Student Sets the Stage for Meaningful Reconciliation

Photo Karen Graham.
Trent University Autumn Sky spent the summer working at the CM Libraries where she introduced several educational tools to open the doors to a better understanding of Indigenous culture and history.  Two poster series, designed to allow the reader to set their own pace as they browse the educational materials, provide important background information that prepares the reader for genuine and informed conversations that could foster respectful relationships with Indigenous communities across the country. 

With clear minds, fresh perspectives and pure motives, young people can often lead the way to meaningful change when weary adults flounder, held back by their baggage of preconceived ideas.

Autumn Sky joined CML libraries in July as a summer student.   A 2nd year student in the Indigenous Bachelor of Education at Trent University, she is a member of the Wiikwemkoong Unceded First Nation on Manitoulin Island.  In her work with the library, Autumn has brought new skills and insight to begin to address the conflict, confusion and fear that has plagued relationships between Indigenous and western cultures across the nation for centuries.  Her work was designed to build bridges between Indigenous communities and the rest of us, helping us start on the path to reconciliation and cultural understanding.

Her timing was good.  Current events within the Indigenous communities across the country have inspired an unprecedented appetite to better understand and support those communities.

Her style was low-tech: Autumn developed two poster series providing valuable information about Indigenous nations in Canada, which were laid out around the library grounds allowing patrons to peruse them at their own pace.  This approach incorporates one of the keystones of Indigenous educational pedagogy that individuals learn in their own ways at their own pace in their lifelong journey.  Autumn believes that often people want to learn but do not know where to start or are worried about unintentionally being disrespectful in their search for information.  With this in mind, she started with the basics of learning: terminology.

Terminology definitions and backgrounds were introduced to patrons through the library newsletter and through her first self-guided poster series.  Understanding the terminology gives individuals the confidence to hold respectful conversations, opening the door to a deeper understanding.

The second set of posters focused on the rich history of Indigenous nations in Canada, emphasizing the complex, intelligent and diverse societies created by Indigenous peoples.  The posters remind readers of the complex history of Canada that came before the arrival of Europeans, which is sometimes confused as the country’s origin.

As with all language, terminology evolves over time and commonly used terms become viewed as pejorative.  It can be a mine field.  Here are a few of the terminology clarifications provided in her work.

Indigenous describes any group of people who are the original inhabitants of a specific region- that is, the people who were on the land before colonists or settlers arrived. When using this term, the plural ‘peoples’ or ‘nations’ is most appropriate as it respects the many distinct nations that reside on this land knowns as Canada, unless referring to a specific group of people.  This term is widely accepted, whereas the legal term “Aboriginal” found in the Constitution Act of 1982 is less so.  This term also replaced “native”, which was commonly used prior to 2010.  The problem with the other labels stems from the implication that all Indigenous groups are the same, whereas there are many distinct nations who independence and diversity is disrespected by the Indigenous term.

The term “Indian” was coined by Christopher Columbus when he mistakenly believed he had reached India when he landed in North America.  This outdated term used by government refers to those subject to the Indian Act, and symbolizes colonial oppression.  This piece of legislation incorporated treaties and other acts into a single document intended to “civilize” and assimilate First Nations people into western culture.  It also defines the qualifications of “Status Indian” who are entitled to treaty rights.

In a more subtle way, CM Libraries’ children’s summer programing was also influenced by  Indigenous values and beliefs.  Children’s books written by marginalized and under-represented groups were on display in a collection of books written by # Own Voices describing their own experiences and from their own perspectives, tempting the reader to see things from their perspectives.  Outdoor children’s programs focused on observing the beauty of nature and fostering a connection with the land and a respect for all life on earth.  It’s a lesson we can all appreciate after this summer of tumultuous weather.

Starting a difficult conversation with a common understanding of the words being used is an important first step towards meaningful communication.  Thank you, Autumn, for the insight and generosity you have shown in providing some tools to help us understand how to start conversations that could spark meaningful and respectful relationships.  With patience and grace, Autumn offers us tools to move forward when we are ready.  Has that time finally arrived?   KG



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