SASKATOON — First Nations and indigenous representatives extended a warm welcome to refugees who have recently arrived in Saskatoon. The afternoon program Feb. 24 at the Cathedral of the Holy Family included messages of solidarity and welcome, a round dance, refreshments and information about treaties and the history of indigenous peoples.
“Just like your people, mine have faced many injustices throughout history,” said speaker Janelle Pewapsconias, an entrepreneur, student and mother from Little Pine First Nation.
Speaking to the refugees from Syria, she added, “I don’t understand your language, but I am looking forward to hearing your stories. You and I, and all of us, we are strong people. We have more in common than you know.”
The Saskatchewan Association of Immigrant Settlement and Integration Agencies (SAISA), Multicultural Council of Saskatchewan, The Aboriginal Friendship Centre of Saskatchewan (AFCS), and partners from BRIDGES (Building Relationships through Intercultural Dialogue and Growing Engagement) joined together to organize the event to welcome refugees who have arrived in the community since November.
Master of ceremonies Brad Bird of AFCS introduced special guests, elders and elected representatives, including Saskatoon Mayor Don Atchison, while Abeer Younis translated each speaker’s words into Arabic.
Some 400 refugees who have fled war and persecution in Syria have arrived in Saskatoon so far, part of the Canadian commitment to respond to the international crisis, said Ali Abukar, executive director of the Saskatoon Open Door Society. Refugees from other countries have also arrived in Saskatchewan since November.
As part of the welcoming event Elder Maria Linklater offered prayers in her language. Traditional drummers and singers presented a victory song. Eugene Arcand of Muskeg Lake First Nation told refugees that it was “a victory song for you, for getting here safe.”
Arcand welcomed the refugees to Treaty 6 territory. “There are 10 numbered treaties which are very sacred to the First Nations and the indigenous peoples of this land. I encourage you while you are here to learn more about Treaty 6 and the other treaties, which you are going to be a part of, because we are all treaty people.”
He told newcomers that they will observe poverty among First Nations people, and urged them to learn more about the history and issues behind that reality. “There are reasons for that poverty, and for some of the bad things that are happening to indigenous people in this city and in this province and in this country,” he said. “We ask you to find out what those reasons are — including the residential school era.”
Arcand added: “I ask you all not to adopt the stereotype that exists out there about First Nations and indigenous peoples. With you, we are a caring and sharing people.”
He encouraged the newcomers in their struggle with learning a new language, advising them to also work to maintain their original languages for their children and grandchildren. “We have lost many of our languages on our own lands.”
Pewapsconias echoed Arcand’s emphasis on the importance of language and culture. “My reconnection to my culture and to my identity has been the greatest gift to my life,” she said. “I’ve come to learn this through the stories, which is the way of my people.”
She also described the “sad story” of policies over the past 130 years that have created situations of injustice and suffering for First Nations and indigenous people. “It is incredible to think about my people’s strength and resilience: what it took to be here today, and how much it took to survive, to be able to laugh again, to be able to love again, and to feel connection,” Pewapsconias said, encouraging the newcomers in their struggles.
“I see your survival and it gives me hope. You are now part of this land’s history. I welcome you to share it with us,” she said. “You have the opportunity to help this nation become a greater place. You have the opportunity to shape a place that honours its roots, and eliminates oppression across the world.”
Raed Aljamous, who has been in Canada for just over a month, expressed thanks on behalf of Syrian refugees. “Once we landed in Canada we found the hospitality — we found the warm welcoming as the Open Door Society says it: welcoming, belonging and connecting.”
Aljamous noted the similarities between cultures, pointing to the common experience of drums, song and dance shared that afternoon. “I think the things that are common among us and the First Nations and Canadians are bigger than the differences between us,” he said.
“We believe in the idea that from adversity we can also reach victory and we can reach prosperity. So we are getting to Canada to secure — for my family and my kids — to secure for them education and health. So from the bottom of my heart, I thank the Canadian and First Nations and indigenous people.”