A recent ‘letter to the editor’ in this publication highlighted the depth of ignorance some local citizens continue to have about Indigenous peoples. I grew up experiencing this type of racism firsthand, and it shocks and saddens me to read such harmful words in 2021. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) ’94 Calls to Action’ is already 6 years old, yet it often seems as though change is happening at a snail’s pace, if at all.
However, there are a growing number of enlightened non-Indigenous people right here in Portage la Prairie. I know this because I sit down with some of them every Wednesday evening, as part of our local Circle for Reconciliation.
Circles for Reconciliation were created to establish trusting, meaningful relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples as part of the 94 Calls to Action. There are now over 700 Circles across Canada.
Here is how it works: A group of 10 participants (5 Indigenous and 5 non-Indigenous), led by two trained facilitators, meets weekly for 10 weeks for 75 minutes each time. The participants sit in a circle, (or, since COVID, in a Zoom room) to discuss the week’s theme, which they’ve prepared for by doing some ‘homework’ in the form of reading articles or watching videos.
Make no mistake though; the theme is simply a tool for discussion. The real learning comes from the voices in the room.
Just ask Yvette Cuthbert, one of the non-Indigenous participants, who says “The biggest surprise for me, I think, was the personal stories of from some of the indigenous peoples in our group. What was so shocking to me was that I would expect those experiences, you know, 20 years ago…for there to be the racism and discriminatory attitudes and the things that they’ve had to go through even in the last few years shocked me. It’s very disappointing to know that people still have to deal with that in Portage la Prairie.”
Cuthbert has done much of her own reading on the subjects the group is discussing, but nothing prepared her for hearing the stories firsthand. “Some of those meetings, you just come out with such a heavy heart,” she says.
Learning about the psychological and intergenerational impact of the Indian Residential Schools from people whose families are still enduring the traumatic legacy of those experiences has been eye-opening and disturbing for the Circle members. (Their homework to prepare for that week’s circle was to watch artist Cindy Paul’s heartbreaking 5-minute video “He Can Fancy Dance” on YouTube.)
For Cuthbert, the discussion around misconceptions of Indigenous people hit her hard. “I think those should be on billboards all over town,” she says. Even some of her friends and colleagues “who I’ve always considered very open minded”, had no idea when she shared some of what she has learned with them.
This is why these 10 meetings, which allow for the beginnings of respectful relationships (which the TRC stresses is the basis of reconciliation) are only the beginning. To quote Indigenous activist Cindy Blackstock: “Why don’t we do better, when we know better? It is not enough to know; It is not enough to care. We have to do something!”
Here in Portage la Prairie, we are doing something. Expanding the number of Circles for Reconciliation is on the horizon. We also will work through our local Urban Indigenous strategy to create policy that will actually result in cultural awareness training being introduced into workplaces and human resource activities.
You can do something, too. If you are an individual or a business eager to take action on reconciliation, visit https://circlesforreconciliation.ca/get-involved/. And watch for my next editorial, where I will dispel some of those misconceptions of Indigenous people our Circle for Reconciliation learned about.
And if you think you know the facts about Indigenous people, Cuthbert will tell you otherwise. “I thought I knew, and I didn’t know…I didn’t realize how little MOST people know,” she says.
“We need to educate. The quicker everyone knows the facts and realizes what’s going on, the quicker we can make changes.”