SGEI speaker series shines a light on Indigenous experiences

Ken Kellar
Local Journalism Initative Reporter

There’s a brand new series of opportunities to hear from Indigenous voices and perspectives in town, and you are invited to listen.

Seven Generations Education Institute (SGEI) began running a speaker series in January that focus on prominent Indigenous voices from a host of different backgrounds, experiences and professions. Each month will feature a new speaker with a new topic that stems from their lived experience and any number of societal issues.

Jana-Rae Yerxa is the Anishinaabe Gikendaasowin Professor and Curriculum Developer for SGEI and is originally from Couchiching First Nation, and she explained the speaker series is aimed at everyone in the area, regardless of where they live or even if they are enrolled at any of the SGEI campuses.

“The speaker series we’re doing at SGEI is an opportunity to help us achieve engaging all of the people who reside within Treaty #3,” Yerxa said.

“What I mean by that is all of our communities that reside within the territory, whether that’s First Nations communities or folks that live within the towns and townships throughout the area, because we are an education institute that is providing all types of education throughout the territory. During the pandemic, this is also a really creative way to stay in touch, to also be a hub for community knowledge and learning, and to provide opportunities to discuss critical issues of our time that are relevant to our lives.”

Having kicked off in January of this year, the series has already had two guest speakers, with January featuring Indigenous activist and model Ashley Callingbull and February’s speaker being author, rural development economist and international thought-leader Winona LaDuke. All of the sessions are being offered via web conference, with a portion of the evening dedicated to a Q and A session following each presenters talk.

The speaker series is also a way to expose how indigenous knowledge systems can help inform approaches to issues that individuals, or society at large, might be grappling with, like personal wellness, or climate change.

“We kicked our series off with Ashley Callingbull who is a Cree first Nations woman who was Mrs. Universe for 2015,” Yerxa said.

“She is the first Indigenous woman who was Ms. Canada, she’s a model and actor, and she’s a huge advocate for Indigenous women and rights. We wanted to get a speaker who would get a lot of interest, and Ashley Callingbull did just that. Her talk really centred around wellbeing, like how do you take care of yourself? Also, she’ so relatable in terms of, as people we all have struggles, and how do you overcome those struggles to live an empowering life for yourself that can also help to inspire others?”

The second speaker, LaDuke, is a Harvard educated economist whom Yerxa explained worked on issues of economic food and energy sovereignty whose organizations model cultural-based sustainable development strategies.

“Her work has gained her recognition as an international thought leader,” Yerxa said.

“She’s published a lot of books on these issues, and her newest book that just released is called ‘To Be a Water Protector.'”

As much as both speakers are individuals, Yerxa explained there are general themes that could be seen to link them, and future speakers, together.

“We talk about issues that are relevant to our lives,” she said. “So we talk about wellbeing, we talk about colonization, we talk about Indigenous resurgence, we talk about our roles and responsibilities in terms of creating more just communities. I think well being is such a broad topic, but we also talk about economies, entrepreneurship.”

More than just having interesting and accomplished speakers share their stories, Yerxa noted the series was also a great way to connect people and offer some form of socialization during the ongoing crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We wanted to provide an opportunity for our students and community members in general to come together and engage in some fun learning,” she explained.

“Because of the times we’re living in, it’s always important to come together and make connections with each other. I think during the pandemic things can be isolating and hard for people, but it’s also a time for people to reflect and maybe pay attention to things we don’t always have the time to commit to but are interested in. This is an opportunity to try to address all of those needs.”

With the speaker series being free of charge and open to the public, everyone is invited to take part in any upcoming talks by way of the SGEI Facebook page or their website to find the registration link for upcoming events. The next speaker, scheduled for March 9, is Derrick Baxter, an Indigenous entrepreneur who is focused on app development, particularly as they may pertain to language revitalization.

“It’s kind of cool that we have Winona LaDuke followed by Derrick Baxter because they’re both talking about business industry economics from different perspectives,”
Yerxa said.

“Baxter is the President and CEO of Ogoki Learning, so he’s one of Canada’s most prominent app developers and North America’s leading technologist in the field of language revitalization. What I really like about Derrick is when I’ve spoken to him, he grew up in one of the northern communities and he talks about when he went to high school in Thunder Bay, one of the teachers brought in a businessman who was a car salesman, and when Derrick heard him talk, it inspired him to be a businessman. So it’s really interesting how he’s taken being a businessman, but it;’s in the field of language revitalization, which I think is really cool.”