Feedback suggests education key to better relations

Duane Hicks

A presentation by Dr. Jeff Denis, a recent Harvard graduate and now assistant professor of sociology at McMaster University in Hamilton, here last Thursday night included public feedback on his findings as he prepares to convert his Ph.D. dissertation into a published book.
About 60 people attended the talk—and many were eager to share their feelings.
The most prevalent concern, among both white and aboriginal speakers, was the need for the education system to increase historical education in regards to residential schools, treaties, and other areas crucial to foster understanding of aboriginal peoples, as well as hire more aboriginal teachers and encourage the teaching of the Ojibwe language to youth (aboriginal or otherwise).
As one man said, “If people understand more of our language, the way we look at the world, there would be a bridging of better understanding.”
“We definitely have to break down those prejudices . . . that white parents might be instilling in their children at home when they come to school,” stressed teacher Brad Oster, adding local schools are trying by holding events like pow-wows but still need a better, deeper understanding of aboriginal culture.
“So maybe at school, we can change some thinking,” Oster said.
Leona McGinnis of Manitou Rapids First Nation said her grandson is a senior at Fort High and high achiever, and she is not afraid to talk to teachers and make sure he is treated equally in school.
“We have to educate and explain and say, ‘Hey, I have feelings. I care for my family,’” she noted.
McGinnis feels “the most biggest, dangerous institutional racism in our district” is in the schools “because they have our children . . . that’s where they go learn to be afraid, to be ashamed.”
“Racism comes from the top . . . we need to have more aboriginal teachers in the schools, we need to keep the ones that we have because there has to be that exchange of information,” she stressed, adding her two great-grandfathers signed a treaty stating, “‘We want you to educate our children,’ but that was supposed to be reciprocal; we want to educate yours.
“It has never been reciprocal, and we need to promote that,” she argued. “We need to promote that so we are going to strive to get along.”
McGinnis said she wants to read Dr. Denis’ whole report, and doesn’t want it to sit on the shelf and collect dust, adding, “There’s got to be more things to do.”
Another woman said the aboriginal population has a “big responsibility” to get good representatives on the school boards because there are seats for them.
“I have been on other boards and there is seats for them, and we can’t get anybody to act,” she noted. “It’s really important for you people in the aboriginal communities to be cultivating spokesperson to be there.
“If you’re not sitting at the table, nothing gets said,” she concluded.
Speaking about education and treaty rights in general, local Métis and aboriginal teacher Paul Pirie said any changes will come from the grassroots.
“If it doesn’t come from small groups, at the bottom, out in the field, it doesn’t seem to happen,” he remarked.
“The big ideas, the nation-wide stuff, doesn’t seem to happen.
“At the all-treaties conference here a couple years ago, I probably learned more in a week than I learned in 50 years what was happening with treaties,” Pirie added.
“The fact is, the current federal government has thrown some bones—some significant bones, for sure—with the apology for the residential schools and so on, the new legislation that has been passed for First Nations, and separately, for the Métis Nation, for consultations over the use of lands that’s being enforced by the government.
“But other than that, there’s a whole lot of stuff that’s been in treaties for 130 years that they still won’t supply that they promised to supply,” argued Pirie.
“We have to do this ourselves in small groups, from the bottom, in all the communities,” he explained. “All the good stuff that’s happening is coming from there, and not from the top. . . .
“Let’s keep doing the good stuff, like we’re doing with the Right Relations [Circle], from the grassroots.”
Lori Flinders, director of Nanaadawewinan with Weechi-it-te-win Family Services and also a member of the local Right Relations Circle, said those who are now aware of Dr. Denis’ study should take the opportunity to share what they’ve learned and build bridges.
“Yes, I agree with Paul that it has to start at the grassroots, and I also know that policy guides practice in a lot of ways,” Flinders remarked.
“If I want to create change, I have to be that change and that means I have to de-colonize my own thinking.
“What does that mean? How do you guys feel about having two of our most prominent streets, two of our most beautiful streets in this town, called ‘Colonization Road?’” asked Flinders.
“Have you ever thought about that? Have you ever challenged it?
“Are you willing to challenge it because you will get targeted.”
Flinders said it takes courage to be the change we want to be, as well as educating ourselves and de-colonizing ourselves.
“It’s not just something that you’re in a position to do,” she stressed. “It’s a sacred responsibility as a human being on this planet, as a part of creation on this planet, to do that, to make the planet a better place for your children and your grandchildren.”
Last Thursday’s presentation began and ended with ceremonial drum songs performed by the Mitaanjigaming First Nation drummers.
Those with questions, comments, or suggestions can contact Denis at denisj@mcmaster.ca