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Seeking paths to reconciliation

PRRC sixth annual educational conference held in Hepburn.
Neal Kewistep keynote Sseaker at the Prairie Rivers Reconciliation Committee conference.

HEPBURN — “We seek to gather in a good way.” What does ‘doing something in a “good way”’ mean? Is it about intention? Is it about committing to act?

The theme of the conference “Navigating the Journey Together” provides a glimpse into what that means. As we, as a nation, seek to ‘decolonize’ our systems and ways, the way to go forward is found in relationships. Healthy relationships, ‘good’ relationships involve mutual respect, openness and honesty, trust, communication, shared values, realistic expectations, shared decision-making, and healthy boundaries. In settler culture, the inclination is to take the lead, make things happen, and create tangible acts that can be seen and recognized as such, and leaders who take charge are valued. However, reconciliation is a process, not a one-time event, and the phrase “Nothing for us, without us,” needs to be the consideration in all acts of reconciliation. Murray Angus, a plain-speaking, no-nonsense educator who co-founded an Ottawa-based college program supporting Inuit youth, does not mince his words. “If you want to be in a relationship that rights the balance, just shut up for a while.” (

The conference was the sixth educational gathering convened by Prairie Rivers Reconciliation Circle. Presenters in the breakout sessions included Melody Wood, Samantha Ouellette, Carmen Ironstar, Colleen Lewis, Michelle Cameron of Federated Co-operatives Limited, Sharon Meyer, Elizabeth Zdunich, and Ezra Harvey. To write on every aspect of learning available at the conference would be to fill an entire paper in itself, but at the root of all education needs to be the understanding of the path from there to here.

Neal Kewistep, in his keynote address, shared a PowerPoint image of a two-row wampum belt, the two rows travelling forever forward side by side. The treaties were imagined to be like the wampum belt, like the two canoes in the visual design for the conference. Two canoes, one containing the Indigenous peoples and the other the newcomers, each navigating down the same river. Each sharing their gifts with those in their own canoe first, but then reaching out and sharing the gifts with those in the other canoe. Unfortunately, that was not the way things materialized. One of the challenges of growing up and searching for an identity is that without the right influences, people can make some choices as they navigate through the currents of the river alone that can land them amid some difficult places, sometimes getting caught in the currents that will pull in directions they did not intend to go.

The Indian Act still impacts First Nations people, and it begins as soon as they are born because the Act impacted their parents and their grandparents. It impacts them through the loss of language and culture, but also through the loss of the traditional ways of being and the hope and expectation of a life well lived. The ‘life stories’ created through the Indian Act are stories of life interrupted, stories of darkness because the natural evolution of a people from childhood through to old age was erased and blurred. Returning to the imagery of the canoe, if one finds themselves alone in a canoe and has never paddled one there will naturally be many awkward attempts to steer the canoe to safe waters, some may even result in more than one cold dunk in the river.

When people who as children, were exposed to and suffered abuse and the severing of family connections by the forced attendance at residential schools, they no longer could be the good role models that the next generation needed. Who then, do the children look up to, and who do they use as role models when so many around them are broken and hurting? When those mothers and fathers, aunties, and uncles, are not making the best choices for themselves, how do the young learn how to be the best person they can be and how to treat others? When young people, regardless of race, have no concept of who they are, they will try to be who society says they are. And when society says they are ‘less than’ and they are ‘unworthy’ simply because of who they are, then it is a well-known truth, that is what they will aspire to and today’s reality comes as the consequences of that compounding generation after generation.

Many grandfathers and grandmothers have the same stories, but not all can ‘unpack’ them, to share them with anyone and so hearing the stories shared by those who have been able to, help others to understand and to see the ‘baggage’ that still hangs over so many residential school survivors and their families and the challenges they face. Reconciliation affords the opportunity to understand each other’s perspective, the opportunity to share knowledge, and the opportunity to come together with humility and share those intimate stories which allow connecting as human beings and better understand each other’s experiences.

Neal’s father is a residential school survivor, and he is still surprised at the changes that have occurred, that he is being invited to share his truths, and that the world has changed to the point where society is listening to his story and working to change the storyline. He never imagined when he was suffering in those schools that in his lifetime the world would “wake up” and get to this place and say that was wrong.

Neal’s closing message was to keep coming together and keep the conversation going. The willingness to learn, to create safe spaces to hear difficult truths, and to strive to ‘walk together in a good way’ is the ‘stuff’ that would have made up the wildest dreams of residential school survivors. That anyone would be talking about these things in public spaces, on paid-for time, was unimaginable. There are still opportunities to learn from each other and so many ways to share all the gifts and all the strengths that each brings. Everyone, in both canoes, has gifts and an opportunity for a treaty relationship that all of our ancestors would be proud of. The solutions have already existed for hundreds of thousands of years, there is no need to recreate them only rediscover them. Push pause on the stereotypes and begin to better understand the consequences of the compounding of trauma from generation to generation.