Màmawi Together began its work on reconciliation years before the word reached Canada’s vocabulary

After Tim O’Loan taught a Dene honour song to a class of kindergarten and Grade 2 students, he told the children to share what they had learned with their parents. The next morning, the principal of the school received numerous calls asking for more educational programming: “Can something happen in the evening?” the parents asked. They wanted to be involved, they wanted to learn.

The year was 2009 at Pleasant Park Public School in Ottawa, years before reconciliation was in the nation’s vocabulary. That single song led to the birth of Màmawi Together, an organization that focuses on reconciliation, particularly in education for youth.

O’Loan sang the song for his own Dene children, who were in those classes, so they would have a cultural experience of home. It was essential for O’Loan: his family had recently moved from the Northwest Territories and were many kilometres away from Dene territory in a school with hardly any other Indigenous youth.

“The seed was planted,” O’Loan said.

What started as an honour song soon became an evening lecture series for parents and children alike. O’Loan and his wife and co-founder, Margaret Embleton, alongside the school principal, recruited a local Algonquin Elder and painter, Albert Dumont, to share Algonquin teachings and gift a mural that remains on the front of the school.

After three years, O’Loan told his wife they might be onto something with their work at Màmawi Together. They were in it for the long haul.

“It just grew into a life of its own…” O'Loan said. Parents, students, administrators and other non-Indigenous participants were “receptive” to what O’Loan and his wife were trying to do, he added; if they hadn't been, Màmawi Together “could’ve died at any time.”

Now, the organization has just come off the heels of a major project in conjunction with the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) for which O'Loan previously worked as an adviser to TRC chair Murray Sinclair. Màmawi Together ran three days of programming near the Ottawa River at Lebreton Flats before and during the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on Sept. 30 alongside the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network and the TRC.

On Sept. 28, Màmawi Together hosted 300 students from Ottawa for a teaching about the sacred fire, which would burn for three days, culminating at the end of the holiday.

The ceremony was followed by youth speakers and stories from Elders as part of public programming — perhaps a sample of the expanded role Màmawi Together will play in the future.

“[The children] were told they are the next generation to help to continue on speaking about the hard truths,” Carolyn Kropp, a longtime volunteer and board member at Màmawi Together, said.

The students’ parents never learned about colonization and residential schools, so “this is their time to push their educators, teachers and principals to bring in more so they can continue their learning,” she added.

The programming culminated with survivors sharing their stories late into the day on Sept. 30. Behind the scenes, Màmawi Together quietly helped gather statements for the TRC, so if survivors weren’t able to give their accounts when the TRC travelled, they could do so then, Kropp said.

It was important for O’Loan, who thought it was a gap in the TRC not to have statements recorded in the Ottawa area, Kropp added.

Currently, Màmawi Together is applying for charitable status and making plans to go national, growing beyond the scope of Ottawa schools.

The organization might also begin reconciliation work with veterans, which coincides with O’Loan’s current work with the Assembly of First Nations and his role as veterans ombudsman for the federal government.

What is now an organization with national aspirations began with O’Loan’s commitment to transform the little space he inhabits.

It’s about the next generation, his children so that they can be proud of their culture, O’Loan said.

“If I can leave a legacy for my kids, they know that Mámawi Together was for them, and they can remember that very first moment.”

Matteo Cimellaro / Canada’s National Observer / Local Journalism Initiative

Matteo Cimellaro, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canada's National Observer