By Owen Charters
I’ve just returned from visiting the Eden Valley Reserve, which has a population of 700, and is part of the Bearspaw First Nation, again part of the Stoney Nakoda nation. I attended the graduation of two youth from Chief Jacob Bearspaw Memorial School who also participate in programming at Boys & Girls Clubs of the Foothills, south of Calgary.
Today is National Indigenous Peoples Day, a day we set aside to observe and celebrate the cultural diversity of the First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples.
It is also a day to reflect on the 2015 report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Last week, I joined Sarah Midanik, a member of our national board and CEO of the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund, to meet with Jocelyn Formsma, Executive Director of the National Association of Friendship Centres (NAFC). Sarah and I discussed our emerging work on Reconciliation, and I recalled that I spoke at the NAFC Annual General Meeting two summers ago. In that address, I spoke about the TRC report’s calls to action that are directed to us at Boys & Girls Clubs specifically:
“The sixty-sixth call to action is about youth programming and community-based youth organizations. The eighty-ninth call asks for policies that promote physical activity as a fundamental element of health and well-being. At Boys and Girls Clubs, we will raise our voices to support these calls to action, because in our Clubs we see—every day—the good that these programs can do for all children and youth.”
Here’s why we need to act. What I saw at Eden Valley was incredible—situated in the stunning foothills and ranch-lands of the Rockies, we celebrated the graduation of two youths from high school. It was a night of community celebration, of prayer, of drumming, with the Chief and council in attendance, of the local RCMP officer in red serge, of a school gym dressed up with LED lights and streamers, of food and dancing. These two young people succeeded in overcoming the challenges of education, and as the Chief noted, the rest of their lives now lie ahead of them to explore.
They are two in a school of 140. They are half of a grade twelve class—the others did not graduate. And the daily attendance at the school is about 40—children often stay home for a variety of reasons. I watched a teacher warmly welcome a student to the graduation, and gently chide her for not attending school for the last few months.
The Foothills Club is working to clean space at the local ice rink to host Club activities, as there is an urgent need for after school and summer programming. It is a long and difficult journey of building trust in the community, of persistence and careful diplomacy. The kids are struggling, with day-to-day issues and with larger tragedies and traumas. But it is also a community of love, of tradition, of families with smiles that greet you when you arrive.
Leaving Eden Valley was when the reality struck—there is a great divide between life on Reserve and off. It is so different and the culture is so unique that it can be very difficult for many youth to leave and pursue further education. They often feel out of place in community colleges, universities. Their families long for them to return. Quite honestly, for these two graduates, there may not be many opportunities beyond high school. Jodie Sieben, the Club’s Director of Operations, spends countless hours in the community—every day—building programs, creating relationships. She is an eternal optimist, and yet she also struggles to connect these youth to opportunities beyond completing their public schooling. There is a long history of intergenerational trauma that has lasting powerful effects.
I struggled with my emotions after leaving Jodie and Shirley Puttock, the Clubs’ Executive Director. Back at the hotel, I called my wife and we talked about everything I had seen and experienced. It is difficult to know what to do. To know that Boys & Girls Clubs are doing something, are making a difference across the country, but also that our role can seem insignificant in the face of what I saw in Eden Valley, which is happening in many communities, in many cities, in many homes. It is a struggle to reconcile our role as settlers and colonizers with our role as helpers, as allies.
And there is the problem of indifference. There are those who say that there are no Indigenous youth in their community, so Reconciliation is for others. I would argue it is the opposite—it is exactly because there may not be Indigenous children and youth in a Club that we must work harder at Reconciliation, to bridge what has been a divide of understanding, of learning.
I grew up in Newfoundland & Labrador, where as schoolchildren we were taught that there were no Indigenous people native to the island because colonialists, settlers, and governments had wiped out all Beothuk in a campaign of genocide. Today, however, there are many Indigenous people living and recognized in Newfoundland and Labrador: there have always been Inuit and Metis, but also a growing population of Mi’kmaq. We are surrounded by the culture, the territorial lands, the knowledge, the spirits of Indigenous peoples across this country, wherever we are. We must guide current and future generations to acknowledge and embrace Indigenous roots and the vibrancy of our common heritage. It is no longer okay to say that Reconciliation does ‘not apply to me’ because you don’t know or interact with anyone evidently Indigenous. It is the shared responsibility of all inhabitants of this country to acknowledge the past, confront the present, and build a better future.
Our Clubs are already engaged deeply in Indigenous programs, in Indigenous culture, and in Reconciliation. A national program committee is working to create a comprehensive approach to Reconciliation and Indigenous programming across Clubs. We are working to develop a broad, grassroots approach to working with youth programs and Club initiatives on Reserves across the country. We are already working with urban Indigenous youth, embracing programming that is integrated with Indigenous communities. I toured the renovations at the Calgary Club’s Renfrew site earlier this week, where Elders are inspecting and blessing the site before city inspectors can come in and do their work. Where a circle room represents deep Indigenous cultural roots being incorporated into the very architecture and expression of the Club.
This is not easy work. It is hard to bridge cultural divides. It is hard to understand the complexities, and to spend time acknowledging them. But it is time to celebrate our heritage, to respond to the TRC’s calls to action, individually and organizationally. The slogan for the Gord Downie Chanie Wenjack fund is “Do Something.” That is the call to action you need if you don’t know where to start. Today, do one thing. Tomorrow, one more. Each small step is a step on the path to Reconciliation.