It was the perfect summer day for a Pow Wow on August 26th, 2017. The sun was out, but not too hot or bright to tire out visitors; just a relaxed, lazy summer day to leisurely watch the performances which included drum circles, jingle dancers, and ceremonial traditions. Held at the big park in the heart of the Regent Park community in downtown Toronto, it ran so smoothly that you would have never guessed this was their inaugural year and it was run solely by youth in the Indigenous community.
Hosted by the Toronto Council Fire Native Cultural Centre, the inaugural Youth Pow Wow brought community members together to share in Indigenous culture, with many vendors selling their crafts and information booths for various organizations like The Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund. According to their website, the goal of the fund is “to continue the conversation that began with Chanie Wenjack’s residential school story, and to support the reconciliation process through awareness, education, and action.”
From 1876-1996 under the Indian Act, the federal government established Residential Schools that incorporated religious-based schools for “aggressive assimilation” of Indigenous youth through religion and education. This gave the government legal jurisdiction to remove Indigenous children as young as 3 years old from their homes and communities, prohibiting them to practice their culture and language. Children often faced excessive punishment that included physical, mental, emotional and sexual abuse.
Given the immense history of generational pain due to a conflicted relationship with the Canadian government, especially in the Indigenous community’s experience in Residential Schools, present day efforts to empower their youth included hosting this spiritually uplifting Youth Pow Wow. But healing is an inter-generational effort, simultaneously involving the extremes in the spectrum of age, from the young and the old. Other efforts by Council Fire to heal included the Restoration of Identity project.
Known as the IRSS Legacy Project, it addresses Call to Action 82 of the 94 Calls to Action released in 2015 by the Truth and Reconciliation Committee. Call to Action 82 calls upon “provincial and territorial governments, in collaboration with Survivors and their organizations, and other parties to the Settlement Agreement, to commission and install a publicly accessible, highly visible, Residential Schools Monument in each capital city to honour Survivors and all the children who were lost to their families and communities.”
Given the work Council Fire does with several Elders and Residential School Survivors, the Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation approached them to create Toronto’s monument. Communications and Research Coordinator of the project Liana Canzian shares Toronto’s project is “a nine foot by nine foot height turtle sculpture and the turtle’s climbing a boulder. On the turtle’s shell will have the different clans and nations, and on the boulder itself is the seventeen residential schools that existed in Ontario.”
The Turtle is a sacred symbol of Mother Earth in Indigenous culture, and its shell is meant to acknowledge former Residential School students and their Nations and Clans, placing them right within the heart of creation. The Turtle climbing over the boulder that lists Residential Schools in Ontario symbolizes how they overcome the struggles experienced in Residential Schools, showcasing a triumph of the spirit.
Canzian shares that though the project is making great strides in Toronto, out of the 94 Calls to Actions, not many have been addressed. According to CBC’s website Beyond 94, only 10 of the Calls to Action have been fully completed, with 51 in progress- either underway or proposed- and 33 not started. According to Canzian, “right now on Call to Action number 82, only Toronto is in the planning process. Other cities haven’t responded but they did say that Winnipeg and a community in the Yukon has a monument but it wasn’t in response to the Call to Action- they had it before 2015.”
According to Council Fire’s website, the sculpture will be completed by Anishnawbe artist Solomon King and will be placed within an Indigenous Healing Garden, in the southwest corner of Nathan Phillips Square, between the walkway and the Upper Canada Law Society. The project is expected to be complete in 2020.
Working closely with Survivors, Canzian shares the impact of the project, saying “They’re really proud of the work Toronto Council Fire has done and they really believe that the centre is their home. But also they have sharing circles and just being with their own community and meeting each other at Toronto Council Fire, I think that’s part of healing too.”
Prominent Elder and Residential School Survivor, Andrew Wesley has also been active in the IRSS Legacy Project. He sees the IRSS Legacy project as a promising new future for the community. He says “It’s a renewal. It’s like going into a sweatlodge where you go back to your mother’s womb and you come out renewed. I think that’s what the project is all about. To be a whole person again, to be able to come to terms with the pain and the anger.”
Wesley came to Council Fire about fifteen years ago. He shares his journey, saying “I guess in a way I was a walking legend of the IRSS Movement from my own experience. I attended most of the TRC Hearings across the nation and it was a true experience. I think I told my story, my testament in the Saskatoon hearing.”
In response to this painful Canadian history, the Truth and Reconcilation Commission of Canada (TRC) was created to facilitate healing for the Indigenous community. According to their website, it was created as “a sincere indication and acknowledgement of the injustices and harms experienced by Aboriginal people and the need for continued healing. This is a profound commitment to establishing new relationships embedded in mutual recognition and respect that will forge a brighter future. The truth of our common experiences will help set our spirits free and pave the way to reconciliation.”
For a long time, Wesley did not agree with reconciliation saying “it meant that you have to reconcile with the churches, with the government. Then I told myself, why should I reconcile? I didn’t do anything wrong. I was sent to school, I got beaten up for being an Aboriginal person who was speaking a different language. So why should I reconcile? Then I started to understand what reconciliation meant, that you have to come to terms with the harm that was done to you in order to get into that journey of forgiveness.”
Despite the abuses he faced, Wesley has gone through a tremendous journey of healing and forgiveness, having to look within to his inner child and give him the love and compassion he never received in Residential Schools. He says he has “been to the mountaintop of pain” and come back down to share the ways in which he knows he’s healed, and what else is left to work on.
“I’m not angry anymore. But if I see something is wrong, done wrong to another human being or any creation species, I’ll get angry, I’ll get defensive. I think I’m a very caring person now. A very loving person. I still have a hard time hugging, you know especially women. Because I was beaten up by a woman so there’s still that. But other than that I think I may be in the 90% area of healing right now.”
Before arriving to Toronto, Wesley lived off the land, trapping animals and observed two types of animals: the ones that will give up and die, or the ones that chew off the foot stuck in the trap and escape, carrying the wound for the rest of its life. That’s what he believes forgiveness is.
“Forgiveness doesn’t mean you forget what happened. That will always remain with you. It’s just that forgiveness makes you handle and control your anger and also to empower other survivors to show that you’ve been there and this is what you can do to heal yourself. Otherwise you’re going to be angry for the rest of your life. And the next thing you know, your children will carry that anger.”
That’s possibly the most important reason to heal, so it doesn’t get passed down to the next generation, and why healing is a process for every age. So it would only be fitting that this year’s Youth Pow Wow’s theme is “Restoration of Identity”. It will be taking place on August 25th, 2018 once again at the big park in Regent Park. This year’s Arena Director is Tasunke Sugar, who is a youth that works at Council Fire. As a young father, he takes his work in the community seriously and hopes to create a better event than last year’s, learning from the mistakes of the past.
In discussing last year’s Youth Pow Wow, Sugar says “It was our first Pow Wow at Council Fire since 2003. So it’s been a long time. All the people who were working on the Pow Wow at Council Fire were all inexperienced in throwing a Pow Wow. So getting advice from Elders and regular Pow Wow people like MC’s, drummers, and dancers and stuff like that was crucial to the success of the Pow Wow.”
He believes it’s important for the youth to have their own Pow Wow because the meaning of identity is changing in this modern age. He says, “I think being in the city gets hard for a lot of youth, to hold on to their identity as people of the land, with all the buildings and cement. There’s this huge disconnect with the land which takes away our identity as people of the land. So I think giving the youth the opportunities to feel connected to their culture and who they are as leaders is important.”
In discussing the phenomenal cultural impact the event has, Sugar says “These Pow Wows are giving the youth responsibility, pushing the youth to carry those responsibilities in a good way. So I think that’s what it’s all about. Also it’s about the restoration of our identity as you know with our project coming up. Having the Elders there, and having the youth in power and being able to make decisions. It goes toward restoring their identity as leaders, as warriors. Also, the youth get to learn from Elders.”
Although it is a Youth Pow Wow, Andrew Wesley is designated as the Elder for the event. Sugar explains “It’s always good to have an Elder at the Pow Wow. The Elder will speak on behalf of our Elders, of our ancestors. Also they usually say the prayers, conduct the prayers. Andrew Wesley is our Elder, our main Elder at Council Fire so we thought it was only right to have him there at the Pow Wow.”
So it is with the reconciliation of the two extremes that healing seems to be coming about for the community: partnerships between the Elders and the Youth, remembrance of the past with celebrations for the future, learning from the wisdom of the land and navigating through the city life. Though the road to restoring identity continues, it is clear that the mountaintop of this journey is truly within sight.