Learning and unlearning — for reconciliation

This week’s guest writer is Pam Peters-Pries, associate program director for MCC Canada.

March 21 is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.  March 21 was chosen because on that day in 1960, police killed 69 people at a peaceful demonstration against apartheid “pass laws” in Sharpeville, South Africa.  The United Nations General Assembly proclaimed the day in 1966, calling on the international community to increase its efforts to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination.

We should celebrate the many steps, big and small, that have been taken to eliminate racial discrimination since then. The apartheid system in South Africa has been dismantled. The American civil rights movement resulted in many policy changes prohibiting racial discrimination and segregation and protecting the rights of minorities.  In our own country, the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission acknowledged and urged action to address the long and tragic history of systemic discrimination against Indigenous peoples in what we now call Canada.

An International Day of Anything proclaimed by the United Nations can be an occasion for grand thoughts and actions – to look across the sweep of history and acknowledge change, or to address the highest ranks of power in our societies and demand change we yet wish to see.

But it should also be an occasion for us to look at small things, at the practical actions we can take in our everyday lives to contribute to a grand and global vision. This is a great day to think about what we can do to contribute to the ongoing work of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada, reconciliation that has the potential to eliminate the discrimination faced daily by Indigenous peoples.

Senninger's Learning ModelAt an intercultural competence and anti-racism training I attended last year, I learned about Senninger’s Learning Zone Model. The model assumes that in order to learn, we have to venture out into the unknown. We need to move from our comfort zone, where things are familiar and where we don’t have to take risks, to our learning zone.

The learning zone is a place where we are stretched, pursue our curiosity, and make new discoveries. As we learn, we should aim to get close to – but not into – our panic zone.  In the panic zone, our learning is shut down by a sense of fear.

The TRC’s Calls to Action place tremendous emphasis on education – on learning. What many of us learned about Indigenous history and current realities in school or through the media is inaccurate and inadequate. And so this learning zone model is instructive for us.  Certainly, we need to get out of our comfort zones. We may find comfort in the stories of settlers coming to an “empty” land that was peacefully “surrendered” by Indigenous people to settlers through treaty-making. We may find comfort in the belief that settlers prospered through hard work and perseverance alone, not through privileges – such as access to land – granted to them at the expense of others.

As we work towards reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people—a task each citizen in this country carries every day and not just on the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination— we need to move out of these familiar comfort zones and into our learning zones.

In our learning zones, we may discover that the history we learned hides from us the history of systemic displacement of and discrimination against Indigenous peoples in this country. We may discover that discrimination against Indigenous peoples is not a thing of the past, but continues today in the lack of access to clean drinking water in many Indigenous communities, under-funding of Indigenous education, and disproportionate representation of Indigenous children in foster care and of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system.

trc-march-2015

More than 7000 people joined the Walk for Reconciliation at the closing event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Ottawa, May 31, 2015. MCC photo/Alison Ralph

For some of us, venturing into our learning zones may mean heading very close to panic zones for a brief time, as a radical shake-up of long-held beliefs and perspectives may be needed for us to begin to see these things that have been hidden from us. But panic is not the goal, and is not a sustainable place. Learning is the goal.

So let’s be gentle but ready to dis-comfort each other.

The learning zone may be uncomfortable, but it may also be surprising and emboldening. It is a place we must explore if we are to unlearn the “comforting-to-some” myths and misperceptions that reinforce discrimination of Indigenous peoples. It is a place where we can learn the truth about Indigenous history, suffering, resilience and genius, and discover the grace and generosity inside ourselves that can feed the long work of reconciliation ahead .

Constructing a reconciliation response: Understanding the UNDRIP

If you’ve ever tried to build a Lego set without the instructions, you know it can be frustrating and that often little parts can be left out. Sometimes pictures are helpful, but it is still difficult to replicate the exact model the set is designed to make. Some sets are easier than others, and some seem like a really good idea at first, but quickly become way more complicated than originally thought. It doesn’t help that well-meaning siblings come along and ask why you haven’t put on the stickers yet.

Even though the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) is much more important, its complexity might be somewhat compared to Lego. The Declaration is complex and its impact and exact application is difficult to understand at first. With dedication and patience, it can be understood and applied in a constructive manner to create a beautiful structure.

For Christians, the Bible informs our values and guides our behaviour, especially in how we are to treat each other. Since the UNDRIP focuses on how we see each other and how we treat each other, we can turn to the Bible for guidance. The Bible explains that when God created the world, He created all people equal and of value because they were created in His Image. Jesus includes loving our neighbours as ourselves in the Golden Rule, along with loving God (Matthew 22:36-40). Thus, anytime our neighbours (here and around the world) are being treated unfairly and denied rights to dignity and respect, we must seek ways to restore our world to justice and peace. One tool we have been given to articulate those injustices and envision a more equal world is the UNDRIP.

RS50971_IMG_3107-scr

More than 7000 people gathered to walk for reconciliation in Ottawa on May 31, 2015 at the conclusion of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  MCC photo/Alison Ralph

The document is comprised of forty-six articles which both lay out explicit rights and include implementation mandates directed to states. It was created over a twenty-year span by Indigenous peoples and other parties worldwide. The document mainly focuses on three types of rights: rights to protect and live out ones culture, rights to Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), and rights to self-determination.

Many of the UNDRIP rights have to do with cultural rights– those rights to language, religion, education, traditions, and practices that we pride ourselves on in Canada. These rights appear to be the easiest to address and perhaps the least controversial. Although they do impact government funding arrangements, they largely require that Indigenous communities are given the space to make their own choices about cultural practises. They are significant because they represent a much needed departure from previous policies of assimilation and forced Christianization. In advocating for these rights, non-Indigenous people can work alongside Indigenous communities and remind the government of the openness to other cultures that we cultivate in Canada. For Christians, at a minimum, this means taking the time to learn about and develop respect for Indigenous spiritual traditions, even as we hold onto deeply held faith convictions.

Rights to FPIC mean that Indigenous communities must be consulted, provided accessible information, and their decisions respected, especially in reference to natural resource extraction on their lands. This is similar to the way that non-Indigenous Canadians expect to be treated, but it applies to communities as well as individuals. These rights are harder to define concretely and difficult to imagine fully implemented, simply because the potential influence is huge. Many of Canada’s natural resources are on Indigenous land, making the possible refusal of communities to allow projects on their land problematic, from the perspective of those seeking economic growth through the extractive industry.

Rather than view FPIC as problematic, it is helpful to recall that these are the same rights every person is entitled to, and that as settlers, we are the newcomers to Canada. It is important that all people advocate for Indigenous FPIC rights, especially as communities who have traditionally not been consulted and have seen their lands contaminated and destroyed by mining and other activities. These rights are also one of the sticking points for the government, so it is important for us all to work with communities and discover how their FPIC rights can be respected and upheld in light of the current government hesitation.

The final group of rights are those that have implications for self-determination of communities and nations. Rather than focus on concerns about Canadian sovereignty, it is important that when treaties were signed with the European powers, they were signed at a national level and that rather than giving rights to Indigenous peoples, the UNDRIP is reminding and demanding that those rights and original relationships be respected and upheld. There is some uncertainty about practical application of these rights which have been so long ignored, but with kindness, sincere effort, and a genuine partnership between Indigenous nations and the Canadian government, they can be resolved.

As Christians living in Canada, it is important that we recognize that the existing relationship between Indigenous Peoples and the state is harmful and not as it was originally drawn up in our founding treaties. In addition to supporting a more equal and beneficial society nationally, we can work together at a local level, assisting Indigenous Peoples when it is helpful to them, and working harder to implement the equality and acceptance set out for us in the Bible.

trc-march-2015

There was a real sense of  togetherness as people participated in the walk for reconciliation, Ottawa, May 31, 2015. Members of First Nations communities, faith communities and many others participated. MCC photo/Alison Ralph

Additionally, as Canadians, we have a history of taking land and resources that are not ours and robbing Indigenous communities of their ability to practice the same cultural, religious, economic, and governance autonomy that we prize so highly. Non-Indigenous people have done this through past programs such as the Indian Act, unfair land treaties and residential schools, and continue through the systems and institutions in place at a national and local level. Here we too have a duty to step forward in reconciliation and ask how we can begin making positive changes. One way that communities have identified is by fighting to hold the government accountable to UNDRIP. This method is set out by the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, as it calls on the government to implement UNDRIP and especially for Christians and their churches to work towards reconciliation with Indigenous neighbours.

The rights set out by the UNDRIP are not unreasonable. They can be difficult to understand, but through honest collaborative efforts, all levels of government—working together with Indigenous communities–may create the beautiful structure that will allow for the flourishing of Indigenous nations. Non-Indigenous people can help by being informed, reaching out in support to local communities as churches, and in reminding our leaders that even slow-moving progress is progress, and that all people should enjoy these rights to dignity and respect.

by Clare Maier, advocacy research intern for the Ottawa Office

Muskrat Falls: An opportunity for respect and reconciliation

This week’s writers are Dianne and Marty Climenhage, MCC representatives in Labrador.

June 27, 2016 was an historic day in Labrador. It marked the first time that all three Indigenous groups–Innu Nation, Nunatsiavut Government representing Northern Inuit and NunatuKavut Government representing Southern Inuit–stood together publicly and asked for a halt to Nalcor Corporation’s Lower Churchill Hydroelectric Project (Muskrat Falls).

It has been our privilege, as MCC workers in Labrador, to stand with Indigenous partners in their call for respect for their land and their lives.

muskrat-river-our-children-sign

Sign at the blockade. MCC photo/Dianne Climenhage

Since 2011, “land protectors” have been warning the public about the potential risks of moving forward with a project of this magnitude. In 2013, the project began with an estimated price tag of $6.2 billion and was expected to go online in 2017. Due to delays, miscalculations and changes in management, the project is now not expected to go online before 2019 and with an estimated total cost of $11.4 billion in an already financially unstable province.

Prior to the start of the project, only one of the three Indigenous groups in Labrador were consulted. The Innu Nation signed an Impact Benefit Agreement, allowing construction with conditions. NunatuKavut and Nunatsiavut were not given the opportunity for involvement on decisions that directly affect their traditional territories.

There are two issues that the Indigenous leaders are calling on Nalcor and the government to consider before moving forward with initial flooding of the reservoir.  First, the rise in methyl mercury levels in the Churchill River system has been reported by Nalcor to increase to the point where consumption warnings are put in place for a minimum of 15 years.  An estimated 2,000 Indigenous people rely on the Churchill River system for their food supply. Fishing and hunting are not only traditional ways of life that must be protected, they can mean the difference between life and death in Labrador. An independent study by Harvard University indicates that if organic material is not removed, methyl mercury levels could increase anywhere from 25%-200% downstream, depending on conditions in the river. This would have devastating results, poisoning the food chain for generations in food insecure northern communities.

muskrat-falls

Muskrat Falls will disappear when the flooding begins. MCC photo/Dianne Climenhage

The second concern is the North Spur. This is a natural barrier that will be used as a wall for the reservoir. The North Spur is made up of layers of sand and marine clay, also known as quick clay. Nalcor has used stabilization methods to reinforce the spur, but there is no precedent for building on marine clay. It is, “moving and alive” according to dam safety expert Jim Gordon. Experts from Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador and Sweden have all cautioned there is a high likelihood of a North Spur breech and collapse.  This would have devastating effects for communities downstream: lower Happy Valley and Mud Lake.  Mud Lake is an island community in the Churchill River with the only access being boat or skidoo, which would not allow enough time for evacuation according to Nalcor’s emergency timeline.

The provincial government has issued permits to Nalcor allowing initial flooding, up to 25% of the reservoir, to begin any time after October 15, 2016. On that day, protesters from Innu Nation, Nunatsiavut, NunatuKavut and settlers all descended on the main gate of the Muskrat Falls Project in a desperate attempt to halt the flooding of the reservoir until organic matter is cleared. They successfully blocked workers from entering the site over the weekend and on Monday, October 17, nine protesters were arrested for defying a Nalcor court injunction. There are currently 4 people on hunger strikes from Nunatsiavut and NunatuKavut. Three of them–Billy Gauthier, Delilah Saunders and Jerry Kohlmeister–traveled to Ottawa to take part in a rally at the Human Rights Monument on Sunday. On Monday they planned meetings with Amnesty International representatives, Indigenous and government officials.

muskrat-river-brooklyn-woolfrey-allen

Brooklyn Woolfrey Allen drumming for Elders at the blockade.  Photo courtesy Jenny Gear

The number of land protectors has increased on site, communities across the country have held solidarity rallies, and Amnesty International and Idle No More have issued statements, all asking the Federal Government to step in and use this case as an example of how they will implement United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and work toward true reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

In May 2016, Canada officially adopted UNDRIP. The federal government announced “unqualified support” of the document that ensures Indigenous rights are considered in every decision they make. True Nation to Nation relationships can only be built if the federal government follows through on what it promised.  Now is its chance.

Shirley Flowers, a member of Nunatsiavut and a partner of MCC, has been holding an almost daily vigil, at times alone, at the Muskrat Falls gate since June of this year.  She sees the risks to her own way of life and the consequences of non-action for her children, grandchildren and generations that follow. Shirley says, “If the calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission are not respected and followed, then the whole process is tokenism.”

Just as this blog post was prepared for publication, Newfoundland and Labrador Provincial Government came to an agreement with all three Indigenous Governments and a plan for moving forward together. Though concerns regarding methyl mercury and the North Spur remain, UNDRIP has been considered in the agreement, and Indigenous leadership and knowledge with be part of the process.

Excitement and apprehension: Canada and the UNDRIP

This week’s writer is Miriam Sainnawap, co-coordinator of MCC Canada’s Indigenous Neighbours program.  She is from Kingfisher Lake First Nation in Treaty 9 territory (northwestern Ontario).

In May, I attended one of the most highly attended meetings at United Nations in New York City. The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (15th session) is where Indigenous peoples worldwide gather to build solidarity and form alliances with other Indigenous peoples and organizations, and to bring the concerns confronting their communities to the UN.
UNDRIP 2“We are now a full supporter of the declaration, without qualification,” Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada said, on behalf of the Government of Canada. Her announcement indicated that Canada will fully adopt the United Nations of Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

Canada’s previous government had endorsed the declaration in 2010 and named it as an aspirational document, but had maintained some significant objections. With Bennett’s announcement, those objections were lifted.

As I stood up for the standing ovation in a conference room, I was filled with mixed emotions of excitement and apprehension. I was excited that finally Canada is taking this meaningful and important step forward with Indigenous peoples. I was also apprehensive as to whether Canada will actually do what is needed for full implementation.

While the Declaration addresses the complex issues of Indigenous rights in Canada, it is more helpful to understand the UNDRIP is a substantial document with 46 articles addressed in principles with short details.

The Declaration aims to protect and support the rights of Indigenous peoples to self-determination, language, culture and economic development, among other things.  It was developed over a 25-year by a working group of Indigenous people from around the world.

Jingle dancer

Jingle dancer Sherry Starr memorializes the children who died in Indian Residential Schools at a mass blanket exercise, Winnipeg, June 4, 2016.  Photo credit/Alison Ralph

The adoption of UNDRIP is an important symbolic gesture, requiring a major commitment to policy changes and laws, but adherence to the Declaration will unlikely lead to real change on the ground, unless there is full participation and partnership with Indigenous peoples.

Bennett indicated that the implementation process would follow in accordance with Section 35 of the Constitution, would recognize and affirm the existing Aboriginal and Treaty rights, and would commit the Crown to its duty to consult with Indigenous peoples. In other words, the Declaration will align itself with Canadian law, because the document is not legally binding and not enforceable in its application.

My anticipation remains in how the Declaration will be implemented. It is critically important for the government to engage in careful conversation and consultation with Indigenous peoples.

Let’s ensure the government holds to its public commitment to work with Indigenous peoples. It is a step and only the beginning.

A reconciling wind

A fresh and hope-filled wind is blowing across the land.  It is called Reconciliation.  Spearheaded primarily by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), this wind emerges from a wider Indigenous-led movement demanding restored relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada. It beckons all Canadians to join a journey that promises to be difficult but also beautiful and life-giving.

Drummer

Reconciliation Walk, 31 May 2015, Ottawa. MCC photo/Alison Ralph

A sign of this reconciling wind took place in Winnipeg on December 18, 2015 when six universities, three colleges and the Manitoba School Boards Association came together in unprecedented collaboration to sign a historic agreement called the Indigenous Education BlueprintCanadian Mennonite University was one of the signatories.

The ground-breaking document commits the institutions to work respectfully with Indigenous leaders to advance reconciliation through education, research and skill development. It binds them to “concrete practices in order to respect, celebrate, and support Indigenous peoples, knowledge, and success.”

The agreement builds directly on Call to Action #62 of the 94 distinct Calls to Action issued by the TRC when it issued its complete and final report in December.  Action #62 calls for the residential school legacy, Treaties, and past and present Indigenous contributions to this country to be a mandatory part of the curriculum in each province and territory.

In referring to the tragic legacy of the Indian Residential Schools, Chief Justice Murray Sinclair, head commissioner for the TRC, has said, “Education is what got us here and education is what will get us out.”  In his view, and the view of many Indigenous people, lack of awareness about the residential school system – indeed, about Indigenous people and their contribution to Canada – is a key factor in the broken relationship between Indigenous and settler peoples across the country.

dragonfly-icon-reconciliaction-400pxStephen Kakfwi said recently that Call to Action #62 is the single most important of the 94 Calls to Action. “Ignorance and lack of awareness is the basis of racism and indifference and apathy,” he insists.  “Ignorance dehumanizes us as Indigenous people; it dehumanizes all people.” Kakfwi is a residential school survivor who has served as president of the Dene Nation and premier of the Northwest Territories, and is currently president and CEO of Canadians for a New Partnership.  He insists that Action #62 could be a game changer for Canada.  “Canadians will no longer be able to say ‘we didn’t know.’”

Katsitsakwas Ellen Gabriel, Mohawk activist and artist, says, “We cannot continue to invest in the societal ignorance of such a huge part of our history. . . . Every single minister of education must be implementing the real history of Canada’s colonization.”

KAIROS is actively promoting Action #62 as part of a campaign called Winds of Change and encouraging Canadians to sign a petition that presses each provincial and territorial government to work with Indigneous leaders to implement the mandatory curriculum called for by the TRC.  KAIROS is a coalition of 11 national churches and church organizations actively promoting reconciliation and encouraging Canadians to embrace the winds of change and to take action for reconciliation.  KAIROS has developed a report card, identifying a baseline of where each province and territory currently stands in teaching about residential schools and Indigenous peoples; it will update this report card as changes are implemented.

Please circulate the petition and sign it!  It is small but exceedingly important thing that we all can do to foster reconciliation and to build a better future for all Canadians.

The hope-filled wind of reconciliation is blowing across the land. It beckons those of us who are settlers to learn that which we have not learned about Indigenous people – and also to un-learn the destructive myths, stereotypes and untruths that have held us captive for so long.   As the TRC has stated over and over, reconciliation promises to be a long and challenging journey, but it also envisions a beautiful future of justice, healing and respectful relationships.  How can we not welcome and embrace wind?

Reconciliation march

Reconciliation Walk, May 31, 2015, Ottawa. MCC photo/Alison Ralph

by Esther Epp-Tiessen, Public Engagement Coordinator, MCC Ottawa Office

In the face of fear, choose joy

This Christmas greeting to MCC’s supporters, constituents and friends was prepared by Don Peters, executive director of MCC Canada. 

During this season of Advent, we wait expectantly for the coming of Christ. We long for God’s justice, peace and mercy to be fully revealed on earth.

Today, it is easy to be consumed by fear. Fear is all pervasive. Fear of terrorism. Fear for the economy. Fear of people who are different from us. Fear can entangle and paralyze us.

Christmas Iraq

The grounds of Mar Elia Church in Ankawa, Iraq, are a makeshift home to many people who fled violence elsewhere in Iraq. Last Christmas, this life-size nativity was set up in a canvas tent that housed displaced Iraqi families before the sturdier tents in the background were constructed. “Jesus’ tent” is written in Arabic on the tent flap. Placing the nativity in the tent was a powerful symbol linking families’ suffering with the suffering of Christ. (MCC photo)

But our faith encourages us to embrace an impassioned, joyful and trusting response to life. Isaiah 12:2 says: “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.” And in the first two chapters of Luke, there are four references to fear and three references to joy, often only a verse or two apart. Fear and joy are not incompatible ideas. From my work with MCC, I see daily that this is true. 

Despite the fear of terrorism, we’ve witnessed your deep desire to welcome refugees. The MCC offices have been inundated with calls from churches, families, neighbourhood associations and community groups who want to bring refugees to safety and welcome them to a new life in Canada. In her poem “Home,” Warsan Shire writes:

you have to understand,
no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land.

who would choose to spend days
and nights in the stomach of a truck
unless the miles travelled
meant something more than journey.

We are thankful for all of you who have heard the call to walk with refugees on their journey and welcome them warmly into your congregations, homes and communities.

Despite fears of scarcity and a bad economy, we’ve seen you give generously to help those in need. Thanks to your support, we’re able to provide relief to people affected by violence or disaster around the world. Our partners are distributing winter supplies to families in countries from Syria to Nepal. With your help, we’re providing education in places like Lebanon, South Sudan and here in Canada. And because of your generosity, we support courageous peacebuilders in places like Afghanistan and Honduras. We are thankful to all of you who have chosen generosity in the face of scarcity.

When faced with fear of the other, we’ve seen you choose friendship. In the media, it’s easy to see prejudice and fear of people who are different from ourselves. But time and time again, we’ve seen you choose friendship. Christian churches have partnered with Muslim groups to sponsor refugees. Churches have spoken out in support of reconciliation and the rights of Indigenous peoples. And volunteers have helped people reintegrate in their community after serving time in prison. When presented with the choice to fear the unknown, we’ve seen you build bridges and love your neighbour, no matter who that neighbour might be.

In this season of Advent, we bring our fears to God. We long to be released from the power of fear over our lives. As you’ve shown us repeatedly, fear cannot stop us from reaching out with compassion to help those in need. Thank you for the many ways you have helped us share relief, development and peace in the name of Christ.

Sincerely,

Don Peters
Executive Director, MCC Canada

What’s in a word?

This week’s blog post was written by Sue Eagle, who is MCC Canada’s Indigenous Neighours Program Co-coordinator alongside Miriam Sainnawap

When I attend Indigenous events or meetings, I listen for themes or for wisdom that might give my work direction. I try to pay special attention to those voices that are not often listened to.

In spring, I was at one of the most highly-attended meetings at the United Naunpfii_logotions in New York City. The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) is 14 years old. It has become an event where Indigenous Peoples world-wide gather to build solidarity, inform other Indigenous nations and organizations about what is happening in their homelands and find ways to bring their issues to the attention of the United Nations.

One of the common threads that I found weaving in and out of the sessions and events was that words hold power.

The word “Indigenous” was claimed back in 1974 by the people who gathered to work on their rights at the United Nations level. They spent some time deciding what they should collectively call themselves. They chose “Indigenous.” The word was claimed in an act of solidarity and resistance.

Kairos Canada's Gathering at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.   The opening plenary session was moderated by Gabrielle Fayant (co-director of the ReachUp! North Program), and featured Mike Cachagee, former president of the National Residential Schools Survivor Society, Marie Wilson, Commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), and Jah'Kota, hiphop artist, musician, founder of Un1ty Entertainment.

From Kairos Canada’s Gathering at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Ottawa (Photo courtesy of Alison Ralph, MCC Canada).

“Peoples” with an “s,” turns a generic group of individuals into distinct nations, according to Oren Lyons, faith-keeper of the Turtle Clan of the Seneca Nation of the Iroquois Confederacy and long-time leader in Indigenous rights work at the United Nations level. With the “s,” they become Arapahos, Dakotas, Haudenosaune, Dene, Anishinabee, Cheyenne, Sami, Metis, and Mayans. The use of that word is part of the movement to get member status for each of these Indigenous nations within the United Nations.

An “s” can change reality for vast numbers of Peoples/people.

In a session on “Indigeneity and Spirituality,” LeMoine LaPointe, Sicangu Lakota, clarified that Indigenous culture was not “lost,” but it has been interrupted. A change in words turns a passive action into an intentional act. The concept that culture has been interrupted highlights the strength and resiliency of Peoples, overwhelmingly evident at the Permanent Forum.

In speaking about her plans to introduce an intervention on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women at the UNPFII, Dr. Dawn Lavell-Harvard, Ph.D., president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, adamantly stated that “car keys go missing.” Indigenous women are “being stolen” from their families and communities. To say that they are missing does not do justice to the reality that they and their loved ones are facing. Again, the verb “missing” is passive, while “stolen” refers to a deliberate action.

Words can turn human beings into concerns….

RS50882_IMG_2835-lpr

Sue Eagle, walking with the over 7,000 people who joined in the walk for reconciliation in Ottawa (Photo courtesy of Alison Ralph).

“We are Peoples, not issues,” I heard one person say. The reference was to the title for the meetings – The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. There has been talk around changing the name of the gathering. In fact it was one of the recommendations put forward in a previous UNPFII. Some Indigenous people present have decided to start using the words “United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples,” rather than wait for the powers that be to approve it.

Words hold power and they need to be chosen carefully. Choosing words is not simply about semantics or being politically correct. It is about visibility, strength and identity. It is about resistance.