SASKATOON — The third annual Think Indigenous Education conference was held March 15 - 18, beginning with the first annual Think Indigenous Youth Conference at Nutana Collegiate in Saskatoon and continuing with workshops, speakers, tours, panels and a banquet. On March 18 keynote speaker Cindy Blackstock spoke about her recent win against the government of Canada on behalf of First Nations children.
“Nobody else has to fight from childhood to be treated equally by the government,” said Blackstock. “Kids codify that. When they don’t see all of us standing up against it, it makes it that much harder.”
Displaying information and documents from the recent court case, Blackstock explained that governments don’t create change, they respond to it, and it is incumbent upon Canadians and First Nations people to exert pressure on the federal and provincial governments.
“It’s just as vital to teach non-Aboriginal kids about this as it is the First Nations, Métis and Inuit kids,” noted Blackstock, giving examples of child activists, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, who have supported her, or started their own initiatives to exert pressure on the government. Some attended the court cases in person.
“Kids understand equality, they understand love, and they understand fairness. Kids are not just learners, they’re teachers,” noted Blackstock, adding that children are our hope and our future; they are more important than we are, and need to be supported in the face of historic and contemporary injustice.
A series on March 17 featured many presenters, beginning with Chief Delbert Wapass on the Treaty Right to Education, describing teachers as oskapios — ceremonial helpers with a sacred responsibility to the treaties and education.
“We have to ask ourselves, where did I come from, what’s my story? If you don’t know where you came from there’s no way you’re going to know where you’re going,” noted Wapass. “Treaty is not about you, it’s about those kids who are not yet born. What is your responsibility?”
He reflected on the sacredness of the treaties, saying that while the government hasn’t held up its part, First Nations have to be vigilant about their part nonetheless.
“What is the spirit and intent? A lot of us as Indian people fail the spiritual part of our treaties. Why did they negotiate treaties, what does that mean, a covenant? Why did they use prayer? Why do we still exist, why does our treaty right to education still exist, and what does that mean?
“Treaty is about controlling our own destiny, not being dependent on government,” noted Wapass. “Decolonize your thinking.”
Kenisha Tootoosis spoke on empowering women and youth, quoting the prophecy of Crazy Horse: “Upon suffering beyond suffering, the red nation shall rise again and it shall be a blessing for the sick world. A world filled with broken promises, selfishness and separations. A world longing for light again. I see a time of seven generations, when all the colours of mankind will gather under the sacred tree of life and the whole earth will become one circle again. In that day, those among the Lakota who will carry knowledge and understanding of unity among all living things, and the young white ones will come, to those of my people to ask for wisdom. I salute the light within their eyes where the whole universe dwells, for when you are at the centre within you and I am at the at place within me, we are as one.”
Dr. Shauneen Pete, of First Nations University in Regina, observed that every learner in the country has been disadvantaged by not learning about indigenous communities, and responsibilities are not only to indigenous students but non-indigenous students to fix that.
Traditional medicine woman Kathleen Bird encouraged teachers to learn alongside their students by going on medicine walks and beginning to learn how to identify basic plants and medicines.
“We come from a beautiful place,” she observed, “and we need to listen to the stories the old people have. They’re going, and we’ve got to capture them before they go, because that’s where our children and our grandchildren are going to heal. So I encourage you as educators — don’t get stuck in the box. Take our kids out for medicine walks. Learn with them. Open the doors, even if it’s just a crack. There are still many of our people who know the knowledge of the land.”
Jeremy Thompson of the Saskatoon Rush lacrosse team talked about the traditional and ceremonial healing aspects of the game, and how it saved his own life when he was a challenged teen.
“Lacrosse is much more than a sport, it’s part of our community, it’s part of our life,” said Thompson. “For me, from birth to death, lacrosse is with us. We’re given a little lacrosse stick in our cradle board, and given one in our coffin as well to use in the next lifetime.”
Curtis Jo Miller came from a life of abuse and crime and a series of foster homes to gang life and prison, to become an artist and youth worker with a full pardon. He advocates giving responsibility to young people who are having hard times in school, and helping them to teach others.
“I’ve been really good at being bad, what about being good?” Miller asked himself at age 34, after a life of drugs and violence. He became sober and wanted to work with other youth at risk, emphasizing the importance of empathy and compassion. “Every person has value and every life can be turned around; it takes no more than a simple decision and the courage to come back.”
Norman Fleury ended the Thursday talks with reflections on the Métis perspective, saying that there were many misconceptions about the Métis. He objected to the offensive term half-breed.
“I’m not half, I’m double if I’m anything,” said Fleury, noting that, of all indigenous people, “our language and our culture and our spirituality and the land are the glue that makes us who we are and holds us together.”
The talks, MCed by Ryan McMahon, were live-streamed and will be uploaded on USask’s YouTube channel.