On October 23rd, the Fall 2017 Jeanne Sauvé Forum Series on Social Connectedness and International Development continued with an event entitled, Truth and Reconciliation: Building Community from Indigenous Perspectives.
The Sauvé Series, created by Professor Kim Samuel in collaboration with the Jeanne Sauvé Foundation, explores the root causes of social isolation, along with strategies for building social connectedness through international policy and program development. It began last fall with weekly discussions at the historic Jeanne Sauvé House in Montreal covering a variety of topics, from the UN Sustainable Development Goals to refugees and human rights. The Series is also closely linked with Professor Samuel’s fourth-year seminar course on social connectedness at McGill University, the first of its kind.
The October 23rd event featured a panel of Indigenous community leaders who are driving efforts to build capacity within their communities, grounded in the strengths of their languages, cultures and knowledge. Panelists included Becky Cook of Misipawistik Cree Nation; Gabe Hughes of Wampanoag Nation (also with close ties to the Mi’kmaq Nation in Newfoundland); and Abraham Jolly, Director General of the Cree School Board in Mistissini, Quebec.
Gabe Hughes opened the evening with a captivating Mi’kmaq drum and vocal performance, played in a round of 4 with each successive round increasing in tempo and intensity. Professor Samuel also showed a clip from Gord Downie’s Secret Path film, both for its content and out of respect and solemn reflection for Downie, the artist, activist and Canadian icon who passed away last week.
In her opening remarks, Professor Samuel encouraged audience members “to reflect on the truth that is now before us thanks to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and join us in a discussion about the pathways forward to reconciliation in Canada.” Despite the enormity of the task, she argued it is crucial for all of us to “take the time to reflect, to understand and to become active participants in this process of re-building community and re-connecting families and communities to one another.”
In recounting the dark history of Indian Residential Schools in Canada, dating back to the 1870s, Professor Samuel noted that the purpose of the government funded, church-run schools was to “kill the Indian in the child” and “break the bonds of family and community and the continuity of language, culture and identity.” As a result, she stated that while restorative justice is important, including issues surrounding lands, resources, health and education, Indigenous languages and cultures must also be prioritized. “Through art, story-telling, dance and song, re-discovery and re-affirmation can take hold, fortifying Indigenous identity through the incredible wisdom and teachings contained within these ancient arts.”
Gabe Hughes then took the floor and told the audience more about her background. Born in Nova Scotia, Gabe moved to Newfoundland at a young age and was taken in by the Mi’kmaq community there. In her youth, she would meet with a small group of women a couple of times a month to form a drumming circle. Singers took great pride in singing, and today the group contains over 200 people. Gabe also explained how she worked with the community on a violence prevention initiative for over 2 years, which helped build connectedness between women and men. The initiative made use of language and culture to help community members confront violence, bullying and self-harm.
Gabe also described her experience moving to the UK to pursue her DPhil at Oxford University. While she found it challenging to leave her community in Newfoundland, she met other Indigenous students at Oxford, from North America and Australia, and together they started a support group. In an effort to overcome stereotypes, the group held events and hosted guest speakers. Soon the university reached out and they were invited to speak about colonial issues at the annual Origins Festival hosted by the British charity, Border Crossings. In explaining the purpose behind this outreach, Gabe said, “It’s significant to show we’re not extinct.”
Following Gabe, Becky Cook talked about the traditional education program she has been developing with the Cree community in Grand Rapids, Manitoba. As she explained, the program is designed to help youth re-engage in their education, while staying true to the Cree values that everyone is equal, and that we are all connected, to each other, and to the land and animals. Youth participants are being taught about their history, giving context to what it really means to be Cree, and take part in Cree traditions such as hunting and fishing.
Becky described the educational experience for youth as “transformative”, emphasizing that the Cree youth participants are able to see a different path forward from some of the challenges facing their communities, such as drug and alcohol abuse. On the topic of reconciliation, Becky noted that there is no Cree word for ‘sorry’ and that an apology or feelings of regret can only be expressed through actions.
Abraham Jolly then brought the audience back to the legacy of residential schools in Canada. He recalled entering the school system himself back in the 1950s, and in high school living with a constant feeling of inferiority to his peers. He expressed regret about how the residential school system took him away from his parents and siblings, and their life in the bush as hunters and trappers. In describing the experience that he and so many other Indigenous people went through, Abraham simply mentioned the word, “endurance”. He also underscored TRC Commissioner and now Senator Murray Sinclair’s point that while it was the educational system that caused this problem, it is the educational system that is needed to fix it.
Abraham then highlighted what he and his colleagues at the Cree School Board are doing to “take control of our own education.” As he explained, the board was created in 1978 and today services 4,400 students from 9 communities. His team sees education and student success as a journey, and they are working hard to achieve their goals through dedicated strategic planning. In addition to increasing students’ success rate, they are also helping to instill Cree identity.
Following the panelists, Celine Thomas (Policy Analyst and Researcher, Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness; and Social Connectedness Fellow 2017) led off the discussion by recalling her time this past summer helping to run a literacy camp for youth in a Cree community in Mistissini, Quebec. She noted how welcoming the community was and how much she learned about James Bay Cree history through the experience.
Celine’s question for the panelists was, how do we strike the right balance between external support and self-directed change? Gabe answered that when it comes to policy development, consultation is not enough, for the results are too easy to ignore. What is needed instead, she argued, are more Indigenous policymakers that can have a direct influence on decision-making. Abraham then responded by re-iterating a plea he has made to the federal government and government of Quebec: “In the spirit of reconciliation, give us a chance; we can pull this together.”
Another audience member asked the panelists, how do we ensure Indigenous youth who leave their communities aren’t isolated in the long run? Despite having left her own community to pursue her PhD, Gabe proudly explained how she has re-connected with people there, including through drum sessions over Skype. She said she was told that it’s okay for her to be off doing what she’s doing and that she will always be welcome back. She added that her PhD work with Indigenous video game developers has the potential to help Indigenous youth re-discover their identity through immersive gaming experiences.
The next Sauvé Series event will feature a discussion on why food banks and food systems are failing to alleviate food insecurity and undernourishment around the world, and how food policy can be harnessed to build social connectedness. Speaking at the event will be Rachel Gray, Executive Director, The Stop Community Food Centre (Toronto); Patrick Holden, Founding Director and Chief Executive, The Sustainable Food Trust (UK); and Rebecca MacLeod, Regional Champion, Food Secure Canada’s Youth Caucus. For more information and to register for this event, please visit socialconnectedness.org/sauve.