YWCA Hamilton Staff reflect on The National Day of Truth and Reconciliation

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Statement from Denise Christopherson, CEO:

The National Day of Truth and Reconciliation is an opportunity to reflect on the legacy of residential schools, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and Two-Spirit People (MMIWG2S), and the generations of injustices faced by Indigenous peoples.

For non-Indigenous folks, it provides an opportunity to learn about the rich history of Indigenous communities, and to unlearn the ingrained, systemic colonialism that permeates our society.

And, for us here at YWCA Hamilton, the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation offers us a moment to pause and reflect on our historical complicity in the cultural genocide of Indigenous people. Our organization was founded over 130 years ago, by and for white Christian settlers, and for much of our history, our feminism was rooted the context of white, settler dominance.

As an organization, we are now focused on supporting, uplifting, and advocating for Indigenous women, gender-diverse people, and families. However, there is always more to learn, and to unlearn.

In addition to reading and putting the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions Report into action, I encourage all of our YWCA Hamilton Staff to reference this guide published by the Montreal Urban Aboriginal Community Strategy Network and provided by our friends at We Dance For Life – an organization that advocates for healing and awareness focused on MMIWG2S – about how to be a better ally to Indigenous people.

I am also proud to share some reflections from three of our YWCA Hamilton Staff – Desiree Lethbridge, Debbie Ryerson, and Holly Wihnon – who attended a recent healing ceremony and gathering hosted by We Dance For Life. Desiree, Debbie, and Holly were invited to participate in Indigenous ceremonies, traditions, and culture, as a way to learn through experience, and to better understand the impacts of MMIWG2S.

I hope you will enjoy reading their reflections – and I hope it will be a starting point for more learning, reading, and reflection.

-Denise

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Desiree’s story

My attendance at the We Dance For Life gathering was enriching both personally and professionally on so many levels.

As an Indigenous (Inuk), woman affected by Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and Two-Spirit People (MMIWG2S) and past trauma, the ability to connect with local Indigenous folks, learn Indigenous customs of the land, be present at Elder teachings and traditional ceremonies was and is such an honour.

I did not grow up completely in my culture, I do not know the Inuit language, nor do I know many traditional customs and practices. I do make it a point to try and learn the historic culture and practices of those whom lands I reside on. This offers a chance at healing intergenerational trauma, making meaningful connections and goes toward personal growth.

At the We Dance For Life gathering, everyone from attendants, to board members and staff were all welcoming, helpful, knowledgeable and accepted us with open arms of understanding and patience.

It was an honour to attend and assist in events, cultural ceremonies, activities and circle with fellow Indigenous folks and non-Indigenous folks who came with open hearts and a yearning to learn.

The days were sometimes long and mentally draining, with days filled with topics that were mentally taxing and days that were physically demanding. However, I would go back in an instant. The people that I met were all so passionate about bringing the We Dance For Life MMIWG2S message to greater Canada’s attention and that passion was palpable and encouraging.

Desiree in the Canoe

Debbie’s story

During my time at the We Dance For Life, I felt that I was able to give back to Indigenous people by volunteering and helping wherever needed. It was important to me to uphold the respect for the elders by serving their meals first and ensuring that they had everything they needed.

I felt honoured to be accepted into their culture and traditions as a white settler.

My time at the We Dance for life was very much about truth and reconciliation.

I was able to see first-hand how real the impact Indigenous missing and murdered women and girls were, when a participant had someone close to her go missing. To see how this news affected her, physically, and emotionally, I realized that even though no one would want to experience this, this is part of their reality. I feel that settlers need to take more action to eliminate this from happening.

After my experience, I feel drawn to learn more about Indigenous history. I feel a sense of responsibility to share their stories and struggles as part of my act of reconciliation.

Debbie picking cedar

Holly’s story

Being a part of the We Dance for Life gathering was unlike anything I have ever experienced before. The sight of the flowing river alongside the mountain, the sound of the birds in the trees, the vibrant smell of fresh air with woodsy undertones, and the tastes of traditional food like freshly baked bannock, all connected so harmoniously and it felt like such a privilege and gift given by the land and the people of the land. Throughout the week, hearing the participants share their life experiences and teachings from a place of profound vulnerability and strength was so deeply personal and impactful.

As I begin, I want to recognize parts of my own social location. I am a white, cis-gendered female, born and raised in different parts of Western and Eastern Canada with some long-lost Indigenous relatives. In my professional and academic life, I have a background in Social Science – Criminal Justice as well as Community Engagement, Leadership and Development. Throughout the years, I have been privileged to take various courses, study, and read countless pieces on Indigenous relations and issues.  Though I am always a student in this field, I feel I have grounding knowledge and a comprehensive understanding.

However, working with and alongside Indigenous people, especially in the area of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and Two-Spirit People (MMIWG2S), helping to bring awareness and build relations is vastly different than anything I could experience reading. With all the things I have read and studied, I think the most important thing I have learned is to listen, learn, and be guided from those with lived and living experience.

Reflecting on my own personal experience at the gathering from a white, settler perspective living in so-called Canada, I’m immediately reminded of our grim history and the current oppressive realities for Indigenous people and their communities and the intergenerational trauma that is carried forward.

Quite remarkably, at the same time, I’m overwhelmed by their resilience, pride, and light. This gathering was full of emotions as there were many tears, smiles, laughs, and hugs that gripped so tightly. From an outsider looking in, I could feel the unspoken bond between the participants, many of which had never met one another before. There was so much connection and many shared life experiences between them that they didn’t seem like strangers at all.

Some of the most impactful moments for me were often found in the small details. Sitting in silence around the fire, sharing laughs and stories on a hike with another participant, taking a bite of bannock with jam and immediately being taken back to memories as a child, dipping my hair in the lake under the full moon after a ceremony… there are truly too many moments to count.

However, taking part in the ceremonies and being immersed in the ceremonial teachings were really some of the most powerful and transformational moments for me. I had the privilege to forage materials and build the sweat lodge and was humbled to be invited to participate in both sweats, which was a great honour. In the sweat, it is pitch dark until you see the flicker of the sparks from the hot stones. Even then can you only see the embers and nothing else – not even your legs and feet laid out straight in front of you.

I concentrated on the bed of cedar we sat on that I laid earlier that day, feeling the cedar between my fingers and rubbing it together between my hands to release the scent. Listening to the participants singing, I would hold the cedar branches against my mouth and nose breathing in the smell of it deeply, which helped clear the air from the steam coming off of the hot stones. This was something I was taught at the beginning of the sweat as an insider trick. It was cooling and refreshing and restored my balance of hot and cold. I felt so much clarity and relaxation with every deep breath of it. Cedar is medicine and is a critical component in these ceremonies. It was used in many different ways and it reminded me when the participants would explain the interconnectedness of their peoples and the earth.

Some talked about their responsibility to the land and to protect it for our children. To listen to the land. To listen to the bees, mosquitos, and poison ivy when they push us away when we disrupt their territory. It the earth’s way in communicating with us and we need to listen. To live in harmony with the earth is simply how they live. It’s not necessarily a practice, it’s just a way of living. To appreciate and listen to the earth and give back when you take are teachings that make so much sense to me and will stay with me forever.

It can be difficult to put into words what I experienced, how I felt and feel now. I believe that’s because so much of it was unspoken and felt so sacred and I feel a sense of protectiveness over these experiences.  I could never have imagined how transformational a week could be for me mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Frequently I would find tears building in my eyes from hearing other’s stories in a sharing circle, learning from the ceremonial teachings, or sometimes simply from the quiet, still moments in the teepee around the sacred fire when the silence was just as powerful. Mindfulness and wise practices are at the core of Indigenous knowledge and teachings that transcends the Eurocentric, individualistic perspective.

Strengthening Indigenous voices and putting them at the forefront of decision-making are essential to the transformative change we need in challenging the power structures, dismantling the injustices, and supporting these communities in healing and reclaiming their power and self-governance.

Holly at the We Dance For Life gathering

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