An event to create a greater understanding of Canada’s history with indigenous people and to promote reconciliation took place in Swift Current, May 14.
The Southwest Multicultural Association has partnered with various organizations to host the 3rd annual Truth and Reconciliation event in the city. This year’s focus was on missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, and the effects on indigenous families and Canadian society.
Southwest Multicultural Association President Catherine Aguilar said the initial event in 2017 was organized in response to the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The inaugural event highlighted the impact of residential schools and last year’s focus was on the Sixties Scoop.
“When we did those two, the members of the community were asking are you not going to do a follow-up,” she said. “So we again asked for community members to come.”
This year’s event was again organized by a local Truth and Reconciliation Committee, which brings together representatives from various organizations, including Southwest Multicultural Association, Great Plains College, Chinook School Division, City of Swift Current, and Southwest Newcomer Welcome Centre.
“A Canada-wide survey found that 30 per cent of people in the prairie provinces were not aware of residential schools,” Aguilar noted. “Our goal is to inform those in our region of this history, create awareness of the TRC’s Calls to Action, and to promote respectful discussion and action that will lead to healthier and more prosperous communities and relationships.”
The morning program in the Great Plains College gymnasium featured a keynote address by Darlene Okemaysim-Sicotte, co-chair of Women Walking Together (Iskwewuk E-wichiwitochik). This grassroots organization was started in 2005 to create awareness and to keep the memory alive of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.
Other speakers were Karen Pelletier of the RCMP and Métis elder Cecile Blanke. The morning program concluded with a round dance. Participants then undertook a walk through the city with stops at the Swift Current RCMP detachment and the provincial court building. The final stop was Market Square, where there was a short program before participants enjoyed lunch.
Four calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report were read out at each stop. Three of these calls to action (numbers 39, 40 and 41) are in relation to missing and murdered indigenous women and girls and the need for victim programs, and one call to action (number 57) is about the need for education of public servants on the history of Aboriginal peoples.
There was also an evening program at the Swift Current Branch Library with presentations by Darlene Okemaysim-Sicotte and Elder Cecile Blanke.
Okemaysim-Sicotte carried a framed photograph of a missing girl, Tamra Keepness, during the walk. Keepness was five years old when she disappeared from her home in Regina on July 5, 2004.
“She is the first young girl this age still missing,” Okemaysim-Sicotte said. “She actually was taken right from her home, which is really unusual, because most missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls are away from home or they're in transit from some place to another.”
She was impressed with the large number of students participating in the truth and reconciliation event in Swift Current.
“What I liked about it is that they bused in some students of the other schools outside of Swift Current,” she said. “So it provided not just the city to have some engagement and learning, but these students can go back to their town and talk about what they experienced. And also the overall theme of justice for women, the colour of the t-shirts and the other speakers, and really connecting it nicely to the TRC calls to action.”
Her message to the group was to keep awareness going and to understand that the missing victims are loved, human beings with family and friends who care about them.
“They want to know what happened, they want closure, we want closure, and in the bigger scheme of things everybody needs to feel safe, everybody has the right to feel safe,” she said. “Some of the youth that were in the room can be in vulnerable situations where they're not safe, and not just indigenous but non-indigenous. You just never know when that's going to happen and it's very traumatizing to everybody around them when that happens.”
She felt there has been progress to address the issue of missing indigenous women and girls, but there is also a need to make provinces accountable.
“You can have our federal government really want to do this, but you have to have the support and the buy-in from the provinces,” she said. “And if it's one province that's holding up the whole country, that's really difficult and that's where the struggle is.”
She noted that Senate Bill S-215 was recently defeated in the House of Commons. This private member’s bill, which was introduced by Saskatchewan Senator Lillian Dyck, would have required courts to consider certain violent offences against Aboriginal women as an aggravating circumstance when imposing a sentence. Okemaysim-Sicotte would like to see stronger sentences for violent offenders.
“That really needs to send a message to anybody that wants to or considers harming another human being that there is a real penalty and it's not just a slap on the wrist,” she said.
According to Lisa Kuntz, a curriculum coordinator at the Chinook School Division and a member of the local Truth and Reconciliation Committee, the event was attended by 250 students from nine schools. These Grade 12 students are taking classes in Social Studies 30, Canadian Studies 30, or Native studies 30.
“Students learned about the context of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls with some work that we did with our elders and the social studies teachers,” she said. “They needed to have the context for coming here, and they had work that they did prior to coming and then when they go back to their class, there are some assignments they will do moving forward, seeing whether they have their own personal call to action. Maybe they would like to learn more about a specific case and what kinds of things could they do in their own communities to raise awareness.”
Students from Chinook School Division have also participated in the two previous Truth and Reconciliation events in Swift Current. Kuntz felt the events helped to raise awareness among students and to develop a better understanding of the issues discussed each year.
“I think sometimes, particularly in our area, people don't realize that it is in an issue and so students raise the awareness of the issue,” she said. “It ties directly to that curriculum area. So that's why we have students learn about it in that curriculum area, and they're the future. So it's the students today that are going to take the calls to action and move them forward in our country, and we know that. So we want our students to be more educated and raise awareness.”