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Akwesasne community partners with OPSEU for successful Indigenous conference

2016 OPSEU Indigenous Conference: Reconciling With Indigenous Communities.
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1st Biennial OPSEU Indigenous Conference

Theme : Reconciling With Indigenous Communities: OPSEU’s Response to the Truth and Reconciliation Report

September 30 – October 2, 2016, Nav Centre, Cornwall, Ontario

OPSEU’s first biennial Indigenous Conference was by all accounts a huge success.

The Conference theme chosen by the Indigenous Circle, “Reconciliation with Indigenous communities,” is needed now more than ever. The Conference was OPSEU`s promise as a labour union to make this a reality.

The Indigenous Circle made it very clear from the beginning that this would be an Indigenous Conference rooted in traditional ceremonies and teachings. The Conference was organized by Indigenous members in conjunction with the youth and elders of the Mohawk Nation at Akwesasne.  Together, throughout the weekend, elders, organizers, speakers, workshop facilitators, and performers invited Indigenous people and settlers to come together to engage in a process of education, healing and reconciliation. Conference participants accepted this invitation.

The Conference opened on Friday evening with a ceremony in Kanien’kéha, the traditional Mohawk language, that included Ohenten Kariwatekwen, the traditional Mohawk Thanksgiving Address. The opening ceremony was led by Rakwirahes Pembleton, a 13-year-old member of the Mohawk Nation of Akwesasne who is fluent in Kanien’kéha. Participants were welcomed to the territory by Chief Louise Thompson and received greetings from Gareth Jones, Regional Vice-President for OPSEU Region 4.  The evening closed with incredible musical performances by Inuit Throat Singers and two members of the Métis Fiddler Quartet that included Métis jigging and a celebratory spirit among participants.

Saturday morning began with a traditional smudge followed by an inspiring presentation by Senator Murray Sinclair that brought tears as he painted a portrait of the impact of the residential schools and colonialism on Indigenous communities.  His presentation was followed by a rousing call to action by Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, 1st Indigenous Chair for Truth and Reconciliation at Lakehead University.  Participants reviewed many of the 94 TRC Calls to Action and were informed of ways OPSEU members can implement them both at work and in their Union.

The afternoon included a powerful Sharing Circle on Truth and Reconciliation where all participants were invited to share. The Circle was led by elders Della Adams and Eddie Gray of the Akwesasne Traditional Medicines Program.  The sharing circle included honest and moving testimony from many residential school survivors that moved the heart of participants to action based on empathy. All were challenged to see their place in the history of colonialism and take action to create ways of relating that can undo the legacy of colonialism and move us toward real reconciliation.

Saturday evening included more singing and dancing led by Bear Fox and the Akwesasne Women Singers who effectively used song to tell the story of the lives of Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island.  Members of the Indigenous Circle and others joined with the Akwesasne Singers in traditional drumming to complete the evening activities.

Responding to Senator Sinclair`s challenge that “education is key to reconciliation” the weekend also included three workshops on Indigenous history, human rights and restorative justice.  They were facilitated by Indigenous Circle members, workers with the Akwesasne Community Justice Program and representatives from the Canadian Human Rights Commission and the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

The weekend closed on Sunday at noon with a traditional closing led by elder Brian David who was present for the entire Conference.

OPSEU`s commitment to Truth and Reconciliation also includes:

  • a campaign to make June 21 a statutory holiday in the province of Ontario and then throughout all of Canada;
  • two courses entitled “Indigenous Journey: Walking Together” educate members on the history of colonialism, its impact on Indigenous communities and offer a way forward towards healing and reconciliation;
  • a partnership with Food Share Toronto to work with northern Indigenous communities to establish their own food markets to provide healthy and affordable food to remote communities; and
  • participation in the 2017 World Indigenous Peoples Conference and a commitment to international Indigenous Solidarity.

Krista Maracle, Chair of the OPSEU Indigenous Circle reminds us that Indigenous communities already know what an effective strategy of healing and reconciliation would look like. They just need partners to help make it a reality.  This Conference was about OPSEU stepping up to be such a partner.’’

As with any conference, its real success will be determined by the changes and new energy it brings to the Union.  OPSEU members have already been challenged by President Warren (Smokey) Thomas to “play its part in the truth and reconciliation process by adopting these recommendations within our collective agreements.  Recognizing that Indigenous workers face discrimination at work, it is crucial for us as a union to participate fully in dismantling the barriers that maintain a labour market that continues to be racially segregated.  We are in this for the long haul.”

Reconciling Indigenous Communities

Christi Belcourt is a well-renown Métis artist who graciously allowed the Indigenous Circle the use of her art for the Conference.  For more information about Christi Belcourt