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New Canadians received a primer on the role of Indigenous peoples in the country at an event in Thunder Bay, Ont. in March. (Photo credit: Damien Gilbert)

Canadian newcomers finally learn the true history of Indigenous people

Innovative KAIROS events foster friendship and understanding between Indigenous people and new Canadians.

By Bonnie Schiedel

A couple hundred people are streaming into Dennis Franklin Cromarty, a First Nations high school in Thunder Bay, Ont., this past March. We’re here for an event called Reconciliation in Thunder Bay: Moving Forward Together, the fifth and final gathering in a series organized by KAIROS, an ecumenical justice coalition that includes the United Church. Since the previous fall, Fredericton, Saskatoon, Edmonton and Winnipeg have hosted similar gatherings.

The goal is simultaneously big and small, complicated and simple: fostering relationships between Indigenous people and new Canadians. All other Canadians are welcome, too.

Many new Canadians aren’t aware of the role of Indigenous peoples in the country. Heran Zhao, a 16-year-old attendee at the event who emigrated from China with her family four years ago, tells me she thought Canada was an all-white country before she moved here.

To teach new Canadians a more inclusive history, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) requested revisions to the newcomers’ information kit, citizenship test and Oath of Citizenship. Alfredo Barahona, co-ordinator of Indigenous, migrant and network relations for KAIROS, says that it’s important to take these calls further and create face-to-face relationships. “Events like these are not going to solve the whole situation,” he says, “but at least it’s one more piece in terms of building a larger picture and a more informed knowledge of Indigenous peoples.”

To teach new Canadians a more inclusive history, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission requested revisions to the newcomers’ information kit, citizenship test and Oath of Citizenship.

The event opens with Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, chair of truth and reconciliation at Thunder Bay’s Lakehead University, taking the audience on a whirlwind tour of the TRC’s 94 Calls to Action. Four local groups then share their current initiatives, which include creating Indigenous knowledge centres at the four branches of the Thunder Bay library and establishing youth groups to brainstorm ideas for anti-racism programs.

At break, students from the host school’s culinary program circulate with snacks. There is a feeling of energy and goodwill — but attendees are not quite sure where to go with it all. “I’m here because I care about my community,” says Elizabeth Pim, who is neither Indigenous nor a newcomer. “We need action plans, not just to make ourselves feel good for being here.”

Stuart Slippery, a residential school survivor and a member of Yellow Quill First Nation in Saskatchewan, is seeking connection in Thunder Bay, where he has lived for about 15 months. “I want to be a bridge between the western culture and the Anishinaabe culture,” he says. “If everybody is fair, this country would flourish.”

For the final part of the afternoon, participants break into two sections. There’s a roundtable discussion about next steps, attended by a diverse group: a retiree who is planning on running for office, two border guards in uniform, a banker, a city councillor, a dad and his young daughter, a university employee. Across the hall, two facilitators are introducing the blanket exercise. Developed by KAIROS, it’s a visual, active way to learn about the European colonization of North America as the blankets on which participants stand are steadily removed.

Where does everyone go from here? “People want to learn more about one another,” KAIROS’s Barahona says. “Gatherings that are not just serious but are fun, too, where we share food and talk — they give me a lot of hope and motivation.”

This story first appeared in The Observer's September 2018 issue with the title "Making connections."

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