https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2022/09/30/what-does-reconciliation-actually-mean-we-asked-8-young-indigenous-leaders.html

For Truth and Reconciliation Day, as we remember the painful legacy of Canada’s residential school system and honour survivors, the children who didn’t make it home and their families and communities, the Star asked young Indigenous leaders — individuals who are leading the way for future generations — what the word “reconciliation” means to them.

Alessia Passafiume, Reporter with the Toronto Star

For the past four days I’ve been rewriting my reflection for the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. At first, I started with a draft that focused on my work as a young journalist and how it felt to be the only Indigenous reporter in the newsroom before my colleague Jamin Lyric Mike arrived.

I recalled my first month working here when, looking through the archives, I came across a racist ad in a 1966 edition of the Star. I wanted to call out my employer for the racist tropes that once appeared — and at times still do — in our pages. But something didn’t feel right.

Late Wednesday night, with a lump in my throat, I called my grandmother Sharon, known by everyone as ‘Coco,’ a mispronunciation of “Kokum” that has stuck with her for nearly three decades.

Really, I was asking for her permission to tell this story — her story, my story and the story of my mother and sister. “You write your little heart’s content,” she said.

My grandmother was, and still is, one of the children you read about in the news — the children ripped away from their families who were forced to assimilate into the ideals the Canadian government set out for them. It wasn’t until my mother, Cathy, was helping her join a class-action lawsuit that she learned what my sister, Angelica, and I only know bits and pieces of.

And while our knowledge is limited, we know how Coco’s experiences, and in turn, those of my mother, continue to affect us.

My mother and two of her siblings, Tina and Sam, were raised in Toronto with the impression our culture was something to be ashamed of. My mother didn’t pass that on to me and Angelica, but we’re often left wondering what life would be like if Coco wasn’t torn away from her own mother — part of the ‘Sixties Scoop’ that saw thousands of Indigenous children taken from their families.

Would I spend my nights in bed questioning who I am, or would I have the answers? When my elementary school classmates bullied me into wearing a construction-paper headdress during recess, would I explain to them the significance of that garment? Would I know how to speak Anishinaabemowin, besides saying boozhoo or miigwetch? Would I be comfortable with my sexuality, which Coco reminds me is “traditional” while homophobia is a colonial way? Would I know which medicines to pick, and when, without asking her?

“The knowledge is in you — search yourself and it’ll come to you,” Coco would always tells me. She’s right. And when it’s not “in me,” the community I’ve made for myself helps me find it.

“Sometimes I feel so envious of the opportunity you have. Love you so much. Thank you,” Coco commented on one of my recent Facebook posts asking for moose hides to tan this fall.

“I do it all for you,” I replied. “Love you, Coco.”

For me, reconciliation means other youth won’t have the same experiences I did and everyone — including all the children in the system — can grow up immersed in their cultures and be proud for doing so. And that means Canadians need to hold their governments accountable each day of the year and ditch the apathy.

Jamin Lyric Mike, Reporter with the Toronto Star

I’m tired of taking on the heavy work of reconciliation. It’s not my, nor my community’s, job to carry the entire responsibility. Everyone in Canada needs to take ownership.

My truth is that I am the living evidence that my ancestors fought to continue our way of life. The ambition that I carry, I carry for those who weren’t allowed to dream. I will never give that up.

When I think about the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, I think about my family. I especially think of my mother, whom I’ve witnessed fall to addiction and hit rock bottom. But today, I see her happier than ever, living her best sober life. She earned that for herself by navigating systems disguised as “help” that were really designed to fail her.

Together, we’ve talked a lot about all that had resulted from my grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ attendance at the St. Michael Indian Residential School in central Saskatchewan.

It’s not fair to any of us, to my grandparents, or to anyone in our community for that matter, to have our childhood robbed of warmth and replaced with intergenerational trauma and substance abuse. Three generations of our family were students in these schools, and I often sit and wonder, “what if it were different?”

We began very tough conversations about intergenerational alcoholism, which I, fortunately, didn’t participate in it. We also began moving forward with the immense undertaking of healing our family system. Only the Creator was there on the loneliest days. We are not victims, but rather champions of our sovereignty.

And even with all the blessings that come our way, we still sometimes struggle with connection to each other and the land. Far too many Indigenous children feel this way. Many families are still caught in cycles of trauma.

I think of those, like my mother, who were failed by the systems meant to “help.” More children live in foster care today than at the height of residential schools.

I heard stories of my great grandfather’s generation and the pass system where the government of Canada locked Indigenous Peoples in reserves — where nobody was allowed to leave without permission from the assigned Indian Agent. They starved, ate one loaf of bannock every few days, and did what they could to survive. They trapped small birds and gophers to eat on good days. One time, an ancestor of mine was jailed for killing his cow to feed his family. His name was Almightyvoice, and he later became a hero to us Willow Cree people.

There are too many stories left untold. I chose this career in storytelling because I am part of my ancestors’ hopes for a future. It was in the lodges I entered in my travels across the Prairies when I heard old people say, “tell your story, or nobody will hear you.”

Riley Yesno, PhD student in political science at the University of Toronto

Riley Yesno has been hailed as an Indigenous powerhouse.

Her words have been widely published in publications like the Toronto Star, the New York Times, BBC World News, the Globe and Mail and Maclean’s.

The queer Anishinaabe scholar and advocate from Eabametoong First Nation has been invited to speak internationally at institutions such as the United Nations, the Stockholm Forum of Gender and Equality, and on TEDx stages among other notable spaces about a variety of subjects including Indigenous and queer advocacy.

When asked what reconciliation means to her, Yesno said the first thing that comes to mind is “hope” but she criticizes mainstream approaches in which Truth and Reconciliation Day has become more of a celebration. At times she has been blamed for disrespecting survivors with this take, but she disagrees.

“I think that critique, that dissent is showing that we are alive … We are people who actively, every day think about and care about our future,” she explains.

Orange shirts and flags at half mast are different from action. “It’s infuriating,” she says, but she acknowledges symbolism is still important. “There’s so much to learn from the way survivors articulate reconciliation, [and how] the government pursues reconciliation.”

For her vision in reconciliation, she is inspired by her grandmother, a residential school survivor, and also by the work of opera singer Jeremy Dutcher who blends traditional classical music with an Indigenous twist. “I think that Indigenous artists in so many cases are leading us and showing us what the future looks like.”

She closes with saying, “sitting in that uncomfortability on Truth and Reconciliation Day, I think would be a really important thing for a lot of people to do.”

Andre Bear, Articling student with Olthuis Kleer Townshend LLP

Despite still emerging in his career, Andre Bear is a champion for his people, both in law, and his Cree way of life.

His work in Treaty and Inherent Rights advocacy, as well as in child welfare, is widely respected and has gained international attention.

A former adviser to the minister of Crown-Indigenous relations Canada and former board member for the Indigenous Bar Association & Canadian Juries Commission, Bear was featured on the cover of Canadian Lawyer magazine before he even finished law school at the University of Saskatchewan.

Bear’s mother is a residential school survivor who spent her entire life thinking there was something wrong with her. “In reality,” he said, “there is something deeply wrong with this country and how it continues to discriminate against Indigenous Peoples after surviving cultural genocide.

“She never had the opportunity to live without the grief and trauma of our family being destroyed, but she still wakes up every day, tells me she loves me, and finds ways to heal, smile and laugh.”

When he thinks of the word “reconciliation,” he thinks of Catholicism, and said it’s a term that comes from the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which includes three steps: conversion, confession and celebration. “If Canada wants to put an end to the assimilation and cultural genocide of Indigenous Peoples, I would stop using the narrative of ‘reconciliation’ and find out how they are going to begin the repatriation of Indigenous land.”

Consider, he continued, how Canada discriminated against First Nations children who were apprehended on-reserve and that ended with a $40-billion settlement. “Now think about how much Canada discriminated against First Nations children off-reserve, or in the education system, the health-care system, or the justice system,” he said.

It would be wise for Canada to cease the detrimental underfunding and desist the systemic racism in their government, Bear said. “Because in the end, it’s Canadians that will pay the price.”

Scott Wabano, Fashion Stylist and Two-Spirit Advocate

Scott Wabano is on track to break glass ceilings within the global fashion industry. He went from little-to-no experience to earning his place as one of the biggest names in Indigenous fashion arts today doing everything from styling to designing.

Wabano is Two-Spirit Eeyou and grew up in an isolated community along the coast of James Bay.

He felt he had to leave his community to pursue his goals, but feels a specific obligation not only to his lands back home but also to the lands in which Toronto occupies. “Being an Indigenous person (in Toronto), you’re not just representing yourself — I feel like you’re representing your whole community, where you come from, and your homelands.”

On reconciliation, Wabano says there is currently an emphasis on government-led reconciliation, which tends to put “all the work on Indigenous organizations” when there should be non-Indigenous people and organizations dedicated to working on it as well.

But, there is hope, he added. “I see more community initiatives working on rebuilding these relationships with Indigenous people and not relying heavily on the government because, you know, the government is not reliable.” And as for the youth, “they will be the ones who will be entering these spaces, and ensuring that our voices, our lands, our relatives are being taken care of within the future.”

For now, he details Indigenous Peoples’ need to continue telling their stories and genealogies. “Just sharing our story is really important because as Indigenous people, we’ve always been storytellers in the past.” He emphasizes that Indigenous Peoples need to be loud and continue working together for a healthier future.

Tia Kennedy, public administration and governance student, Toronto Metropolitan University

Tia Kennedy is the director of Kiinew Kwe, a diversity and inclusion consulting firm where she hosts workshops for businesses, develops and reviews curriculum and creates anti-racism policies, among others.

Kennedy comes from Oneida Nation of the Thames and Walpole Island First Nation, and spent her adolescent years in London, Ont. before moving to Toronto for university.

Living in London, she felt the pain of losing connection, community and being on the land — things she said were “really detrimental” to be without during her adolescence.

She looked to her great-grandmother, Rosie, who was a midwife and entrepreneur who had extensive knowledge and relationship with medicines for strength and inspiration. “Even though she only had a Grade 2 colonial education, she did so much, and I consider her the smartest woman I know because she always carried those teachings and had love for everyone.”

Living in Toronto now, she isn’t repeating the same cycle as her time in London — she’s here with a mission to gain all the skills, experience and wisdom she can to bring back to her communities. But it’s not always easy, especially when her support systems of elders and knowledge keepers are so far away.

When asked what the word reconciliation means to her, she referenced the ongoing issues that persist in communities, including at Oneida where there are still problems with access to clean drinking water, and Walpole Island where the impacts of pollution affects the waterways.

“How can we think about reconciliation and what that means when we’re dealing with this every single day?” Kennedy asks. “It’s not our work to do. Canadians have a lot of work to do.”

Skye and Sage Paul, Indigenous Creative Entrepreneurs

Skye and Sage Paul are two of the most influential women in the North American Indigenous fashion world. They also happen to be sisters who were raised in Toronto.

Skye owns Running Fox Beads, a shop that combines centuries of beadwork craftsmanship with contemporary styles, with nearly monthly art drops that sell out within minutes.

Sage is the executive and artistic director of Indigenous Fashion Arts, a non-profit arts organization that sustains Indigenous practices in fashion, craft and textiles. In June, the organization held the Indigenous Fashion Arts Festival in Toronto’s Harbourfront, presenting over 100 Indigenous artists and designers from across Turtle Island with runway shows, workshops, panels and exhibitions.

For them, “reconciliation” means having readily available resources to help Indigenous Peoples thrive. Sage added the term is part of controlling the narrative on behalf of, and to the benefit of, religious institutions and governments.

Reconciliation is not about just having a seat at the table, but having their own table, they agreed. And supporting and promoting Indigenous fashion in a predominately non-Indigenous fashion world is an act of resistance.

“Our needs just aren’t met,” Sage said. “It takes us a really long time to do things because we just don’t have the resources,” whether it’s fundamentals for survival like food and clean water or things like mental health care that would help families reconnect with each other.

“We’re not going to thrive if we’re not part of society. The future of reconciliation is self-determination,” Sage said.

“Sovereignty,” Skye added.

Jamin Lyric Mike is a Toronto-based staff reporter for the Star. Reach him via email: jmike@thestar.ca

Alessia Passafiume is a GTA-based staff reporter for the Star. Reach Alessia via email: apassafiume@torstar.ca