Communication rights for Indigenous People: A call to action
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Communication rights for Indigenous People: A call to action

Doreen Spence (left) mentoring at the United Nations. Photo credit Beatrice Weyrich.


 

Doreen Spence

Acknowledgement: I am from Saddle Lake Cree Nation in Alberta. I would like to honour my ancestors and our traditional ways of being. My sacred name interpreted from Cree is Bald Eagle Woman Who Leads. I live, work, and play in Mohkinstsis (Calgary, Alberta) which is the traditional territory of Treaty 7. I am honoured to share some of the teachings that I received from many Elders from across Canada. One of the Elders told me: “You’re speaking for those who never had a voice and have gone before us, for the present generations and the future generations to come.” I feel it is my responsibility to pass on these teachings and knowledge for the betterment of the whole.

At the beginning of time, Creator gifted Indigenous People a set of laws to live by. Known as the Seven Sacred Laws these laws teach us how to cohabitate peacefully. We have a unique, rich, profound culture. Our relationships and bonds honour all life forms. Indigenous People exemplify these teachings by living, breathing and respecting creation and all that exists. Communication rights are top priority: they affect virtually every living entity.

“As with all rights, communication rights are given to us by the Creator of all things. My grandparents were my greatest teachers of the Creation Stories, which constantly remind me, of my rightful place in the Cycle of Life. They often reiterated that we are co-Creators… an extension of all that is. We are not above anyone else, nor are we less than the tiniest life form, such as our brothers and sisters the ants, who work collectively for the betterment of the whole. We could learn a lot from them. I was taught that everything is alive and that every living entity is to be respected.” (Excerpt from presentation to WACC Congress on “Communicating Peace: Building viable communities”, August 6, 2008.)

The critical fragility of our planet is a wake-up call! We need a healthy environment to live a healthy life. Global warming with extreme fires, flooding, and tornadoes have devastated and isolated many of our communities. When the floods and fires wiped out whole communities this past summer in British Columbia it affected people across the country. It caused a chain reaction. Roads were cut off. Transportation of goods and services were stalled. Food sources became scarce. In some cases, people were stranded in remote areas without water or their basic needs. Everyone was affected, both animals and humans lost their lives and livelihoods.

Elders had predicted that there would come a time when humanity would be brought to its knees. This is the time for humanity to rethink its values. What is most important is our relationships and the way we communicate with each another. The Cree word wâhkôhtowin describes our relationships with one another and everything. Kisêwâtisiwin is about living according to loving kindness gifted to us by Creator. Healing begins introspectively. When we live and treat each other accordingly it is a way of healing. Our teachings tell us that we must take good care of ourselves in order to regain balance and harmony.

Communicating in a loving manner

How do we move forward? Together or separately? It is incumbent upon us as humans to communicate in a loving manner with each other – words can either be healing or hurtful. Communication is the core of any healthy relationship. Researchers quickly developed a vaccination for COVID, but we haven’t found a vaccination for the injustices that consistently permeate Indigenous communities. 

There is an ever-present divisiveness in our country – a battle of rights – that has not been dealt with.

I learned that the bible teaches the same values as Indigenous Peoples. As a scholar of three years at the Berean Bible College, I related to the biblical teachings of Jesus and his disciples devoting their time to healing, feeding, educating, communicating, and caring for those less fortunate. Churches and congregations sponsor and support refugees and immigrants, but these core values are not equally distributed within Canadian society.

For instance, there is a church at the end of my block which sponsors an Asian community. Churches advocate social justice by providing this sponsored community with a safe, secure space. I have never witnessed the same humanitarian gestures offered to Indigenous Peoples. Newcomers to this country are provided with all they need when they arrive. The same cannot be said for Indigenous Peoples. Many Indigenous communities are marginalized and still experience third world conditions in a developed country such as Canada.

My vision for the future is to use wâhkôhtowin as a foundation for building healthier relationships utilizing sharing/healing circles in every church across Canada. This is the answer to addressing the polarization Canadians currently experience.

Churches of all faiths must get involved with the Indigenous community to focus on our similar values and healing. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Call to Action 59 specifically urges church parties and congregations to “learn about their church’s role in colonization, the history and legacy of residential schools” in understanding why apologies were essential for healing. Clergy and church leaders are urged to establish education and funding to build and strengthen relationships with Indigenous Peoples. Everyone has a major responsibility to move towards reconciliation, including the church communities.

 

With Elder Noah Cardinal harvesting medicines.


 

Silence and censorship

Colonization created communication rights issues within Indigenous communities and were never spoken of. For instance, the Canadian government implored churches to “Kill the Indian within the Child” and deliberately covered up the truth. But the recent discovery of 215 graves of Indigenous children buried at the Kamloops Indian Residential school initiated conversation and has brought to light the complex truth and history. This is only the beginning of the chilling discovery of assimilation, genocide and the legacy of intergenerational trauma of our people. To date more than 1,000 graves have been found; it is known in Indigenous communities that there are thousands more to be discovered.

Much like the Holocaust, no one has ever communicated what happened initially. Connecting and communicating with First Peoples themselves is important to learn the true history of Canada. Indigenous Peoples are orators who carry living stories. Oral history helped us hold on to the stories and keep the truth alive. We have Elders, storytellers, knowledge keepers, healers, historians, leadership, and advocates. These voices have been silenced for hundreds of years, now is the time to listen and learn from them. We are stronger as a society when we learn and include everyone. Everyone must be treated respectfully and valued for their knowledge and contributions.

Media responsibility and accountability

Reconciliation begins by implementing the legal binding instruments already in place, such as the Charter of Human Rights. United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), the framework for moving forward together, was manifested by Indigenous advocates expressing their grievances to the UN. TRC 94 Calls to Action are the means to actively engage in communication and reconciliation. People need to be proactive, brave, and compassionate enough to recognize their roles as they have a major responsibility in making this country better for all. 

Communication rights have not been respected for Indigenous Peoples. In most cases, the media have not advocated for First Peoples. We hardly ever see, hear, or read anything in the media about ourselves in a positive manner. There are thousands of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls across Canada. If the same happened to non-Indigenous women and girls, it would be all over the media. Ongoing discoveries of residential school burial sites have already attracted less media. It is evident that media continue to perpetuate stereotypes and myths, while ignoring and overlooking Indigenous issues; therefore, infringing our fundamental human rights. Indigenous People need responsibility and accountability from the media to create a just, equitable world for all nations.

Media Calls to Action implore all media to be proactive in reconciliation efforts. There is power in representation. It is the media’s duty to cover all sides of the story – not selectively. “Growing up I never experienced our people portrayed in a positive way. I used to hear Tonto on the radio, the Indian who could only say ‘Ugg’. I saw shows with cowboys and Indians too, reinforcing the way non-Indigenous people viewed us.”

By excluding us, media support the colonial system and further marginalizes Indigenous People. We experience the dichotomy between the two opposing forces, such as protestors appropriating our culture and no voices articulating wrongdoing. It is incumbent upon the media to speak and honour the truth to stop the spread of harmful fake news.

Opposing views on vaccine and mask mandates are just one example. These different points of view demonstrate a world of polarity which is triggering and even pitting family against family. Colonization dispossessed and denigrated Indigenous Peoples and their communities. Currently, colonization is a means of effective control over non-Indigenous people too. Indigenous People have demonstrated resilience through lived experience, knowledge, history, and stories that can heal all humanity. We, Indigenous People, are ready to lead humanity forward through reconciliation.

Communication is imperative to form any meaningful relationships. Knowing the history of what really happened is critical to understanding the current situations. We know what is best for our communities and we are rightfully positioned to assert ourselves, including many well-educated lawyers and advocates. Our voices will no longer be silenced but must be heard and supported.

One Elder told me she was not allowed to get an education beyond grade three as mandated by the Indian Act. She told me that my work was to support and encourage our Indigenous youth to get a good education. Our Elders share stories about the buffalo being a sacred teacher. When the strong north winds blow, the males all surround the herd to protect them. The buffalo is the all-provider for the people. Education is the new buffalo.

There is potential for amazing work to be done in terms of moving forward. It is a two-way process. You must have equal participation in dialogue; it is not only to communicate but also to implement these values shared as humanity. This can only be done with deep introspective work because the healing begins with the individual. When one is unwell or biased then one is not giving their best. We have such a rich culture; it is important to share as it will only enhance a healthier world. 

I faced many obstacles daily in my life journey. I attended Indian Day School for three years where I was forced to sleep on the unheated floor of the woodshed. I got up early in the morning to make a fire in the school. I would make porridge for the students and mix powdered milk for their breakfast. I was compelled to teach school all day to most of the students. I taught the parents English from 7 to 9 pm Monday nights and math on Wednesday nights. The teacher only taught the pre-schoolers and the little children. I was teaching fulltime while also taking correspondence and doing fundraisers for the school. Although I didn’t attend residential school, this was equally as brutal when it came to abuse because the teacher was mean and racist. If I was an immigrant or refugee, I would have never gone through that. I put myself through memorizing hundreds of bible verses in order to win a scholarship to Bible College. Every First Nations person will have their own story of struggle, marginalization and exclusion.

Through the traditional teachings of the past, we learn strength to work in the present in order to make the future a better place for the generations to come. Our teachings tell us that we must take care of ourselves to maintain balance and harmony. This must come from a place of wahkohtowin, building healthy relationships with kisewatisiwin and unconditional love. Despite all odds, Indigenous People through their resilience are still doing their utmost to contribute to humanity. Doing whatever it takes for the betterment of all, locally and globally. I pray that these words will be received with an open heart. All my relations. ν

The author would like to give credit to Samantha Cardinal, who helped her with two-eyed seeing and computing skills for this article.

Known as Grandmother to many, Doreen Spence is a Cree Elder who was born and raised on the Good Fish Lake Reservation. She is also a member of the Saddle Lake Band as her father was from Saddle Lake. Grandmother Doreen is retired after having spent many years nursing in active treatment hospitals. Currently, she is an active Elder in Residence with the Cumming School of Medicine’s (CSM) Indigenous, Local and Global Health (ILGH) Office and mentors students and staff in the Alberta Indigenous Mentorship in Health Innovation (AIM-HI) Network and at Mount Royal and St. Mary’s Universities. Healing and wellness are her life-long legacy and she is honoured to have been recognized by so many for doing what she is so passionate about. She has received an honorary Bachelor of Nursing from Mount Royal University; been appointed to the Order of Canada; received the Indspire Award, the Alberta Centennial Medal, the Alberta Human Rights Award, the Chief David Crowchild Memorial Award, and the YWCA Woman of Distinction Award. Doreen Spence was one of the 1,000 PeaceWomen nominated for the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize.

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