M’Chigeeng Knowledge Symposium stresses that decolonization of First Nations must take place in order to move ahead in healing

Ron Kanutski of Thunder Bay served as Master of Ceremonies for the 2014 annual M’Chigeeng Knowledge Symposium and served up some needed comedy as well. Pictured with Mr. Kanutski is Estelle Simard, executive director of the Institute for Culturally Restorative Practices, and keynote speaker at the workshop.

M’CHIGEENG—The annual M’Chigeeng First Nation Knowledge Symposium was held March 3 with a large audience in attendance at the community complex. The purpose of the workshop was to give participants an opportunity to learn about their unique attachment to culture.

Estelle Simard was the keynote speaker at the conference and represented the Institute for Culturally Restorative Practices (ICRP), which is situated in Fort Frances. Outlines of the organization state that ICRP seeks to ensure that individuals, as well as families and communities, understand their own unique cultural teachings and rebuild communities through the language, teaching, customs, ceremonies, roles and responsibilities as well as societal structures.

The knowledge symposium workshop started with a smudging ceremony and prayer by elder Geraldine McGregor and drumming and song by the M’Chigeeng Drum Group after an introduction by Ron Kanutski of Thunder Bay who served as master of ceremonies and all-round comedian. Mr. Kanutski then introduced Chief Glen Hare to the audience for introductory remarks. Chief Hare is the Deputy Grand Chief of the Anishinaabe Nation and he is not one to mince words. “I travel 10,000 kilometres a month to see how people are doing,” he said as he went on to remark that he is not shy to speak of how the First Nation communities look great during the day but it is a different story after the sun goes down. He also talked of how he promotes jurisdiction and authority when he travels. “We belong on Mother Earth,” Chief Hare told his audience, “and First Nation people, including children, are being restricted to a certain area of the province.

Another topic raised by Chief Hare was the announcement by Prime Minister Harper of federal funds for First Nation education. As Chief Hare pointed out, the money is promised for 2016 and if Mr. Harper loses the election or forms a minority government, it will probably be gone.

Chief Hare also expressed his horror about the appalling things that were done to First Nations people who were forced to attend residential schools.

Ms. Simard, who was next to speak, is the executive director of the ICRP which evolved from her experiences around child welfare and childhood mental health. She is from the Treaty Three locale, which includes 27 reserves in her area, especially around Fort Frances, and began her talk by saying, “I want to share some ideas on what cultural attachment theory means. This is my PhD in progress.”

Ms. Simard first talked about the importance of the First Nation members on Manitoulin. “You are a powerful people,” she said. “You are talked about in our legends and in our stories and in our lodges,” as she went on to explain what cultural attachment theory means. “Remember a time in your life,” she told her audience, “when you really thirsted to know what it was like to be Anishinaabe—to know who you really were. Cultural attachment is all about connecting to that spirit of who you are. Cultural memories are inside you right now. It is in your blood. And the teachings that I give you today have been given to me over 27 years. There have probably been about 10 different elders who have molded me. I am just a vessel—a teacher telling you about the teachings of these people.”

As Ms. Simard continued her dialogue she mentioned how kids are challenged with mastering two worlds, but are only given one. “We teach them English, not Anishinaabe. There is nothing Anishinaabe in those schools.” Ms. Simard was then surprised and pleased when a member of the workshop pointed out that an Ojibwe immersion school had opened in M’Chigeeng.

Perhaps the hardest part of this seminar was to listen to Ms. Simard talk about colonization. “Colonization is a distinct period in which Indigenous tribes across the world experienced horrific constant and chronic loss of land, home, resources, family and even self identity. Indigenous scholars have referred to this memory as the soul wound.” As Ms. Simard spelled out, based on the work of scholars colonial tools include control, psychological strategies, the forced removal from sacred lands, massacres, slaughters, laws, separation of families, child welfare and policies and regulations designed to control as well as the introduction of alcohol and the purposeful introduction of disease. Consequences of colonization, again defined by scholars, include increased suicide rates, low mortality rates, mental health illnesses, poor housing, overcrowded housing, poor educational outcomes, unresolved grief and trauma, loss of stability and loss of identity. The ICRP believe that in order to be liberated from colonization and its effects, decolonization must take place. This process means that Anishinaabe leadership is investing in defining the cultural structures, language, teachings, customs, beliefs and traditional ceremonies of their people.