Healing a legacy of cultural genocide through a new generation of Aboriginal women

Canada's last residential school, the Gordon Indian Residential School in Punnichy, Saskatchewan, finally closed in 1996. A dark chapter of Canada's contemporary history that was largely ignored until the recent report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the schools were a perversion of the very idea of education, destroying the culture, identity and traditional knowledge of Canada’s Aboriginal peoples in the name of assimilation.

More than 6,000 of the children forced to attend residential schools died — about one in 25 students, a mortality rate roughly equivalent to that of the Canadian Forces in the Second World War. Those who survived were left traumatized and robbed of their cultural heritage. This tore a violent rift between generations, as their children and grandchildren now grow up in the shadow of that past, lacking a connection with their identities as young Aboriginal people.

Restoring a sense of identity to young women

While Canadians grapple with how to handle the legacy of these schools, UAlberta’s Faculty of Education has spent the past seven years trying to heal some of those wounds. Founded by Elementary Education professor Heather Blair in 2008, the Alliance Pipeline Young Women's Circle of Leadership (APYWCL) strives to restore some sense of identity and belonging to young Aboriginal women while teaching them valuable skills based in traditional Aboriginal culture.

“Residential schools really put a huge barrier in the ability to pass on that knowledge from generation to generation,” explains Rochelle Starr, director of the APYWCL. “So right now, we’re just trying to provide access to that knowledge that they should know, and by no fault of their own, don’t know.”

This year’s program is host to 27 participants — up from last year’s 22, and more than double 2013’s numbers — and includes girls between the ages of 10 and 16 from across the Prairies and Northern Canada, with attendees coming from as far away as Nunavut.

The program connects participants with both traditional Aboriginal knowledge as well as contemporary skills useful in the home and workplaces. Starr says that in the future she would like to see programming become even more focused on traditional learning and values.

“The traditional knowledge that they’re learning right now has been around for thousands and thousands of years, but it’s still just as valuable in our everyday lives as it was a hundred years ago."

As a doctoral student in the Faculty of Education’s Indigenous Peoples Education program, Starr joined the Circle of Leadership last year as a co-ordinator before taking on the role of director this year. She says that as the program continues to evolve, it’s creating new challenges for the small group of organizers, who are trying to make the most of limited resources.

Daily activities are run by three Cree teachers: Darlene Auger, a doctoral student at Blue Quills First Nations College; Roxanne Tootoosis, a University of Alberta master’s student; and Susan Sinclair, a 29-year teaching veteran who is currently the Cree teacher at Prince Charles School. Their work is supported by experts and Elders from the surrounding Aboriginal communities, who assist in transmitting traditional culture and values.

“All three of these Cree teachers have depths of Indigenous knowledge within them, and it’s a real privilege to have them teaching these girls,” Starr says.

Alliance Pipeline Young Women's Circle of Leadership Participants
Instructors and attendees of the APYWCL photographed in the Faculty of Education, July 2015.

Celebrating community and the overlap of cultures

Camp attendees participate in a variety of lessons and activities that immerse them in this knowledge while developing leadership skills and learning about the many opportunities available to them as they mature. Language preservation plays a significant part, as the girls spend the duration of the program learning to speak and read Cree while taking part in the ceremonies and rituals that are the foundations of their heritage.

There are also field trips to local First Nations in Treaty Six territory in central Alberta, where the girls learn ways of knowing and connecting with the land. This year, they’re joined by graduate student Misty Underwood, a descendant of the Muscogee Creek and Choctaw nations in Texas. Underwood has developed an outdoor fitness program directly inspired by the Four Directions, a central tenet of Cree teachings, and similar to the Six Directions teachings of the Indigenous people of the southwestern United States.

This overlap of cultures is illustrative of the program’s community-driven foundations. While participants come from a variety of backgrounds, Starr says the various traditions and belief systems are very similar among the various First Nations, and this serves to reinforce a greater sense of family amongst the group.

As the Circle of Leadership has grown over the years, those values have only become stronger. This year, eight participants have returned, and Starr sees them taking on valuable leadership roles and mentoring younger girls in the camp.

When the group went sage and sweetgrass picking at the Paul Band First Nation, one of the younger girls wasn’t in a good mood and stayed on the bus. But another girl sat down to talk with her and encourage her, and by the end of the day, she had happily picked one of the most impressive bundles of wild herbs.

These kinds of interactions often emerge on their own, without the guidance of the teachers, and are exactly the sort of relationships that Starr hopes will allow these young women to find their self-confidence. “It will ultimately help them to be successful on their own terms,” she says.

Linda Pelly agrees. As an Aboriginal woman, an educator, a wife, a mother, a grandmother, and a great-grandmother, she knows all about the challenges faced by young Aboriginal women in Canada today. She became involved with the program through her role as an instructor and former director of the Canadian Indigenous Languages and Literacy Development Institute (CILLDI), a joint initiative of UAlberta’s faculties of Arts, Education and Native Studies, and a collaborating partner with the APYWCL. She says that the importance of this program lies in its uniqueness, as an institution that encourages young women to celebrate who they are, nurturing their leadership skills and sense of identity.

Prior to her role on campus, Pelly worked as the Director of the First Nations, Métis and Inuit Branch of Alberta Education. She has spent her career dedicated to the development of projects and initiatives to support the integration of Aboriginal worldviews and ways of knowing. Working with the Circle of Leadership attendees is an essential part of that mission.

“We’re really blessed to be able to help these young girls who need to have their esteem built — their knowledge of leadership and what roles they have in the community – and of course to really feel good about themselves,” Pelly says.

By simply presenting the opportunities offered at the APYWCL, the program’s organizers have taken the first step in giving this group of girls chances they may not otherwise have. As the program has grown, they have been able to include year-round callback sessions, checking in with participants and offering weekend sessions during the school year to ensure that their mission is continuous.

In November 2014, the girls had a chance to spend the day with award-winning director Georgina Lightning from Samson Cree Nation and learn about how she turned her dreams of making it in the entertainment industry into a reality.

Creating sustainable partnerships

Pelly would like to see further collaboration with external groups, such as UAlberta’s faculties of Medicine and Science, encouraging young women to get involved in STEM fields and offering guidance on how to become doctors and researchers. But achieving their long-term goals, she says, relies on forming relationships with other organizations that can support and help them grow.

Since its inception, the program was supported through a partnership with Alliance Pipeline, which provided funding to cover many of the operational costs. With Alliance Pipeline unable to renew their commitment for 2016, the program’s team will need to seek out new sponsors to move forward.

Pelly stresses that finding resources is not only about seeking funding, but about creating sustainable partnerships. She believes strongly that in order for an organization like theirs to survive, they need to collaborate and form interdependent relationships with other groups. These types of partnerships not only benefit the APYWCL as an organization, but also allow them to create corporate knowledge with their sponsors, teaching companies and stakeholders about what they’re supporting, and more importantly, why it’s so important to support these kinds of initiatives.

The scars left behind by the residential school system will not heal easily, nor can they be erased in just a few short years. The recommendations put forth by the TRC Report will require deliberate action and collaboration between Aboriginal peoples and Canadians at large. But with initiatives like the Young Indigenous Women’s Circle of Leadership, the program’s founders hope they can begin to repair the nation’s dark legacy of cultural genocide, forging partnerships that promote and assist in building a nation that may not otherwise have the means.

Feature Image: One of the participants in the Alliance Pipeline Young Women's Circle of Leadership, held at the UAlberta campus in July 2015.