Community Resilience and Indigenous Connection  

Marginalized communities often have to deal with more than their fair share of societal strain and disconnection, and indigenous groups are no exception. Indigenous communities around the world are all-too-familiar with adversity and struggle, often brought on by a number of internal and external pressures. It is imperative that these communities have the tools to enable them to rally together when facing hardship. So, how we do we define community resilience? According to the Canadian Centre for Community Renewal, resilience is a community’s ability to respond, adapt and/or withstand stress and change. This concept is one that was brought to light last October at the Overcoming Isolation and Deepening Social Connectedness symposium.

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A diverse group of people from around the world gathered together at the symposium to tackle many issues surrounding isolation and social connection and from this, a panel was put together to share global community resilience stories. It was clear from this particular panel discussion that indigenous community perspectives are a huge part of the topic on overcoming isolation. The stories that were shared started a deeper conversation about resilience and connectedness amongst indigenous peoples.

During the community resilience panel, Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo from the Ahousaht First Nation in B.C., spoke of the return of traditional customs and ceremonies that were outlawed by Canada until very recently. The return of these First Nations ceremonies, coupled with recent apologies by the Canadian government to those affected by residential schools, has contributed to what Chief Atleo described as the “age of indigenous peoples.” Chief Atleo noted that to finally celebrate a ceremony that was once illegal appears to have raised community spirits and helped to reconnect with an important shared heritage.

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Cultural exchanges were also highlighted as a way to strengthen community resilience. Laurie McLaren of Nipissing University shared a story of indigenous community connectedness in Peru. While in Cusco for the World Indigenous Conference on Education she was able to compare, first-hand, the traditional knowledge and family memories of Canadian Aboriginals with the indigenous traditions of the Quechua people. Laurie recalled a moment when she witnessed two young girls who, having learned about their family role from their elders, understood their even greater role in the community.

In large part, community resilience is also about being able to learn from each other and using that knowledge to better your life and the lives of others. Near the end of her discussion on the resilience panel, Zeni Thumbadoo of the National Association of Child Care Workers (NACCW) highlighted this sentiment by saying, “when people feel brave enough in a community to share stories of their own lives, of their own poverty, of their own hardships they are able to understand that it’s okay”. In this way, it is only when we are able to feel comfortable discussing these issues – issues that so often affect indigenous communities – that we will be able to overcome them.

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In the spirit of reconnecting with shared heritage and tradition, and supporting the resilience of first peoples, a number of U.S. cities, including Seattle and Minneapolis, have changed the name of the popular American holiday from “Columbus Day” to “Indigenous Peoples’ Day.” This movement is a huge step forward in the recognition of deep and complex history of Indigenous Americans – on a day that happens to coincide with Canadian Thanksgiving Monday.

In a similar vein, the Odawa Native Friendship Centre held an “Indigenous Resistance Day” over Thanksgiving weekend this year, bringing together people with Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal backgrounds to celebrate the harvest and join as one community. The event aimed to highlight Canada’s indigenous heritage and Odawa President, Christopher Wong, explained one of the primary aims of this inclusive event was “to invite all community members to come out and celebrate and prepare for the winter together.”

In Canada, the Connected North program is one that operates under a similar concept. This program provides opportunities for Indigenous youth in remote and northern communities to connect with others through virtual classroom exchanges with other classrooms in southern parts of Canada using interactive technologies supported by Cisco.

Cisco Canada’s Willa Black discussed the “true nation building” (which is, in a sense, community resilience on a national scale) as a result of this unique program. “It’s the belief of kids in the North that no one cared about them or their culture. For the kids in the south they found out that these students are just like them,” she explained.

With an emphasis on storytelling, the hope is that this program will allow communities to share experiences of resilience and contribute to overcoming isolation. Beginning this fall, TakingITGlobal has taken on the role as lead ecosystem partner for Connected North and is facilitating North-to-North connections with participating schools.

The spirit and strength of a community is not only measured within the community itself, but also through partnership and camaraderie between communities.

At the end of the panel, a thought-provoking question was posed to Chief Atleo in response to Richards’ discussions of city growth. Participant Aaron Williamson asked, “what does the age of indigenous peoples look like in this urbanizing age?”

In his response, Chief Atleo replied: “the age of indigenous peoples is the age of people.” We must hope that Chief Atleo is right: enhanced understanding and communication amongst indigenous communities will ultimately lead to greater resilience in all communities around the world.