From left, panellists Kevin John, Glenda Bristow, Mabyn Grinde, Elizabeth Metcalfe,
Hannah Semeniuk, Debbie Semeniuk, and singer/drummer Kirk Dion.
The first “Truth and Reconciliation Open Dialogue -Tea and Bannock Session” in Vermilion was held at J.R. Robson School on February 10.
âsokanihkewak (They Build Bridges) hosted the event in partnership with Vermilion River CLASS, BTPS, and St. Saviour’s Anglican Church. Panellists shared history and their perspectives on the need for ongoing truth and reconciliation. They offered a safe place for guests to feel comfortable asking uncomfortable questions.
Information included the fur trade, confederation, residential schools, sixties scoop apprehensions, current education and funding, as well as personal stories and experiences.
Emcee Kevin John said, “With many of their young and able hunters having succumbed to illnesses by now, and virtually no game on their reserves, starvation was unavoidable; to the point of eating poisoned wolf carcasses, ill or dead horses, grass, their own moccasins, and in the most severe/remote cases - cannibalism.”
He went on to explain that residential school students experienced atrocities including but not limited to haircuts upon arrival; burnt traditional clothing; starvation; rations with rotten food; physical, mental and sexual abuses; poisoning; and torture.
Sixties Scoop apprehensions were often carried out without cause or prior notification, and adopted out to non-Indigenous families in Canada. Apprehensions often occurred forcibly with no explanation to the parent(s) or the children. It was shared that these methods were used as a way of systemically “killing the Indian in the child”.
According to Statistics Canada, in 2011, there were more than 14,000 Aboriginal children aged 14 and under in foster care. Aboriginal children accounted for 7 per cent of all children in Canada but for almost one-half (48 per cent) of all foster children.
“This year, 46 per cent of the incarcerated youth in Canada are Indigenous, while making up only 8 per cent of the youth aged 14 – 17. Fragmented families result in a loss of culture and loss of language. They are left with no reasonable way to quantify healthy relationships. When you destroy the fabric of family, you destroy the fabric of a nation” said Kevin John.
Kevin’s Auntie Ernestine John attended and shared her experience as a residential school survivor. Attending Blue Quills School, she was angry with her parents for a time for not being able to stop them. She remembers being strapped and in her heart she forgives, but continues to live with the pain of having lost her language for a time.
Glenda Bristow B. Ed, M. Ed. shared a brief history of education and funding for indigenous students in Canada. She pointed out that not many residential schools were located on a First Nation, but Onion Lake First Nation had two.
“Sixty per cent of First Nations people aged 20-024 have not completed high school; compared to 13 per cent of non-Indigenous. Graduation rates are increasing yearly, and the quality of First Nations education is good, but it may take students a few more years to get their diploma. Forty-two per cent of students living on a reserve attend a provincial school,” said Bristow.
Kevin noted that trust funds set up many years ago with the intended purpose of Indigenous Education had been used for completing the railway and infrastructure. According to Kevin, those funds are now being allocated sparingly to Indigenous students who meet the requirements, and tax payers are not funding them each year.
Maybyn Grinde said, “We need the community to have these conversations and hear each others’ perspectives.” She recommended reading the works of Leroy Little Bear, Paulettle Regan’s ‘Unsettling The Settler Within’, and ‘Unpacking the Knapsack’.
Elizabeth Metcalfe spoke on her experience with the Anglican Church, as well having been part of an adoptive family. She challenged people to search online for 150 acts of reconciliation and said, “The institution that I have devoted my life to has also taken so much from so many people. I struggle with that. As a society can we afford to let such a huge percentage of our population not reach their full potential?
A letter from Arlene Folk was read as well as personal experiences given by Debbie Semeniuk and Hannah Semeniuk.
“I believe that it helps to educate, and it helps to heal,” said Debbie.
“In sharing my story, I am beginning to reconcile,” said Hannah.
In conclusion, Kirk Dion offered a healing song, and participants visited over tea and bannock. Overall, people enjoyed the opportunity to learn more, and share different perspectives on how things have come to be or should be going forward. Kevin is hopeful that the dialogue will continue and noted that Vermilion River CLASS will be hosting a Kairos Blanket Exercise at Lakeland College Alumni Theatre on February 22, from 6:30 – 8:30 p.m. A $15 registration can be organized by calling 780-853-2000.