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Sharing circles crucial to building cultural bridges

Hearing Indigenous perspectives key to establishing understanding and respect

SUNDRE — The road to Truth and Reconciliation requires not only a collective willingness for Canadians to self-reflect on how past government policies have over the centuries created harmful intergenerational systemic injustice that reverberates to this very day, but also an effort to respectfully listen to and consider the perspectives of Indigenous people’s experience.

“As perpetrators of that history, the Caucasian cultures also have healing to do,” Heather Plaizier, a member of the Sundre Rural Mental Health Committee, said during an interview.

“The bullies have healing to do, and that’s where the real change comes from actually,” she told The Albertan when asked her response to anyone who says Indigenous people should just get over what happened in the past.

“It’s really about, in our communities, getting to understand each other better, and hear each other. When we understand each other’s perceptive, it changes everything,” she said.  

“For me, when it comes down to the calls to action for Truth and Reconciliation, it’s about people getting to understand and appreciate and respect each other, and really becoming more conscious of our different perspectives and our different biases, and not being so quick to judgment.”

Confronting trauma

To that end, the committee has, with assistance from the Greenwood Neighbourhood Place Society, scheduled some upcoming educational opportunities for residents to participate in.

Anyone who is interested is welcome to join on Tuesday, July 13 from 7-9:30 p.m. at the Sundre Municipal Library a public viewing and debriefing circle of a 49-minute video produced by Blue Quills First Nations Post-Secondary Institution, which is located in northeastern Alberta.

The site of a former First Nations residential school, Blue Quills was run by the Roman Catholic Church from 1931 to 1970. Following a 17-day sit-in protest, the federal government eventually turned control of the school over to the Blue Quills Native Education Council, reads a portion of a press release issued by the committee.

For more than half a century, the council has since reclaimed charge of their children’s education and converted the former residential school into a post secondary institution with an objective to “retain their dignity and self-respect as Indian people,” the statement reads.

The video encapsulates some of the stories about the school and the community’s residents, as well as the path of healing, it adds.  

“It invites us all into a process of first confronting and understanding the trauma perpetrated through the residential school system, then into releasing the pain, and finally transcending the trauma.”

Welcome All Circles planned

Additionally, Sundre Welcome All Circles are planned for June 22 and July 27 at 10:30 a.m. — both dates are on a Tuesday — with the intention of fostering an opportunity for enhanced individual and community mental health and well-being. The circles are adapted from a process learned from Nehiyo as well as other First Nations community traditions and mentors.

Not to be confused with a drumming circle, sharing circles are about telling stories and along the way building mutual understanding and respect, said Plaizier.

“It’s about very attentive listening with deep respect and no interruptions,” she said. “The response that we’ve had to mental health in general, has been inspired by what different members of the community have learned from Indigenous mentors and elders and leaders about circles and their importance.”

Disturbing discovery

Following the disturbing revelation that ground-penetrating radar unveiled an unmarked, mass grave of more than 200 children who were unceremoniously buried at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., she said the extent to which so many people were impacted by that discovery was apparent.

“We thought, let’s respond by more directly recognizing that trauma and those issues," which have undoubtedly played a significant role in straining the mental health and well-being of First Nations communities, she said.

“Imagine the people who ignored the children, disrespected the children, and at worst-case scenario, murdered the children — imagine as perpetrators of that history,” she said, adding reconciliation will also require taking responsibility for the past.

Prior to the pandemic, the Sundre library had already ordered a resource called Gently Whispering the Circle Back — a documentary that explores the journey of healing endured by residential school survivors — but the subsequent closure of public facilities put those plans on pause, she said.

Not surprised

Asked whether she was at all surprised by the discovery at the former residential school in B.C., Plaizier said, “I’m sorry to say that I’m not. I’ve sort of had a bit of an ear to the ground over the last years, and I’ve heard of different situations of skeletons being found, and not just in graves.”

However, she during her own time as a student in grade school never really learned much about this dark, long-lasting chapter of Canadian history that was perpetuated by consecutive Conservative and Liberal governments, nor that the last residential school had closed as recently as 1996.  

“There was nothing about that, definitely — I can corroborate that,” she said. “I remember hearing about residential schools, but I just thought they were one-off schools as part of church missions. I thought churches, out of the goodness of their Christian hearts, were just setting up schools for the natives.

"I had no concept until much later that that was federal policy, to hand over the responsibility for education to the churches so that we could take the Indian out of the children.

“That was the federal response to the dealing with the Indian problem, and it was for generations. Let’s put them in residential schools, let’s take the Indian out of them. That was federal policy.”

The issue struck much closer to home later in life, when Plaizier, who was raised in the United Church, said she heard about “horrific allegations” that implicated a United Church on Canada’s West Coast in what amounted to a land grab. Bodies, including infants, were also allegedly discovered.

“They were more concerned about their financial well-being as a local church, than they were about the people that they were supposedly serving,” she said.

“These were allegations — they weren’t proven,” she stressed, adding that was nevertheless a big learning experience for her.

The United Church of Canada issued in 1986 an apology, which is also posted on its website.

“We tried to make you be like us, and in so doing we helped to destroy the vision that made you what you were,” the statement reads.

But most of the residential schools — about 70 per cent — were run by the Catholic Church. Pope Francis recently expressed sorrow but fell short of issuing an apology.

Take action

Asked what action the federal government should take, Plaizier said a good start would be unconditionally acknowledging the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Provincially speaking, she said, “In terms of consultations, to make sure that consultations on any kinds of land use or resource extraction, are really, truly consultations, rather than sort of appearances of consultations,”

And at the more actionable, local level, she added, “I’m such a big believer in circles and just hearing each others’ perspective. And even if we don’t fully understand them, at least to hear them and build a stronger basis for respect.”

Responding to Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s claims that removing public monuments that glorify men like Canada’s founder and architect of the residential school system, Sir John A. Macdonald, is tantamount to erasing history, she said, “I think it is important that we acknowledge the rampant racism that underlined our history. And, yes, our perspectives have changed.

“But while it was more common for people to have those perspectives (in the past), still doesn’t make it right,” she said.

“The implications for the lives of whole cultures of people was drastically affected, and we’re responsible for that.”  

Anyone who is interested in participating in the upcoming circles in person or by Zoom can call GNP at 403-638-1011. National Indigenous Peoples Day was observed throughout the country on Monday, June 21.

Simon Ducatel

About the Author: Simon Ducatel

Simon Ducatel is the editor of the Sundre Round Up and a longtime columnist for other publications of Mountain View Publishing.
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