Gaining New Perspectives: The Indigenous Canada Experience

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With March comes what is known to the Nehiyawak (Cree people) as the “Goose Moon.” Spring is finally arriving and the geese are returning from the south.

Geese, of course, are not the only animal to start migrating in the spring. Buffalo would begin to move through the plains and cross the rivers. The buffalo and geese would often be found flying over, crossing through, and stopping at the North Saskatchewan River, where Edmonton now stands, before continuing on their journey.

The coming of spring means the river will melt and once again become the site for both people and animals to visit and enjoy. As the river is integral in our identity as Edmontonians, this month our blog posts will be looking at how our journey with Naheyawin is owed to the opportunities provided by Edmonton.

Gaining New Perspectives: The Indigenous Canada Experience

By Emma Schreiner Vonk

I like to think that I am a fairly smart, educated cat. However, there have been many times in my life where that idea has been completely smashed to pieces. Math was easy for me until trigonometry in grade 12 (I loved trig up until then). I came into university perhaps a little cocky carrying my honours from high school and learned that I was utterly average. I think I am well-read and knowledgeable on current events until the discussion changes at the table and I contribute little, if anything, to the conversation. I thought I was a step ahead of the game starting at Naheyawin with my knowledge of Indigenous culture and history.

“Yeah, okay little girl,” said University of Alberta when I started taking their Indigenous Canada course.

See, I grew up on a farm in northern Alberta and went to school in the nearest small town. Think grad-class-of-25 small. And like anyone else in small town Alberta, I took the unit in Social Studies that teaches students about the “founding” of Canada and the establishment/abolishment of residential schools. At the time, it feels like you are learning a lot of Canada’s history and how Canada has changed over the years to right the wrongs committed.

In addition to this broad education I was receiving, the next town over is Lac la Biche on Treaty 6. If any of the readers are familiar with Lac la Biche, they will know that there is a higher Indigenous demographic due to the number of reserves and settlements nearby. There are five primary schools and a post-secondary institution, Portage College, that all ensure any ceremonies happening at the school contain an element of Indigenous culture, such as students of Metis descent wearing a traditional sash at graduation ceremonies, or the Honour Ceremony held in conjunction with the College’s annual convocation. There is the annual Pow Wow Days with traditional dress worn and dances performed, with the town coming together for a parade, rodeo, and all other kinds of activities. My mom used to work at Portage College and would assist with the planning of various  Indigenous-focused events that occurred on campus, as well had the opportunity to work with Indigenous students, alumni, and other community partners to promote post-secondary learning opportunities and engagement with the College (she helped me write this sentence, can you tell?) Observing and learning about the culture in school, in my community, and in my home made me think I was well-versed and knowledgeable.

So when it was suggested by Jacquelyn that I take the Indigenous Canada course offered by the University of Alberta, I was a little skeptical of what I would get from it based on what I already knew. In the end, what I learned is that I essentially know nothing.

The mandatory unit we all take in Social Studies is barely a scratch on the surface of Indigenous history. Living near Lac la Biche was just an surface introduction into Indigenous culture. I may have seen the traditional dress, but I do not know the amount of work that goes into the beading or what the significance of the designs are. I may have had an understanding of what happened in residential schools, but I had no knowledge of the extent of abuse that occurred there.  Legends, teachings, social movements, art, politics, treaty negotiations — many of these I thought I had a grasp on. I think the biggest eye opener was just how much colonialism and white people have harmed a large population just because, one, they wanted to for their own gain and, second, thought they knew better than anyone else.

When the course begins, it explains that this is an introductory course and it could never fully capture the culture and history of Indigenous people in Canada and North America. But if you are like me, coming from small town, white Alberta, and feel like you are Tyrion Lannister and know things, you are in fact a Jon Snow and know nothing. And I will be a Jon Snow and know nothing for a while. How could I possibly know everything about a culture that has existed for thousands of years before being “discovered” by Europeans and how it has retained its resiliency despite the hardships of the past few centuries… in 12 weeks. But you know what that means?

It means I get to learn more.

If the Indigenous Canada course is truly an introductory course, it means I have a lot more to learn about Indigenous perspectives. Being a part of Naheyawin and projects like Tatawaw will only open the opportunities for me to learn and get more involved. And I encourage you to do the same.

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