A first-hand account of Reconciliation Begins With Me – The Workshop

– by Michele Anderson

Section of the timeline on the Reconciliation wall before the morning’s group exercise

Recently IPAC and the Canada School of Public Service collaborated on developing and testing a workshop specifically for public servants on reconciliation between Canada and Indigenous peoples. IPAC is now offering the course to public services across the country as part of our contribution to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action, specifically #57 which calls on governments to provide education to public servants on Indigenous peoples, cultures and history.

This workshop was a pilot, meant to bring folks together to learn about what Indigenous peoples experienced at first contact with European settlers; what the legal and societal ramifications of that contact meant for Indigenous populations then and now; and why we need a “Reconciliation” of those experiences between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

If it was possible to provide total insight, I think this workshop would have taken on that moniker, but the workshop is called a beginning for a very important reason. For each individual who doesn’t know where to start, a beginning is exactly where they need help. “Where do I begin?” they ask. The answer is: Begin with You!

As part of IPAC’s journey into expanding relationships with Indigenous peoples, colleagues, governments, subjects, topics and insights, we realized that we ourselves need to go through this journey and begin with ourselves. So I was eager to take the workshop and understand what we would be offering public servants, as this is an area of life for which I am as equally ignorant as I am passionately curious. Less of a how-toguide for public sector jobs that touch on Indigenous people and areas, it is a feel-toguide for people who just want to start somewhere and don’t know where to start! Sound familiar?

The first workshop was a pilot, but it quickly became obvious that this workshop…well…works! Here’s my own account of my journey, which I share in the hopes that others will feel permission to walk into this societal space that many find complicated and too delicate to inhabit. I’m here to tell you that it IS complicated and it IS delicate, yes, but it is also revealing, cathartic and liberating. So here goes.

Do not judge, either yourself or others, but heal together

This is the most difficult aspect, so I’m jumping right into the guts and leaving the sweetest for last. If you have ever been in a classroom, then you are familiar with the academic approach to learning history. Timelines, events, names, places, dates…you will find all of this in the workshop, but in a contextualizing narrative that provides guidance about what matters to others: to First Nations, to Inuit peoples, to Métis peoples, to their ancestors and to their offspring. Many attendees, including myself, also had Indigenous heritage, and were equally unaware of the history. So from a purely informational point of view, it was highly satisfying to see the timeline mapped out, life-size on the walls, of so many significant moments of legislative, legal, social, emotional and personal significance.

However, before we encountered those events it was important to address a very self-reflexive question in ours hearts and minds about where we fit in the world, what lens we use to view this world, and just how many lenses and worlds exist within our world. Let me explain…

Now I have personally taken courses and workshops throughout my life that are of a socially deconstructive nature; and I have taken political communications classes; and I have taken diversity training courses and that sort of thing. This workshop is not like those types of courses, though I have benefited greatly from them. In this workshop, instead, we started with a friendship circle. The premise is that there is a certain state of mind that allows one to really hear, to accept, and to understand what others experience. However, everyone has their own unique learning experience and we have to honour where people are in their understanding. Knowing that it is okay to understand another person’s experience to the best of my ability is the personal part of the journey that can’t be measured, but it is highly conducive to learning. Ironic, you learn best from what can’t be measured.

So I think the greatest gift I received was at the start of the day, in the learning circle with the Anishinaabe Elder Claudette and the two facilitators Nadia and Catherine, and it was permission: permission to be wherever I was in my learning experience, and the patient understanding from our facilitators that I will never be where they are or where you are, and no one will be where I am, and that’s okay. Don’t judge yourself and you will find it easier not to judge others.

From Medicine Wheel to How we Feel: there is room for intellect in the heartsimple-medicine-wheel

This perspective was the most personally empowering, but it deserves some context. This first workshop was offered on November 15th in English and November 23rd in French. As many know, these workshops followed on the heels of the U.S. election, and a subsequent wave of racist acts that were expressed across the American continent from people who mistakenly perceived the results to be advocating bigotry and intolerance. Simultaneously, the Dakota protests were in full swing in the U.S. and veterans had just announced they were going to stand with the Dakotas to save the water resources. Last, Canada’s 150th birthday celebrations are upon us, and many among us are involved in events across Canada that deal with reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, as an important facet of those events.

I walked into the workshop after having spent a week of restless sleep, wondering what is to come. The questions that haunted me were these: When a person is subjected to so much hatred and mistreatment, how is it that they come to be at peace, and where do they find the strength to patiently forgive others? How do we, the inheritors of ancestral wrong-doings and the witnesses to current-day bigotry, move forward in a way that is in keeping with this spirit of peace? Last, but not least, how does any enlightenment about those issues help a person in their day to day life, in their work practice and in the everyday life of everyday public sector workers? Spoiler: I don’t provide all of the answers below… no shock there …but I do have a great experience to share about my own journey that day. Another spoiler: that is the only kind of lesson I can provide you. I will leave the teaching to our facilitators.

I think that when we sat down to listen to the Elder Claudette Commanda (who shares my mother’s name), and to Nadia Ferrara and Catherine MacQuarrie (who share my parents’ ancestral mix) I was pretty sure I was in for a day full of flashbacks and memories. When Claudette spoke about the medicine wheel, and how in her particular culture the medicine wheel was considered to reflect all of the races and their particular gifts to the world, I realized that I felt like a culmination point. I am the culmination of the mixed ethnicity of my ancestors, which included Indigenous ancestors among many European and British ones; I was the culmination of sociological and spiritual teachings that had been adopted and abandoned or refined; I was the culmination of certain decisions; and I was the culmination point of a mixture of fortune and misfortune. In fact every person is such a culmination, regardless of their ethnic or other backgrounds, and the potential for course-correction was encapsulated in a little thing westerners favorably call free will. Ironically, it is that very same free will that led to so much bigotry that is the very same free will that allows a person to decide to live a peaceable life, a life of forgiveness, and a life of humanity.

So, at the mid-point in the day, when people were digesting the historical information they heard in the morning portion of the workshop, we were given the option and opportunity to share a word or two that defined how we were feeling. I must have seemed rather odd to others, but the culminating feelings I had were of relief and release. Strange but true.

The whole week leading up to the workshop, I had this fear of other people’s free will lending itself to bigotry. However, that fear was transforming itself into gratitude for the free will that had led some other people to change bigoted ways; the same free will that led law-makers and legislators to course-correct on treaty rights and to close Residential Schools in Canada; and that led Indigenous people to come together during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and forgive people for atrocities conducted on themselves and their families.

Free will is one of those playing field levelers: we can all decide how to feel and how to react to things. It’s clear to me that free will has played a role that results in a vast difference of perspective between the person who gets really angry about their latté not being just right and the person that forgives the people who took them away from their family as a child, for abusing them and leaving them with no social, emotional, financial or community recourse. So it is possible to use our free will to forge positive change, but where do we – or should I say – where do I begin?…because Reconciliation Begins with Me.

Can we talk about atrocities and then talk about how we talk to each other? Can we make that leap from the massive issues to the small actions? Does it feel awkward? It sounds awkward, but we do it every day. We watch the news and then eat dinner. We hear about Aleppo and then we complain that our kid won’t take his bath. We listen to a report about another missing aboriginal woman and then we go to sleep…we have all learned this coping mechanism that allows us to turn our attention elsewhere, so perhaps we can use this coping skill here? Well here is my answer for myself. I keep living, I don’t stop living the happy stuff, and on the contrary I need more happy in order to get me through the sad. Many Indigenous families got through their worst experiences – as one video from the workshop demonstrated – by reconnecting with the things and people that make them joyful and happy.

So how do I reconcile my daily life (le quotidien) with the atrocities that still exist in communities around me and the spectrum of all the positive and negative issues and realities in between? I personally make room, both intellectually and emotionally, and I make a little more room for it in each day. I have slowly dropped certain areas of focus that I know I can release and I make room for areas of focus that touch on Indigenous Reconciliation with the people and issues that are here in front of us. On a personal level, I have challenged myself to re-engage with both positive and negative issues that impact and support Indigenous peoples. From news stories to books, from poems to keynote addresses, from people to places that I start to engage with in small ways… to ever increasing large ways.

It is so intimidating at first, when you have zero ideas, zero access, zero networks, to just strike up a conversation, or visit a place for the first time, or engage an Indigenous person (colleague, client, friend) on a topic. But I realized that if this is so important to me, I need to forgive myself in advance for the mistakes and faux-pas I will make. It’s not about the right intellectual capacity or information. It’s about my state of mind yes, but it is also about my state of heart. Ironically, it is the very people I am most afraid of offending who have been so incredibly patient and understanding, and fun and enlightening. This brings me to my last point: the faux-pas.

What not to do: a hitchhiker’s guide to the fallacy

Nadia Ferrara provides afternoon session that delves into the underpinnings of societal learning

What have I stopped doing? I have stopped correcting other people on their respective journeys. There is nothing more annoying than someone who learns a little bit about something and who then decides to tell everyone else what’s what. (Y’all know what I’m talking about, we’ve all been there!) I have often been asked why I spent over 10 years of my life devoted to learning the Mandarin language and Chinese cultures simply for my personal curiosity. I have no Asian heritage and I had zero connections to the cultures of Asia prior to embarking on my studies. However, I always thought that if 1 out of every 6 people in the world identifies as Chinese and speaks a Chinese language, then I want to understand them a little. In the process, I learned so much about myself, about my own socio-economic and cultural history, and about the self as a culminating point for all that came before me.

In this workshop on reconciliation, the facilitators have already figured out from the start that people who would come to the workshop to learn about Indigenous peoples would inevitably learn so much about themselves. The facilitators were prescient enough to name the workshop accordingly! So I can’t teach you about Indigenous peoples and histories, all I can tell you about the workshop is my own journey. You all will have your own, unique experience, and there is no standardized test for that. (Sigh of relief!) There is no identical or correct route to reconciliation. We are all like hitchhikers on this type of journey, and the really great people and elders who pick you up and take you along for part of the ride will drop you off at another point in the journey. There are two things that I have figured out are entirely within my control on my journey of reconciliation: the length of the ride I take with each respective guide, and the things I choose to learn and un-learn along the way.

After the Reconciliation workshop, I was at a conference at which I ran into a local First Nation poet I had met on a trip 2 years ago. On the trip I had been too intimidated to talk to the Chief, but I had really liked this poet who was so accessible and so outgoing. Well, two years later that poet informed me that he had become the new Chief! Sure enough, the emcee introduced him and he then walked up onto the stage as the Chief and read one of his poems. I’m sure he left some things behind him in order to become Chief, but he brought his poetry with him on his journey of change. In those two years, it would seem I have also changed. Like him, I am on a journey in which I can choose what to bring and what to leave behind. You can’t pre-determine all of the things that you will leave behind or take with you, but you won’t know what those things are until you begin.

For more information about Reconciliation Workshops by IPAC, please contact Catherine MacQuarrie at cmacquarrie@ipac.ca (Image right: Catherine MacQuarrie teaching the morning historical session of the workshop). A Federal Assistant Deputy Minister of Métis origin, and former VP with the Canada School, Catherine is currently on secondment with IPAC to facilitate provincial/territorial and municipal workshops, and she is also working with the Canada School to facilitate federal workshops. Catherine is leading the IPAC National Year of Dialogue in 2017.

To learn more about the National Year of Dialogue for Reconciliation and Renewed Relationships being hosted by IPAC’s 19 Regional Groups you can visit our website at: http://reconciliation.ipac.ca/  (French site is:http://reconciliation.ipac.ca/fr )

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