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February 23, 2015

Canada's natives: Healing through song

Scott Stockdale

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While not forgetting the past and current contentious relations between Indigenous peoples and Settler peoples in Canada, Kelly Laurila, facilitator of the Aboriginal Women's Drum Group - the Mino Ode Kwewak N'gamowak (Good Hearted Women Singers) - said they're hoping that through the singing event "Bridging Communities Through Song" they can bring Indigenous and Settler peoples together to reconcile.

The Good Hearted Women Singers are a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous women following the drum circle teachings of Community Elder Jean Becker, who began this group in 2003.

“Bridging Communities Through Song” featuring the Waterloo Regional Police Choir, Cambridge Girls' Choir, Laurier Singers' Chambers Choir, a bagpipe and flute player, Mino Ode Kwewak N'gamowak (Good Hearted Women Singers), Little Creek Singers, and special guest appearance by Susan Aglukark, will be held Saturday March 17 2pm – 5pm, at Knox Presbyterian Church, Waterloo.

Ms. Laurila said it's the kind of face-to-face interaction that The Good Hearted Women Singers have been facilitating over the last three years that helps to break down the barriers between people.

“We share each others' histories. We have dialogue, coffee, sharing circles. We want to break down the barriers and build better relations. We're all humans. Many Settler peoples and Indigenous peoples want better relations,” Ms. Laurila  said.

However, she feels that the Indigenous peoples have been treated unfairly by the Settler peoples, in no small part because the Indian Act of 1876 – still in force today – which governs how the Canadian government interacts with the 614 First Nations bands in Canada, is discriminatory and racist.

The purpose of the act, as stated by its drafters, was to administer Indian affairs in such a way that Indian people would feel compelled to renounce their Indian status and join Canadian civilization as full members: a process called enfranchisement.

“One hundred years ago, (Indigenous) children were taken out of their homes and set to residential schools to Christianize and civilize them. Over 150,000 children were taken from their homes and put in schools . It has had a devastating impact on the culture, language and families of Indigenous peoples, causing violence, alchoholism and drug abuse,” Ms. Laurila said.

An 1884 amendment to the Indian Act made education in English for Indian children mandatory. Those  who fought against this policy often had no choice but to remain illiterate. On 11 June, 2008 the government of Canada apologized for its Canadian Indian residential school system which was an attempt to force Indians off their lands, sever family ties and diminish traditional Indian culture.

Moreover, Ms. Laurila said all Canadians should be asking themselves what they're doing to reconcile Settler and Indigenous peoples because we're all treaty people ; we're all the recipients of treaties.  These treaties often lead to conflicts between the federal government and the Settlers People over  resource development and/or preservation, which has an immediate effect on Indigenous peoples because often the resources are either on their lands or the government plans to use their lands as a conduit.

“We should all be concerned about resource exploitation because it creates so much pollution. Will future generations have clean water and air?” Ms. Laurila asked.

Although the Canadian government set up the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People's (RCAP) in 1991 and its final report in November 1996 - consisting of five volumes and 4,000 pages - contains 440 recommendations called for sweeping changes to the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people and the government of Canada, Ms. Laurila said very little has changed.

“The 1996 RCAP report offers a lot of solutions, but nothing has been done; it's just gathering dust.”

She said Settler peoples often only have knowlege of Indigineous peoples through the media, so they don't really understand the concerns of “the other”; but their thinking changes when they get to know Indigenous people through events such as “Bridging Communities Through Song.”

“The media is all through the eyes of non-Indigenous people, so all people see is cars and tires burning; but they miss what led to this – 500 years of accumulated devastation, usually as a result of treaty agreements. We hope that through singing events we don't forget, but focus on what will bring us together.”

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