Engage for Change

Guest Blog by Tara Kainer - Community Harvest Day (July 25th 2018)

Whispering Winds Drum Group preforming at Queen's UniversityPinterest
The Whispering Wind Drum Group preforming at Queen's University. Photo by Garrett Elliott

The last weekend of January 2017 I participated in a Community Talking Circle, the first of ten organized by the City of Kingston’s Sesquicentennial Engage for Change project funded by the Government of Canada and facilitated by Three Things Consulting. The talking circles were one component of the year-long project which aimed “to reframe the relationship between Indigenous/First Peoples and non-Indigenous people in Kingston – especially as it relates to history, knowledge and culture [with an] ultimate goal to develop a City of Kingston protocol to be adopted by City Council” (Handout, The Three Things Consulting Team).  According to a City of Kingston press release, Engage for Change is rooted in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and guided by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s 2015 “Calls to Action”.

Facilitators for our talking circle included the CEO of Three Things Consulting, Anisinaabe Pytor Hodgson; senior consultant Shannon Monk Payne of European and Mi’kmaq descent; Saimaniq Temela, an Inuit originally from Kimmirut, Nunavut and award-winning youth sailor; Elder Kathy Brant from Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, and Tammy Nelson of Ojibway ancestry from Nipissing First Nation. Such diversity, Hodgson said, reflects the composition of indigenous peoples living in Kingston and is representative of all First Peoples residing in the whole of present-day Canada.

My invitation came via email from the host of the first talking circle, the Community Foundation for Kingston & Area, perhaps because I’ve attended past First Peoples’ events supported by the Foundation, including the Royal Winnipeg Ballet/Joseph Boyden collaboration, Going Home Star, and the talk “Truth and Reconciliation in the Kingston Area: What’s Your Role?”, part of the Foundation’s Speakers Series. Pytor, Shannon, and Tammy had all had active roles in the previous events.

I was pleased to take part. Truth and Reconciliation along with climate change and protecting the environment are, I passionately believe, the most pressing issues of our time. And I recognized my ignorance. While I wished to be an ‘ally’ and live in right relationship with First Peoples, I didn’t know what that meant or how to go about it.

Arriving at the Ramada Inn where the event was held, the 40 to 50 participants were greeted at the door by the event’s sponsors – representatives of the City of Kingston and the Community Foundation. Their warm welcome, coupled with a table of hot coffee, baking and fresh fruit, set the tone for the day. While it has always been my experience, I am continually astonished by the good will, affability, and generosity of indigenous peoples. Given the depth of damage and extent of harm they have borne at the hands of colonizers such as I, would I be so gracious should our roles be reversed?

Saturday was filled with the facilitators’ and indigenous participants’ encouraging smiles, cordial remarks, genial comments, and unfailingly polite rejoinders, no matter how awkward or ignorant our responses might have been. Beginning with the question addressed to each of us in the Circle, “What does Reconciliation mean to you?” we were assured that there are no wrong answers. Our connection to one another was illustrated by the ‘spider exercise’: the first person speaking held the end of a rope and extended an invitation to the next speaker by tossing them the rope, resulting in an intricate ‘web’ of relations.

As small discussion groups we were asked to consider how the City of Kingston and First Peoples together might demonstrate the Seven Sacred Teachings of Love, Respect, Courage, Honesty, Wisdom, Humility and Truth over the next 150 years. Our recorded responses were delivered to City Hall to help determine the actions the municipal government and indigenous peoples might take to demonstrate reconciliation in action.

A history of First Peoples in the area now known as Kingston – then called Katarokwi, meaning ‘a place where there is clay’ or ‘where the limestone is’ -- commenced with a slide show. We were told who first lived on the land, the languages they spoke, and who their allies and enemies were. We heard about the Crawford Purchase of 1783 when the Mississauga ceded the territory of present-day Kingston and the surrounding area to the British Crown. A plaque commemorating that event resides at Fort Frontenac. We learned that Belle Island, now a golf course, previously a landfill, was once a Huron hunting/fishing settlement and burial ground.  Unearthed human remains and archaeological artifacts are fuelling efforts by the indigenous community to reclaim the site.

Generally the point was made that Reconciliation has no end, only a starting place, and learning and sharing is the first step along the way. Simply showing up to sit in the Circle was a beginning.

Throughout the day we were introduced to various indigenous traditions. The Circle opened with a smudging ceremony, the lighting of the kudlik – a soapstone oil lamp with an Arctic cotton wick symbolizing renewal – and a telling of the Mohawk creation story: the short version, we were told, because the long account can last for days. A Mohawk feast of moose stew, roasted bear, bannock, green salad, strawberry cordial, and pumpkin mousse prepared by Tyendinaga caterer Carol Anne Maracle marked mid-day. Each participant also received a ‘feast bag’ holding reusable dishes and utensils, as well as a towel and washcloth. The Circle closed with more gifts: a fridge magnet featuring the four sacred medicines for smudging – cedar, sage, tobacco, and sweet grass;  a ‘flag’ of loose tobacco in red cloth tied with a white ribbon, signifying respect and appreciation for knowledge being shared; a tiny brooch made of red, white, black, and yellow beads on a circle of leather illustrating the Four Directions of the Medicine Wheel, handmade by Tammy Nelson’s daughters.

I was overwhelmed by the generosity, inspired to learn more, and moved to explore my heritage and to atone for my own part in aboriginal history. I am the granddaughter of Settlers on both sides. In the 1880s my father’s father emigrated from the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and settled on land in southeastern Saskatchewan, legally purchased from the Canadian government but rightfully belonging to the Assiniboine, who under Treaty 4, signed over their land comprising 75,000 sections, or nearly 200,000 square miles, in 1875.

My mother’s father claims American roots practically with the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock. He purchased land in central Nebraska in the early 1900s, previously inhabited by the Pawnee, who, devastated by small pox and the annihilation of the buffalo, ended up on reservations in Nebraska and Oklahoma through a series of treaties signed during the 1800s.  

I grew up in Saskatchewan where I was surrounded by aboriginal history, culture and peoples. A series of events over the course of my life in Saskatchewan put me in constant contact with indigenous peoples. An Indian boy (in those days we called First Peoples ‘Indians’) lived on our block and attended the same elementary school. During a summer vacation at my uncle’s farm south of Regina, my sister and I collected arrowheads, easily found lying on the surface of the land. During Brownie fieldtrips to Boggy Creek near town, we ‘discovered’ teepee rings, circles of small boulders that had been used to hold down the edges of buffalo skins. Family vacations often were spent in camp grounds beside Lake Katepwa in the Qu’Appelle Valley, originally home to the Cree and the Saulteaux. The nearby town of Fort Qu’Appelle, a Hudson’s Bay trading post established in the 1860s, was the hub for traditional trails extending in all directions.

Three reserves – Pasqua, Gordon, and Standing Buffalo – were established in the vicinity. As a teenager I attended a pow wow at one of them, and the summer of 1968 when I enrolled as a student of the Globe Theatre school, I was urged to see for myself what they looked like and how the people lived. We had considered ‘the Indian question’ during one of our regular after-supper discussions. Two theatre students, who happened to be from Standing Buffalo and had received scholarships to attend the school, burst into tears during our debate and fled from the room. Some of us felt ashamed enough to take up the invitation to visit their home. We were appalled by what we encountered:  no paved roads or running water; outdoor toilets; ramshackle houses with wood stoves, broken windows, and gaping holes where the doors should have been.

Down the highway from the theatre school was the village of Lebret where a residential school had been built in 1884. I never saw the inside and didn’t know what went on there, but we strolled by it on occasion and once, for an afternoon’s amusement, walked the Stations of the Cross and visited the small chapel on the hill across the road overlooking the school. In 1968 the residential school was still active. It didn’t close its doors until the following year.

My father was the principal of an inner-city school in Regina. A significant number of students there were aboriginal, and poverty was a fact of their existence. In my early twenties I had a partner who taught school at the Piapot Indian Reserve, the birthplace of Buffy St. Marie, and one summer we attended an outdoor concert she held there. During university I was hired to teach an introductory English course at what was then called the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College. While they kept their wry sense of humour and could always find something to say during class that made us laugh, many of the students looked sad and defeated. Some looked shell-shocked.

Most of my students knew nothing of their own history or culture. I tried to find books by Canadian Indian authors for us to study, but other than Maria Campbell’s Half-Breed, The Rez Sisters by Tomson Highway, and a few poems found in anthologies, I had to rely on American Native writers instead. When I read up on Plains Indian history – even though the texts were written by colonizers -- it couldn’t be denied that we stole their lands and later their children, suppressed their languages and cultures, outlawed their religions, undermined their governance structures, and destroyed their sense of self-worth.  Shocked and appalled, I apologized to my students. I couldn’t think what else to do.

 One Talking Circle participant at the Ramada Inn, Paul Carl, administrative assistant for the Aboriginal Teacher Education Program at Queen’s University, urged us -- First Peoples and Settlers both -- to put our hurts and wrongs behind us and work together instead to make life better for everyone. Grandmother Laurel Claus-Johnson pointed out that we are all ‘Treaty People’ and suggested that we embark on a path to not de-colonize but indigenize as a means of recovery and healing.

That Community Talking Circle provided me with an opportunity -- a second chance -- to learn more, take responsibility, and work towards making amends.

To continue the process of truth and reconciliation beyond that Circle, the facilitators suggested that we attend as many First Peoples’ events in the community as we could. I attended a community feast hosted by the Katarokwi Grandmothers Council and saw the film Wawathe at Kingston’s Film Fest. Later in the year I went to the Grand Theatre to hear throat singer Tanya Tagaq provide musical accompaniment to the silent film Nanook of the North. I joined Kingston supporters at Lake Ontario Park in meeting the Mother Earth Water Walker, who travelled across Ontario and Quebec in 2015 to bring attention to oil spills. There were plenty of events in the space of a few short months, and while I didn’t make them all, there is always opportunity to take in future activities: every June 21st , for instance, National Indigenous People’s Day is celebrated outside Kingston City Hall. Bias-free aboriginal history and literature can be accessed any time through Indigenous Education Press and ordered on-line at www.goodminds.com.

Community Harvest Kingston, of which I’m a founding member, received a Canada 150 grant in 2017 to host two special events at its farmers market during the summer.  In July it honoured indigenous culture by partnering with the Indigenous People’s Committee to engage local drummers and dancers, feature First Peoples’ foods and crafts, and incorporate aboriginal history and teachings in various other activities.

That special event inspired us to continue to offer activities and events dedicated to furthering the process of Truth and Reconciliation within our local community. On Wednesday, July 25, 2:30 to 5:30 pm at Community Harvest Market located outside St. Matthew’s United Church, 31 Weller Avenue, Community Harvest Kingston is partnering with the Indigenous People’s Committee again to host Harvest Day.

Activities for the afternoon will include indigenous drummers, dancers, and singers, as well as a Red Cloth performance. Participants will have the opportunity to make Corn Husk Dolls and learn about their significance at one craft table, while at another they can hear an instructor speak about indigenous harvesting practices. Jolie Brant will speak about Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women, and the Faceless Doll Panels will be on display.  Free food including veggie and fruit trays; cheese and crackers; game meat jerky; strawberries, whipped cream, and fry bread will be on-offer as well as water infused with fruit and herbs to drink.

Judging from last year’s event, it will be a grand time. Please join us.