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How One School District Is Teaching Settlers to ‘Walk in Two Worlds’

An online speaker series in the Nanaimo-Ladysmith district relies on Indigenous knowledge-keepers to explore reconciliation challenges.

Katie Hyslop 26 Nov 2020 | TheTyee.ca

Katie Hyslop is a reporter for The Tyee. Reach her here.

Indigenous people in Canada face the challenge of “walking in two worlds” — keeping their culture, language and ways of knowing alive, while living in a settler society.

Stephanie Johnson is switching that up. The Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools employee wants settlers to become the ones walking in two worlds, starting by learning the true history of Canada and the Indigenous peoples living here for over 10,000 years.

It’s a tall order, but Johnson hopes the district’s new online speaker series “Learning with Syeyutsus” is a step in that direction. Syeyutsus, which means “walking together” in the Hul’q’umi’num language, is also an expression for “walking in two worlds.”

“For too long the settler worldview has dominated everything. It’s very prominent, mainstream,” said Johnson, whose job title, Syeyutsus Saays’um, translates to “one that does the work to support walking together.”

“What we’re trying to do is provide experiences that honour Indigenous knowledge and support our learning to become better relatives on these Lands,” she continued. Johnson, who is of Métis and Norwegian descent, said she capitalizes “Land” to show it too is a relative, part of the family to be respected and considered in all decisions.

The series focuses on one of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action, which says that “all levels of Canadian government must educate public servants on the history and present-day circumstances of Indigenous peoples.”

There are 13 video talks for this school year. Speakers are all settler and Indigenous knowledge-keepers who have had books published through UBC Press, which partnered with the district on the series.

Authors like former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould and Paulette Regan, research director for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, will take part.

So far four talks have happened, all available on the Learning with Syeyutsus website. Topics so far range from Indigenous language and law revitalization to early settler-Indigenous relationships, Cree pedagogy and First Nations resistance since settlers first made contact.

While the focus of the call to action is on educating public servants, including school district employees, Johnson says the series is open to everyone.

“When I think about these topics, we’re often knocking at the same knowledge-keepers’ door,” she said, referring to organizations and institutions doing decolonizing and reconciliation work.

“I thought it was really important that we share the series with all Canadians.”

A commitment to reconciliation

Three years ago, the Nanaimo-Ladysmith school board adopted truth and reconciliation as one of its overarching goals for the district.

It was a strategic choice, says Johnson, adding most school districts have at most three to four goals they work towards.

“And why is it important? Every Canadian citizen should engage with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action. I think we have a moral imperative to know the true history of Canada,” said Johnson.

Working with First Nations and Métis knowledge-keepers from the Nanaimo-Ladysmith region, the district developed the Syeyutsus Reconciliation Framework.

The goal is to keep the district focused on land-based knowledge imparted by Indigenous knowledge-keepers from the region while “navigating the ever-changing complexities of today’s world and society.”

That’s where the Learning with Syeyutsus series comes in, says Johnson, as a tool people can use in their own education journeys.

Johnson is working with teachers in the district on lesson plans around the talks to further students’ education.

582px version of StephanieJohnsonProfile.jpg
‘For too long the settler worldview has dominated everything.’ Photo supplied.

But Johnson notes both the series and the Syeyutsus Reconciliation Framework isn’t about pushing one story on what “reconciliation” between Indigenous people and Canadians means. It’s about decolonizing our history and education.

“A lot of [Indigenous] communities I’ve worked in don’t like the word ‘reconciliation,’” she said. “It implies that we already had a good relationship, and we didn’t.”

The district’s framework “gives us permission to walk differently on these beautiful lands, and treat each other differently,” she added.

Challenging reconciliation

Jerry Fontaine, a former Indian Act band chief of the Sagkeeng community of the Ojibway-Anishinabe First Nations and current assistant professor of Indigenous studies at the University of Winnipeg, was the series’ first speaker on Oct. 13.

Fontaine said he found it odd to be asked to participate because he doesn’t support reconciliation. He made that explicit in his book Our Hearts Are as One Fire.

“My book speaks that it is a distraction to the bigger issue,” he said, adding he is “tired of all the apologies” governments have made while disrespect for Indigenous people, cultures, land, languages and laws continues.

Elders from his nation instead taught Fontaine that reconciliation with Canada comes second to reconciliation within and among themselves.

“We have to heal ourselves, we have to heal our families, we have to heal our clans, our communities and our nations,” he said.

Fontaine participated in the series because “there’s another side to this narrative. I think the narrative that’s being shared right now is all about reconciliation, but there’s a large silent majority that isn’t being listened to when we talk about reconciliation.” And, Fontaine added, he wanted to sell copies of his book.

Fontaine spoke from a couch in his cabin in Manitoba, flanked by his dog Olive and holding a pipe to call the spirits of his ancestors into the room with him. He told stories of colonial resistance by three Ota’wa, Shawnee and Ojibway-Anishinabe leaders: Obwandiac, Tecumtha and Shingwauk.

To them, Fontaine says, reconciliation meant separation while establishing a “middle ground,” which he describes in his book as “a philosophical and practical place where political, military and trading relationships and alliances” between settlers and First Peoples took place. It’s a message he hopes is resonating with youth, especially.

“We’re really in a difficult spot right now,” he said. “I hope young people hear the message, and hopefully we come to this place of ‘the good life’ and this middle ground. Because then I think we’ll be all the better for it.”

Indigenous languages and laws

Lindsay Keegitah Borrows, an Anishinaabe lawyer and language revitalizer from the Chippewas of Nawash First Nation, was another speaker in the series. Borrows said she makes a point of listening to Indigenous criticisms of reconciliation. Like Fontaine, she sees that talk of reconciliation hasn’t ended ongoing harms to Indigenous people.

“But even though that is happening, I still think we need to look at Indigenous and settler relations in Canada from a holistic perspective,” said Borrows, whose talk for the series was on Wednesday.

“And see that while there are ongoing harms that are very serious and need to be addressed, I think that there’s also some really amazing steps being taken to bring people together in greater understanding of one another and greater respect with one another.”

The subject of Borrow’s talk and her book, Otter’s Journey Through Indigenous Language and Law, is the similarities between her work with Anishinaabe language revitalization and Indigenous law.

“I saw a lot of parallels between how endangered languages, like Indigenous languages, are being revitalized, and Indigenous laws are quite similar in that they’ve also been suppressed by colonization and require a thoughtful rebuilding and revitalizing,” she said.

“So we can use some of the practices of language revitalization to help us with rebuilding our laws, as well.”

Borrows said the speaker series is a “beautiful step in the collective efforts to respond to the Calls to Action.”

But that’s not the only reason Borrows agreed to participate in the series. Although she hails from what’s now known as Ontario, Borrows attended kindergarten in the Nanaimo-Ladysmith district.

“I have some connections to teachers and classmates, and I love thinking that when I’m speaking today, it’s speaking to my people, these people who educated me when I was starting out as a young person,” she said.

“I had such a positive experience going to kindergarten in Nanaimo that, as I’ll be speaking, I’ll be thinking about those beautiful people who taught me as a young person, and this next generation that they’re teaching now and what a transformative role that has in a young person’s life.”

The Learning with Syeyutsus speaker series continues Jan. 20 with Jo-ann Q’um Q’um Xiiem Archibald. A member of the Stó:lō Nation, and former education professor at the University of British Columbia, Archibald will be speaking about her book, 'Indigenous Storywork: Educating the Heart, Mind, Body and Spirit' on incorporating Indigenous storytelling into mainstream university education.  [Tyee]

Read more: Indigenous, Education

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