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Wikwemkoong community partners with OPSEU for successful Indigenous Conference

2018 OPSEU Indigenous Conference poster
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Second Biennial OPSEU Indigenous Conference 

“Cultural reclamation and restoration: weaving culture back into our blanket”

OPSEU’s second biennial Indigenous Conference was held from June 22 to 24, 2018, at the Manitoulin Hotel and Conference Centre in Little Current, Ontario. By all accounts, it was a huge success.

The conference was organized by Indigenous members in conjunction with Elders of the Wikwemkoong Unceded First Nation. 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 Indigenous Circle chose “Cultural Reclamation and Restoration,” as the theme of the conference. It is in direct response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s finding of cultural genocide against Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island.

OPSEU Region 7 Executive Board Member Ken Maclam, liaison to the Indigenous Circle, welcomed participants to the conference by quoting OPSEU’s Affirmation of Principles on Indigenous Peoples’ Rights: “Healing cannot begin until Indigenous peoples re-establish full control over their communities, economies and cultural traditions, and revitalize their languages and cultures.”

The conference was OPSEU’s firm commitment to partner with Wikwemkoong Unceded First Nation and other Indigenous communities to recognize and honour this cultural revitalization.

Participants were welcomed by Band Council member Rachel Manitowabi, designee for Chief Duke Peltier, and Ken Maclam on behalf of OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas.

The conference opened on Friday evening with a ceremony in Anishinaabemowin, the traditional Anishinaabek language preserved by the Wikwemkoong community. The opening ceremony included drumming, traditional dancers and an opening prayer by Elder Raymond Jackson.

The community also initiated an honour dance to recognize Darlene Kaboni, a member of Wikwemkoong Unceded First Nation and an Indigenous Circle representative from Region 6, for her appointment as Public Education and Outreach Officer at the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

The evening closed with a blanket exercise and teaching by Elder Dorothy Fox, who explained the traditional Anishinaabe family and way of life, threatened by colonialism but preserved and thriving on Wikwemkoong.

Saturday morning began with a sunrise ceremony at the teepee that was constructed for the conference. Fire keepers remained awake during the whole conference around the sacred fire in the teepee. Then there was an official welcome by Glen Hare, the new Grand Council Chief for the Anishinabek Nation.  His welcome was followed by a keynote presentation that included a teaching on cultural reclamation by Elder Phyllis Williams and an address by water protector Autumn Peltier.

Before and after lunch, participants attended two workshops: one led by Indigenous Circle members on storytelling, and the other led by Maya Ki’Ché midwives, who are preserving this cultural practice in Guatemala.

The afternoon included a showing of the OPSEU Sixties Scoop video, followed by a sharing circle led by Elders that challenged everyone to see their place in the history of colonialism and to take action to create ways of relating that can undo the legacy of colonialism. Saturday evening featured music and dancing with Elijah Manitowabi and the Backburners: local musicians who energized the room.

The weekend closed on Sunday morning with a traditional closing complete with drummers, a blanket exercise led by the Elders, a closing prayer and travelling song, with everyone dancing as they exited the circle to greet the Elders, organizers and participants.

Commenting on the conference, OPSEU Indigenous Circle Chair Krista Maracle reminded everyone that “healing cannot begin until Indigenous peoples re-establish full control over their communities and this includes revitalizing their languages and cultures.” The conference gave participants a glimpse of what this looks like for Anishinabek communities.

Maracle thanked the planning committee for all their hard work and dedication to making the conference a success: Lauren Fong, Region 6 Indigenous Circle representative; Gladys Wakegijig and Daryl King, members of Wikwemkoong Unceded Territory; Raul Scorza, Horizons of Friendship Community Outreach/Communications Coordinator; and Tim Vining and Fridmar Facunda, OPSEU staff.

President Thomas noted that, as with any conference, its real success would be determined by the changes and new energy it brought to the union and workplaces. “That’s why I invite all participants to integrate the teachings learned at the conference into their work as frontline workers in child welfare, corrections and other public services,” he said.

“OPSEU is committed to walking with Indigenous communities for the long haul.”

Comments from partners and participants

“I was humbled and honoured to have witnessed what working alongside Indigenous partners should look like – not just consultation, but real involvement at all steps and all times during the planning and execution process, with all conference spaces highlighting their thoughts, messages and actions.
“I will draw from this experience as a model to facilitate respectful partnerships with Indigenous communities and organizations.”
– A conference participant

“This was a completely new experience that opened my eyes. Indigenous Maya peoples in Guatemala have faced similar discrimination and oppression as Indigenous peoples in Canada. Seeing firsthand the resilience with which Indigenous communities in Canada are working to reclaim their culture makes me all the more committed to giving my best in helping improve the health of Indigenous Maya women and children back home.
By presenting our own experiences, struggles and steps forward, I hope to have shared strength that our Indigenous sisters and brothers in the North can draw from, too.”
– Verónica Mazariegos, traditional Indigenous midwife trainer with Horizons of Friendship’s Maternal, Newborn and Child Health project

“Horizons of Friendship is extremely grateful to all organizers for the opportunity for our Indigenous Maya partners from Guatemala to have been part of this conference. The involvement of Wikwemkoong Elders and community members at all parts of the process allowed for a real exchange between Indigenous peoples of the north and south, all while sharing the vital importance of reclaiming and protecting culture – both in Canada and Guatemala – with the OPSEU membership.”
– Raúl Scorza, Horizons’ Community Outreach/Communications Coordinator