Indigenous Cultural Competency. It’s time


at my deskIf a person has lived pretty much anywhere in Canada, has been born into ancestry, First Nation, Settlers, or Immigrant, the chances are fair-to-midland, that you’ve witnessed racism. The chances you’ve experienced racism grows exponentially if you identify as one of Canada’s Indigenous peoples, Anishinaabe, Métis and Inuit.

Racism is an experience acutely felt by many Indigenous people in Canada. There are several studies, reports and  published articles that state that. A Goggle search will take a person down a rabbit hole where racism in Canada, directed towards First Nations people, is well documented

In fact, one such study, in 2004 was undertaken in Sault Ste. Marie, Timmins and North Bay. At that time, the study, ‘Concluded the issues are almost identical in each city and discrimination against First Nation people is widespread.’ The project, named Debwewin, an Ojibwe word for truth, was  funded by the Department of Canadian Heritage’s Multiculturalism Program, and was a partnership between Communitas Canada of North Bay, the Union of Ontario Indians and Unity and Diversity Sault Ste. Marie. The Debwewin Three-City Anti-Racism Initiative was undertaken to examine the extent of racism experienced by Indigenous people and members of visible minorities living in the Northeastern Ontario cities of North Bay, Timmins, and Sault Ste. Marie.

Of the 2004 study, Maurice Switzer, then Director of Communications for the Union of Ontario Indians and a Debwewin project leader stated, “Virtually every aboriginal person I know has had issues in (retail) stores related to the status card. This study documents what all of us have known for years. The general public is not very knowledgeable about treaty rights. Racism is an issue and we must work together as a community to create solutions.”

‘Seventy per cent of the indigenous questionnaire respondents said they observed incidents of discrimination based on race in Sault Ste. Marie in the past year, and 52% said it happened to them personally.’

One  questionnaire respondent wrote, “The Sault has two faces and hides one very well.” The entire study can be found here

In 2007, The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was struck, and began an arduous journey into some very dark places. Between 2007 and 2015, The TRC heard from more than 6,500 witnesses. TRC also worked to engage the Canadian public, educate people about the history and legacy of the residential schools system, and share and honour the experiences of former students and their families.

Truth & Reconciliation Commission Chair, Chief Justice (Senator) Murray Sinclair had a very tough job indeed. The work of the Commission was not for the faint of heart.  Stories were shared, voices heard, describing among many, the worst possible things to happen to children. To Elders. To Grandmothers. To Grandfathers. Mothers. Fathers. Brothers Sisters. Communities. Culture. Generations. Voices too, long since silenced through death, were there as well. The Spirits of the Ancestors would guide the work of the TRC.

Ceremonies and smudge brought everyone into its midst. Communities from Coast to Coast to Coast. Digging Deep. Creating a Blanket, heavy to wear, powerless to take off.

turtle-islandIn June 2015, the TRC held its Closing Event in Ottawa and presented the Executive Summary of the findings contained in its multi-volume Final Report, including 94 “calls to action” (or recommendations) to further reconciliation between Canadians and Indigenous Peoples.

Out of the 94 Calls to Action, #62 specifically deals with education. Sinclair said, “Education is what got us here and education is what will get us out.  Education is the cornerstone for change.”

The Ontario Ministry of Education is working on curriculum to address the woefully lacking school resources about First Nations. Premier Wynne stated, during a recent visit to The Sault,  ” We are working right now, the Ministry (of Education), to write into the curriculum, mandatory sections on Treaty Education, on Residential Schools; Pieces of curriculum that children have not had access to over the years.” Wynne said.

Last week, saultonline sat down with The Friendship Centre’s Executive Director, Cathie Syrette to learn about a resource developed and offered to educate community groups locally about First Nations & the history of indigenous peoples in Canada.

The Friendship Centre (TFC), incorporated in 1972, has been part of the Sault community for 43 years. Syrette has spent 30 years working at The Friendship Centre, and has been its Executive Director for the last six years. With 30 staff, and 27 programmes offered, TFC is a busy hub of activity.

20160810_150103The resource, is a workshop gathering  called, ‘Cultural Competency’. It is  an educational opportunity for the broader community to learn and grow in an understanding of Turtle Island history, through the lens of First Peoples. Indigenous teachings include First Nation (status and non-status), Métis and Inuit.

About six years ago, Cathie participated in cultural competency training in Toronto, Ont.

“The training had a profound effect on me.” said Syrette.  “I thought, I would love to have this come to our Friendship Centre; To have some of our staff trained in the cultural competency module.” adding,  “I knew that I would want to get staff trained on how to deliver this to indigenous and non-indigenous partners in the City of Sault Ste Marie and area.”

Syrette continued forward with her vision for cultural competency training at The Friendship Centre. There are currently staff trained in delivering the  module.

Gatherings can be designed for small and large groups of people, as the Friendship Centre Hall holds 150 people. To come with an open mind and ears ready to listen, is the only prerequisite.

Reflecting on the importance of understanding the history of First Peoples, and the path to reconciliation, Syrette said, “I’ve seen a lot in the 30 years I’ve been here. I do see racism in our community.  I come from generations where racism has been and continues to be experienced by many. My mother, who passed away last November and was a residential school survivor, experienced the trauma of racism.”

Last year Syrette reached out to Mayor Christian Provenzano. An invitation extended, was accepted, with several municipal councillors taking part in cultural competency training. “When we delivered (training) to Mayor and Council, unfortunately, some (councillors) were unable to attend.”

“Shortly after he (Mayor Provenzano) was elected, I sent an invitation for him to come and stop by the Centre. He accepted and visited with us for about two hours.” shared Syrette.  “That opened up the pathway to relationship building. 10% of our city’s total population is indigenous” shared Syrette. “That equates to about 7,000 people. We matter here.  It is important for our non-indigenous partners to learn more about the true history of First Peoples.”

Syrette is hopeful, that another date can be scheduled with the City of Sault Ste. Marie.

“Cultural Competency training could potentially be an annual opportunity for agencies, organizations and a wide variety of groups. There may be new staff, or even volunteers etc., that would like to participate.” she said.

“I recently met with the trainers and shared that I would like to see us opening this up to at least 10 agencies in the mid to late Fall, 2016.” she said.  “Agencies could send 5 – 8 staff (per agency), thereby cost-sharing the delivery of the workshop. A lot of our smaller agencies don’t necessarily have cultural competency budgeted for, so, this would be a way for them to access the training available. If the event is successful, then we could plan another one.”

“The Aninshinaabe cultural training is education that includes the history of indigenous people before contact. Our Ansishinaabe history is an oral history that is passed down through generations. Through research and documentation, we designed training that touches on history before european contact. About Turtle Island.” she said.

“Turtle Island is North America. Before borders, before governments formed. That’s where it all starts, leading slowly and in stages to important pieces of history with our people. And with our shared history, so that we have a common understanding. We talk about treaties and the formation of treaties.  Our ancestors and Chiefs, and the agreements that were signed in good faith, in trust, and with good hearts.”

“There is a teaching on the wampum belt. An original document from thousands of years ago.” she said.

“Included in our training is a circle/square exercise where we  portray the way our community used to be before European contact. The circle/ square exercise brings the mind right into a traditional community, where children are important and at the centre of our communities. The training takes you back in time and then brings you to the present day.”

Syrette states that there is much more work to be done in cultural competency as a community, and as a nation. Syrette stated that she is putting an open call out to the local community to embrace the opportunity for cultural competency training. To reach out to the Friendship Centre.

“Our doors here are open to community. We’re here to help everyone, indigenous and non-indigenous people. We live here together.”

Syrette is currently working on a date for bringing agencies together who would like to start the journey toward a common understanding. To Reconciliation.

In the words of TRC Chair Murray Sinclair,  “We have described for you a mountain. We have shown you the path to the top. We call upon you to do the climbing.”

The Friendship Centre, 122 East St., Sault Ste. Marie is here:
Phone: (705) 256 – 5634.     e-mail:  [email protected]

‘The Truth and Reconciliation Commission created a historical record of the residential schools system. As part of this process, the Government of Canada provided over five million records to the TRC. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba will house all of the documents collected by the TRC.

In December 2015, the TRC released its entire six-volume final report