Power to change lies within us: Ojibwe author

·6 min read

Once the truth about Canada's colonial history is fully accepted, communities can move forward, make amends and reconcile, says Ojibwe author Jesse Wente.

Wente, who’s a public speaker and advocate for Indigenous rights, spoke about diversity, equity and inclusion at a virtual event co-hosted by Northern College and District School Board Ontario North East on Wednesday night.

Teaching history is about educating non-Indigenous people so they can understand how we need to reconcile, Wente said.

He advised starting with educating yourself and talking to the people you want to include. For educators, he advised approaching the topic with humility and humanity.

One of the challenges in doing this work is that people haven’t done relationship building, for various reasons. With the pandemic, that sense of community is also strained, he said.

But the power to change is everyone

“Part of the process is opening ourselves up to what may seem impossible but imagining ourselves beyond that, imagining if we didn’t have these structures. If these systems were actually meant to support human beings,” Wente said.

As much emphasis in schools is put on working and contributing to the economy, Wente encourages people to ask how they could nurture “the most complete humans” they can.

He wants his kids to be critical thinkers, empathetic, media literate and savvy. He wants them to learn the fundamental principles and about other cultures.

“It’s not about specific courses, I know we still need that stuff, but the key arming for kids is, 'Can they just be prepared as humans?'” Wente asked. “Because so many of the systems we have are about dehumanizing us, causing us to relate to one another not as people but as numbers, clients or taxpayers.”

Wente started his presentation by sharing a story of his grandmother Norma who attended St. Joseph's School for Girls for 10 years.

It’s important to give a face to these issues and personalize them, he explained.

People also need to be aware and acknowledge that residential schools were a part of larger governmental policies that aimed to eliminate Indigenous peoples through different means: war, starvation and assimilation.

“It’s important to recognize as much the schools were meant to prevent, they ensured the future generation didn’t speak the language," Wente said. "The goal was to separate families from their language, their tradition forever. It would never come back.”

To find solutions for more diversity and inclusion, it’s important to understand how Indigenous communities were marginalized.

“Marginalized communities never choose to be marginalized. They’re all forcibly marginalized. It doesn’t all happen to every community at the same time or in the same way,” he said. “Because of that, the solutions towards getting those communities to have equity, to be included, for them to feel welcome and safe, is to understand it’s not all one-size-fits-all solution. “

Wente said First Nations, Inuit and Métis aren’t seeking equity. They’re a sovereignty-seeking group, which requires a different approach and a different outcome. The whole idea of the treaties was to ensure they would live in partnership, Wente said.

Seeking sovereignty means being included in Canada and its colonial institutions, and that’s not the outcome Indigenous peoples are looking for either. Wente then gave an example from his life.

When the Canada Council for the Arts launched in 1957, Indigenous art forms like beadwork or traditional dancing weren’t eligible for funding. That was a tool of assimilation, Wente noted.

Sixty years later, when Wente joined the board in 2017, the organization had just launched the Creating, Knowing and Sharing: The Arts and Cultures of First Nations, Inuit and Métis Peoples program. It was driven by the community for the community, Wente said.

“So not quite sovereignty within the Canada Council but pretty good for a Crown corporation that is level of self-determination that Indigenous people didn’t have previously,” Wente said. “That’s what I mean when we’re looking at a solution to how to include people: understanding the history and empowering. That’s what I mean when we have to get the context for all these communities, this history, and that is a challenge.”

There’s been a lot of work that’s been done in terms of Indigenous peoples, Wente said giving examples of 94 Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action and 231 Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Calls for Justice.

One of the main focuses of these recommendations and calls is to take back what was taken from Indigenous peoples and how to get it back, whether that’s a language, culture or land.

“We hear a lot about Truth and Reconciliation … I’m very aware what we see a lot is people, leaders, some institutions, they talk just of reconciliation. There's been a convenient dropping of the first part of the phrase," Wente said. “Education should be about truth as much as anything else. When we drop truth from it, people begin to lose track of what we’re reconciling.”

People drop the ‘truth’ because accepting the truth about the country’s history is too hard, Wente said. Only after accepting it, the communities can move forward and make amends.

Wente gave an analogy of the difference between a forest and a farm.

If you imagine a forest, you’ll likely imagine different kinds of animals, trees, plants and insects in it. If you think of a farm, you'll realize some plants are removed, while others are planted neatly in a row.

“Diversity is the natural order of the world. That’s how Mother Nature handles things. The more diverse, the stronger, the healthier these environments tend to be,” Wente said explaining that in the right forest everything lives in relationship with one another. The tree provides shade and is home to insects, which are a food source to animals, and so on.

“The right relationship is interdependent. They need each other and understand they need each other,” Wente said. “The root system is intertwined and interlaced with one another. The more intertwined, the more resilient the forest is to even a crisis, even a fire.”

If you find yourself in a place that isn’t diverse, it’s because humans did that, not Mother Nature, Wente said. But if humans can decide to exclude, they can also make a choice to include.

People have the ability to grow and live in a 'forest' instead of a 'farm', Wente said.

“If we build those relationships, understand we're all interdependent, we're not in competition with each other at all, if we start to live in right relations with the land, we can get back to a more balanced place," he said.

Dariya Baiguzhiyeva, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, TimminsToday.com

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