker. “My job is counselling,” she said. “I am interested in hearing the stories, you learn a lot about people from them.”

Sage Petahtegoose’s ancestors come from the Island and she was seeking to learn more from the traditional knowledge keepers that they got to visit. She found the group’s visit to Dreamer’s Rock to be one of the most moving and informative activities, as much from opportunity to share with the other members of the group in a more reflective and unstructured period.

“It was our first time together in open spaces,” agreed Ms. Patino. The experiences up to that time had been somewhat structured and tended to take place within buildings and close spaces.

Among the most moving experiences for the group was a visit to the Spanish residential school and to hear from former students.

What came as a very big surprise was that not all of the stories were negative, unlike what comes across in the media. But there were harrowing tales and the juxtaposition of pain and joy were also very enlightening.

“When they told me they would start each morning at the school by sliding down the fire pole, I don’t know what I thought,” said one participant, “but then when the elder pointed out the pole to me at the ruins, I did not realize just how high up it was.”

The program schedule was deliberately designed to have one day of fairly intense interactions and then one day with a less harrowing schedule or program within which to heal.

As they sat within the walls of the tipi they had helped erect, the team members were briefed on Chief Debassige’s interpretation of what reconciliation means to her community and the people around her.

The gist of her comments was that the process of discovering what that means, beyond nice words, is a journey just begun.

“Reconciliation started with the apology by then Prime Minister Stephen Harper,” said Chief Debassige. “It really signalled a shift in Canada.” But going forward, she notes, it is still not clear what actions lie behind those words. “There are still folks feeling the impact of the residential school system, it is intergenerational.”

Chief Debassige took the group through a short history of the patrimonial approach that Canada has taken with the First Nations and indigenous people. That approach has not changed all that much up until the present day. “Since the inception of the Indian Act successive governments have made changes and they did so without consulting us,” she said. “They are still doing that up to the present day. They continue to label us.”

But she did describe the adoption by Canada of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as “a pivotal moment for Canada.”

Because of the damage done by the systems of colonization, beyond simply the residential school system, there is much reconciliation that must take place within First Nations communities themselves, before they can even really begin to look at what reconciliation means in relation to Canada itself. “The process of reconciliation is off to a slow start,” she said. “There is a lot of hurt.” Chief Debassige noted that “there is a lot of trauma in myself.”

As to what reconciliation means to aboriginal peoples, “there is no collective agreement as to what that means.”

The group spent two days in M’Chigeeng, another in Aundeck Omni Kaning and overnight in the tipi, the setting up of which involved the group getting a close personal introduction to the ubiquitous Northern Ontario mosquito, but the pesky creatures had abated by the time they bunked down.