(soundbyte: Ryan Jeddore)
"I'm still kind of looking in. I partake in some of the ceremonies and things like that, but I still don't quite feel... I'm not in that culture yet. I'm not part of... like it's mine. And I think maybe that might be one of the things I'm kind of regretful about. About having no culture."
(music: “Hoka” by Boogey The Beat)
Indigenous Perspectives. Stories from Indigenous public servants.
Tansi. This is Indigenous Perspectives, a program where we hope to explore the experiences and perspectives of Indigenous public servants, what reconciliation means to them, and what it can be for Canada.
(music: “Bear Song” by Boogey The Beat)
One regret I have in life is that I am constrained by the English language. For all its benefits, it has limits. It's a container. I'm accustomed to living inside it because it's all I've known, but I have to remind myself periodically that while it seems to fit me well, that's only because I grew up from inside of it. I didn't shape it. It shaped me.
Language and culture are inexorably connected.
Written language is a keepsake box. A time capsule. A vehicle that conveys culture from the past through the present and into the future.
Louis Riel, Métis teacher, spokesman, and founder of Manitoba, said:
“We must cherish our inheritance. We must preserve our nationality for the youth of our future. The story should be written down to pass on.”
But stories are shaped so much by the language they are written in, because at its very core, a language encapsulates a culture's perception of reality. English describes reality as I perceive it. But it's not an adequate container, or the right vehicle, for other stories, from other cultures, and their realities.
Tomson Highway, residential school survivor, social worker, classical pianist, author and playwright, is fluent in French, English and his native Cree, and he said:
“English is so hierarchical. In Cree, we don't have animate-inanimate comparisons between things. Animals have souls that are equal to ours. Rocks have souls, trees have souls. Trees are 'who,' not 'what'.”
That's profound revelation.
And that's why taking away Indigenous languages was so profoundly cruel. Under the guise of civilization and betterment, our country tore the essence out of beautiful and proud civilizations. In forcing English upon Indigenous children, we not only dictated how they should speak, but demanded a fundamental re-ordering to how they should think. A new world view which reflected a foreigner's perception of their world.
We took children with cultures that were too complex and too vast and too subtle to fit into the crude container that is the English language, and then were angered when they didn't fit comfortably inside of it.
But it's not too late to reclaim that heritage, embrace traditional languages, expand our thought and expression, restore the perception of reality, of equality, of interconnectedness and interdependence… the wisdom of thinking which could have prevented the environmental calamity we're faced with today.
And now, in their own words, the thoughts and feelings of some of Canada's own public servants about their path of cultural self-discovery.
(flute: Greg Reiter)
Tell me more about your journey in understanding your background, your ancestors, and what you've learned and what you hope to learn… what kind of strength it gives you and what more you want to do to have that attachment to your past.
I always knew that that I had a grandmother on my father's side or a great grandmother on my father's side whose last name was Arcou who was native. And I knew on my mother's side simply because of how they looked but I really never had any any real knowledge besides that. And recently my uncle was able to look into it a bit further and found proof that were linked to the family that signed the Treaty of Sovereignty. Interestingly enough, the woman in question – that's my great great great great great grandmother – married a French loyalist who was a descendant of the King of France. So I thought that was really, you know, an exciting little tidbit of information. But the most important part for me in terms of my knowledge is not necessarily knowledge of my own history but knowledge of the social injustice that we're trying to repair as a country and seeing that a little bit more closely and a little bit more clearly. That is what is invigorating me to continue to deepen my research on it and to deepen my resolve to be part of the solution.
I think I'd like to maybe start with just that bit about myself so you can understand my perspective of things.
I felt like sort of an orphan of culture in that sense that I didn't really have any culture from my native side of my family because my great grandmother she was a full-blood Algonquin and she never spoke anything but the native languages. I'm not sure even what the circumstances were. She married an English man. A French English man. And from there on, our ties with the culture they started to fade. And the vast majority of my family are status or blood native. So in a sense I kind of grew up in a little bit more of a colonialized lifestyle. So much so that when I was growing up I didn't even realize that I was different from other people and I ended [inaudible] Aboriginal. So it's something that's kind of… it always kind of held me back and I didn't even really know sometimes. I was disadvantaged. There was a lot of racism growing up and I never really identified it as racism. I guess I identified it that people didn't like me. But as I grew up, as I got older, I started to look back and think, “You know, maybe that wasn't because they just didn't like me” it was because I had this preconception of what I should or shouldn't be and it probably affected a lot of relationships growing up… friends and mentors, tutors and things like that as well. I found that particularly in high school I was always kind of put off to the side and not expected to achieve greatness.
What can you tell me about the difference between people that have grown up understanding who they are and what their culture is versus people that it's a recent thing that they've discovered about themselves and they're still in the midst of this learning, this journey of discovering their culture which they haven't been connected to for most of their lives?
Well that was part of me. I lived near… at the time they were called reserves. I detest the word. I call them communities. But I always played with the kids. I even spoke Saulteaux as a child. I went to church with them and I sang the hymns. I went to the powwows. I went to the celebrations. They would come to visit our house, but they were les Indiens, and we never in our family, we never acknowledged that we were Metis. But, you know, I knew from my dad but nobody else never really talked about it in our family. And that's the sad part, you know, when you have to start learning who you are. When you could have… And that's part of the reconciliation process. We need to reconcile with us, to who we are internally and externally. It's hard work but it's so wonderful when you discover it. It's like winning a lottery. And it's very important for you as an individual to keep going and to do wonderful things. It doesn't have to be becoming an executive director. It doesn't have to be having a bigger house or a bigger car but it has to do with being you and knowing in your heart of hearts who you are and being happy with that.
So I grew up mostly away from my traditional community, but I was very much aware of it and very much immersed in the issues and causes around Indigenous rights, discrimination against Indigenous peoples, and challenges that people in communities were facing. My mother was very active in human rights causes, anti-discrimination causes in the city of Montreal as I was growing up. She actually worked at the Native Friendship Centre in Montreal at one point when I was very young. And later on she got involved as a researcher on the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. This is now the early 90s and I'm in high school and when I get to university and was trying to decide what to do, one of the things I ended up picking up was the report of the Royal Commission. I was able to learn a lot about the history from that, of Canada's history, from just having access to that and it became a catalyst for bringing a lot of interests together in terms of family history and again just what my vocation was going to be.
I had a really good friend who was excellent in school academically – very bright individual – and we both hung out all the time. We had similar interests and we had similar projects in school and lot of times they would carry him forward. And I'd get my grades and everything but that was it. You know nobody expected me even to go on to college, or to seek an education for that matter. So from there, just to get back to the culture aspect, I was living in the colonial culture, the white person culture – I'm not sure of the appropriate term for it – but I never quite fit in. I never was quite let in on all the secrets and all the jokes. And like I said I didn't really understand growing up and then when I was an adult I started recognizing racism in my adult life. I kind of started recognizing it in my past, too, and I resentful or anything like that but it was definitely something where as an adult there was an understanding that I didn't really have that native culture. And I really couldn't say that the colonialized white French Canadian – whatever it is – culture, it wasn't really mine either.
This is the healing journey of a broken nation. And it's my healing journey. And for me it began after a personal crisis following a week on the psych ward of the Ottawa General. When I was there, my husband bought me a gift – a necklace – and he told me he had bought it from a vendor on the Sparks Street Mall. He was really afraid and he had told the man that, you know, his wife was in the hospital and he wanted to bring her a gift. And the man suggested a necklace with the wooden beads and a healing bear. He brought it to me and I wore it constantly. When I returned to my job in the private sector after three months of sick leave for mental depression, I was met at the door with a pink slip. On one level I knew it was a blessing. But on another my ego was insulted and I was very angry. That November I began working as a casual at Indian and Northern Affairs Canada. Prior to that I hadn't worked in the government. I arrived the day the department was readying itself to accept the report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. I was prayer preparing the communications materials: binders and binders of Q's and A's, key messages with responses to questions about how it would respond to the 440 recommendations. Within a week of arriving at INAC I discovered the Kumik and it made my heart sing. I remember going home and telling my husband all about it. A traditional lodge right in the midst of the government offices. It was like a sanctuary for me – a sacred space where I felt at home with the grandfathers and the trees around me holding me. I described the lodge to my husband in detail and told them it was called the Kumik. As I said that word he spun around and looked at me quizzically and asked me to repeat the word. Kumik, I said, K-U-M-I-K. There was silence and then he said, “You know that necklace I gave to you when you were in the hospital?” and I nodded. And he said, “The man who sold it to me said you had to find the Kumik. I had no idea what he was talking about but when you said that word I remembered.” It was at that moment after he shared that information that I knew my healing journey had begun.
I grew up in Northern Ontario and there is definitely a lot of stigma there, towards specifically Aboriginals from reservations. And even if you're not from a reservation, you know, there's a stigma that follows you around. Growing up, I had a few other Aboriginal friends as well and you were kind of cut off from the original cultures. Also they kind of embraced the colonialized way. Being Aboriginal themselves visibly and culturally – maybe not attached to it – they themselves would express kind of racism. Like inward, towards their own people. It was really kind of confusing. And I kind of grew up in a really idealist way. I had a pretty good life growing up, to be honest. We weren't well off by any means, but we had we only had the basics growing up as an 80s kid. I really like things like Star Trek and a lot of idealist kind of media. Growing up I thought that the future was going to be like Star Trek – everybody is going to be multicultural and that race wouldn't matter. And it's really not the way it is. It definitely prefaced me for,I wouldn't say disappointment but, just confusion with how other people thought. Even things like the politics of things, like Left and Right. It wasn't until my late 20s almost 30s before I even understood what far Left and Far Right views were. I always thought everybody was a very positive thinking mind – accepting and tolerant. But it's something that… well, you grow up. You get out of that naivety. Nowadays, I can't say that I ever experience any real racism, besides maybe a few preconceptions from employers. Employers, when I first moved to Ottawa, generally didn't expect me to be a thinking person. They expected get manual labour. You do not have anything to offer beyond that. I'd kind of surprise a lot of people, but even if I did show really good strong foot forward I think the preconceptions still held me back. And it was actually one of the reasons why I decided to go to school to get an education because I knew that no matter what I did in the manual labour or service industry customer service or whatever it was, I was always going to be kept down on the floor at the ground level and never go up the chain very far.
Do you see that there are different challenges between being an Indigenous person living in an urban environment versus someone in a rural environment?
Well, they're still segregated. They live in specific areas – we know in Ottawa which street, that corner of the city. We know that housing development in other parts of the city. So, that's difficult to break and that's the reconciliation part there too. It's tough going, and you only hear the fans stories and the sadder stories you don't hear the good news of all those people who are learning or re-learning their language, learning their cultures, doing the ceremonies, learning about the ceremonies, learning from the elders. We don't hear much of that. It's always 'somebody was put in jail'. The housing development is a mess. We don't hear about the stories like Kahnawake where they'll change their sign in their community. A little bit, story, you know, not much. And all the other communities that are doing the same. Like the people from St. Martin are finally going back in Manitoba to their land. They've lived in Winnipeg for six years. Like, that's sad living a hotel for six years. Well, maybe they weren't in hotels. I don't know. But that's the sad part, that we're still taking territory. We're still not acknowledging territory. That's sad.
While at INAC I spent many lunch hours in the Kumik listening to the teachings of the elders. Listening and learning. I also made personal appointments to talk with the visiting elders, trying to make sense of my feelings and personal struggles at home and at work. I spent three years at INAC. Then we moved to Dubai. I returned to the public service several years later. Reintegrating was a struggle I never anticipated. Moving home was fraught with challenges. My teenage daughter told me I'd ruined her life. My husband was searching for work. My son was bewildered by the public school system and I struggled with my work as manager of strategic communications with Western Economic Diversification. I was unhappy and feeling lost and overwhelmed. In June 2009, I transferred to Health Canada. In August, I attended a drum making workshop there and made an Aboriginal hand drum. I wanted to learn how to use it. Someone told me about a new drum circle at the Lodge located in the basement of the Brooke-Claxton building, the Iskotew Lodge. Iskotew means “the fire within” and I went to the drum circle reluctantly not sure what to expect. But when I walked in I was warmly welcomed. It was like coming home and I became a regular, cherishing the opportunity to drum and sing in that sacred space. Learning the songs and healing. The more I drummed the better I felt. I drummed at noon on Thursdays and Monday evenings after work. My drum sisters became my friends and support network. Like at INAC, I began spending noon hours at the Lodge, listening to the elders. Listening and learning and I sought their counsel and support with my struggles. The more I learned the more curious I became. I remember one noon hour when grandmother Malihatkwa from British Columbia drummed and saying. As she sang I could feel myself flying. I was on the back of an eagle and I could feel the softness of the down of its neck between my fingers. When she finished and explained it was an Eagle Song, the tears flowed. How had I known that, I wondered. Sharing what I experienced with those in the LKodge was transformational for me, as I described what I had experienced. Tears of joy flow down my face. The next time grandmother Malihatkwa visited the lodge a chain of events unfolded that led to a personal healing ceremony and a naming ceremony. As I reflect on that week even today I struggle to make sense of it. Yet again it was transformational and enhanced my commitment to understanding the Anishinaabe way of being. My healing journey continues. So many magical moments and miraculous encounters that heal my spirit. I know the healing the Elders, the teachings, the drumming, the sweats, and the ceremonies have brought to me and I am so grateful. My deep gratitude compels me to share what I've learned and what I know. A deeply personal connection to this way of life that at times seems to defy rational explanation. I cannot explain why I feel so much a part of this world – how it cradles me and its ways, teaching me how to love, give thanks for all the blessings in my life and be ever mindful of my connection with all my relations. I now hear the wisdom of the water and see the ancestors among the rocks and trees. I speak to the crows and truly understand I am not alone. We are all connected. All my relations.
I'm in a really happy place in my life right now and I'm rediscovering my culture and doing it all personally. It mostly started with music which is a great driver for anybody. And I started going to the pow-wows and I got some CDs of some of the traditional music and some of the more modern stuff. But even so, I'm still kind of looking in. I'm still not quite… I'm not in that culture yet. I'm not part of… I partake in some of the ceremonies and things like that but I still don't quite feel like it's mine. I think maybe that maybe one of the things that I'm kind of regret about. About having no culture.
Indigenous Perspectives: Stories from Indigenous Public Servants is a production of Employment and Social Development Canada.
All opinions expressed on Indigenous Perspectives are strictly those of the individual and are not necessarily those of their employer.
Public servants featured in this episode were Fannie Bernard, Janice Edgar, Jeannette Fraser, Ryan Jeddore, and Daniel Jette.
Our main title music is by Boogey the Beat, with additional music provided by Boogey the Beat and Greg Reiter.
I'm Todd Lyons, host, writer, and technical producer for this series.
Thank you for listening.