Algonquin women say Mother Earth important in building reconciliation

Verna McGregor

Verna McGregor

June 27, 2016
DEBORAH GYAPONG
CANADIAN CATHOLIC NEWS

OTTAWA - First Nations peoples and Canadians are on a path toward reconciliation, but can only achieve that goal if both parties work together, says the executive director of the First Nations Confederacy of Cultural Education Centres.

"The time is now to build a better country," said Claudette Commanda, a member of the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation near Maniwaki, Quebec, and a former University of Ottawa law professor. "We must do so for our children."

No matter how dark our history is, "we have to learn about our history to make sure that history is never repeated," she told the annual general meeting of Citizens for Public Justice June 2.

Commanda said she was taught from childhood about her future responsibilities which includes care of the land and water.

Though First Nations are diverse in culture and language, they are "all connected to the land," she said.

CELEBRATE DIFFERENCES

Regardless of race or creed, we all share Mother Earth and we are all human beings, she said. "The Creator made us who we are in each of our cultures, races and differences."

Those differences are to be respected and celebrated, she said. "Our prophecies told us about change that would come to our land."

Those prophecies spoke of hardship, "but also about the strength of our people and of a time even harder than that of our grandparents," she said.

As well, when Commanda was young she was taught to "continue the responsibility of our grandparents, to always ensure the welcome of people into our territories, but also to educate people and to tell our stories."

RETAIN THE LANGUAGE

Verna McGregor, also of the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation, who works at the Aboriginal Women's Support Centre in Ottawa, told how her mother fought to bring back the Algonquin language to their community.

"We need to retain our language because it is connected to the land," her mother would say, McGregor said.

She told how she had gone to Ottawa to go to school and eventually to university. Upon graduation, she worked briefly at Indian and Northern Affairs. "Gee whiz, the people are so miserable," she said of her time there.

A friend invited her to sell real estate. "I come from the reserve. What do I know about real estate?" she asked. On the reserve, you "go put your name forward at the band office and you pray, and you pray."

"Here you put in an offer and you get a mortgage," she said.

She sold real estate for a while, and then met a banker. "What do I know about banking? We'd been left out of this whole financial system."

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT

There was a time when an indigenous person could not get a bank account or hire a lawyer. When a position opened up at the Assembly of First Nations she told herself, "I know real estate; I know banking." So she took a job in economic development.

Ovide Mercredi was national chief then. "He would say 'We are all in need of big healing."

"I'd say, 'Let's have economic development,'" McGregor said.

She soon saw the conflict, however, between her people's interests and economic development, such as big mining, that could leave the land and the water poisoned. Then the testimonies started coming out about the residential schools.

RESIDENTIAL SCHOOLS

McGregor began to see how the residential schools had negatively impacted the traditional industry by taking children away, keeping them from the labour-intensive work during the sugaring season, and depriving them of exposure to the sacred ceremonies.

"I didn't know why there were so many issues in our communities," she said. "When I heard the stories I began to understand."