By Jacqueline Sookermany, SCM Canada
For four days this June a small group of students and WSCF/SCM staff members gathered in my resident city of Winnipeg, Canada for the Indigenous Solidarity Program, where we spent time learning about Indigenous culture from Indigenous members of the community and explored what it means to stand in solidarity with our Indigenous neighbours. Winnipeg is not a common travel destination and has a reputation for being cold and inhospitable for much of the year (with a nickname like Winterpeg there isn’t a lot of tourist draw), but with the highest provincial population of Indigenous people in Canada, and 40% of that population living in the city of Winnipeg, it is a unique space well suited for a conference of this nature. With the mix of cultures and communities in this small city has to offer, there are rich resources for learning about Indigenous culture, learning from Indigenous communities, and exploring the ways in which settlers and the Indigenous communities have come together to work toward reconciliation, as well as to hear from the communities where we, as settlers, have more work to do.
Our group was a diverse mix of settlers born in North America (6 from Canada, 1 from the US) and more recent settlers (from the UK, Italy, and Nigeria), each bringing their own perspectives and experience from their personal, educational and professional backgrounds. The diversity of our group allowed us to expand our definition of what Indigenous culture and solidarity looks like and to make connections slightly beyond the North American Indigenous scope to look at Indigenous issues in Nigeria and issues facing the African-American communities in the US. These stories added depth to our discussions about what solidarity and activism looks like beyond our immediate context, while also showing the ways in which each community faces their own distinct struggles in overcoming colonization, corrupt power structures, and discrimination.
We began our conference learning about the land we would be calling home for the next four days, Canadian Mennonite University. Our first speakers, Annika Reynar and Michael Veith, shared the history of the land we were on with us, a history spanning from its original inhabitants– the Saulteaux and Cree Nations– and the earliest settlers of the Selkirk Treaty to the present day University and its adjoined urban farm. We also discussed the problems of placeness and story when taken out of context or prescribed unfit meaning; how truth can get lost when we lose the collectiveness of storytelling and history keeping and instead focus on our own perspective fragments of the whole. Starting our time together sitting on the University’s farm, hearing part of the story of how we came to be there, parts of the story that we wouldn’t have thought of otherwise, set the tone for the rest of the week-understanding that our stories as settlers goes far beyond the spans of our own lives. In addition to our introduction to the land, the following morning we were graciously welcomed to the land by Elder Theodore Fountaine, who would later share his own story of residential schools, as well as his vision of what Canada’s reconciliation should look like.
Through the remainder of the week there was sharing from other conference participants including the journey of the Christian Peacemaker Teams’ Pilgrimage for Indigenous Rights and a bible study focusing on reconciliation (from the text: 1Kings 21:1-1). We also heard from our other guests, such as Indigenous artist Heather Bjorklund, who led our group in Indigenous storytelling, drama, and dance exercises and Adrienne Leitch, who spoke to us about the documentary project she collaborated on, Reserve 107, which looks at community facilitated reconciliation efforts between rural Saskatchewan settlers and the Young Chippewayan Nation members whose land they live on. During our conversation cafe and Senior Friends event facilitated by Elder Fountaine, we heard about Elder Fountaine’s experience in Residential schools and how his time there
impacted his family and relationships throughout his life. He shared with us some reading from his book, Broken Circle, and told us about his vision for repairing relationships between Canadian settlers/government and Indigenous peoples. The conversation cafe was also a time for people to share their experiences, ask questions, and to showcase an art project featuring the 94 Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission embroidered onto Canadian flags. This session was very moving and it was an honour to listen and share with Elder Fountaine.
One of the most impactful experiences for me was walking with the Bear Clan Patrol- a group of community members who patrol Winnipeg’s North End every evening to pick up drug paraphernalia and check in with community members. We started our evening attending a weekly event called Meet Me at the Bell Tower- a community check in where North End community members rally together to end violence and poverty in the community. We were able to participate in a smudge and drum song there, before heading out on patrol.
Walking through a part of my city that I rarely go to, with people who are invested, passionate, and knowledgeable about their community was inspiring. Seeing how Bear Clan members make a conscious effort to reach out to every person they pass while on patrol and how trusted they are in their community as service members and friends was a prime example of what it means to be an active member of community and how we can create change through relationships and intentionality.
Sharing in these experiences and learning along side each of the amazing people who participated in the Indigenous Solidarity Program was a blessing. Being able to take on the role of listener and learner as part of my journey of activism and social justice work was so important, as these roles can sometime be put on the back burner. This experience renewed my commitment to stand beside and not in front of my Indigenous friends and neighbours, creating space for them to speak into our shared community and advocating for their leadership in solidarity work.