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Roots, resilience, renaissance

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Part 1: Roots of Manitowapow

Cree elder Betty Ross smudges her glasses, her head, her chest and body, and then offers me the smudge bowl so I can bathe myself in the sweet-smelling blue smoke.

I've come to learn the story of how Cree people came to Manitoba, but first we must smudge.

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Tobacco, sage, cedar and sweetgrass and other medicines lay on a star blanket along with Ross's eagle feather, ready for action.

"It's true that we were the first people in Manitoba, Manitowapow," says Ross. "We were always here. We originated in Manitobah."

Science confirms what Ross and other indigenous people have been saying for countless generations. Manitoba Museum information confirms Cree people have lived in Manitoba for at least 7,000 years.

Today, we are not in a tipi or a sun dance lodge, but tucked away in an office on Portage Avenue, in what's called a "round room" for spiritual ceremonies.

Ross is Cree, an elder with the title of spiritual care adviser. She works for the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority to ensure medical patients have access to traditional ceremonies and support, if needed.

The round walls of the room are adorned with paintings. Pillows encircle the room like a medicine wheel, and in the centre are Ross's tools of the trade.

"We were a vibrant people. We had everything we needed; hunting, gathering, living off the land," says Ross. "A lot of people have lost their ways. Each day when we open our eyes... be thankful for every day. We must stay grounded in our ceremonies, because that is healing."


The Ojibwa migration story

The Cree may have been the first Manitobans, but the Ojibwa (Anishinabe) people entered the scene not long after.

According to The Mishomis Book: The Voice of the Ojibway, by Edward Benton Benai, the Ojibwa migration west began around 900 AD from their original territory in Eastern Canada. The migration lasted more than 500 years as they made their way westward.

The Ojibwa -- as with many other tribes -- were no strangers to Manitoba, though. They were actively visiting and trading with the Cree along the Red River for at least two centuries.

Historian Bacquerville de la Potherie wrote about that trading as early as 1671 when the French arrived in Ojibwa territory now known as Sault St. Marie, Ont.

Archeological evidence backs this up, too.

At The Forks -- where the Assiniboine and Red rivers meet -- evidence of campsites, hearths and tools have been unearthed, showing the site was a well-used meeting place for several First Nations groups for more than 6,000 years.

You could say The Forks has been a lively spot for thousands of years.


-- -- --


Cree elder Betty Ross: ‘Each day when we open our eyes... be thankful for every day. We must stay grounded in our ceremonies, because that is healing.’

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Cree elder Betty Ross: ‘Each day when we open our eyes... be thankful for every day. We must stay grounded in our ceremonies, because that is healing.’ (AMIE LESYK / FOR THE WINNIPEG FREE PRESS) Photo Store

Manitoba boasts a diverse group of aboriginal people who call it home -- not only the Cree and Ojibwa, but Oji-Cree, Dakota, Dene and Métis people.



The Oji-Cree people of Manitoba are a distinct blend of Ojibwa and Cree people. They speak a mix of both languages, and their culture is also a marriage of the two. They live in northeastern Manitoba, also known as the Island Lakes area.



The Dakota people of southern Manitoba are part of the Sioux Nation, along with the Nakota and Lakota people. They have historically been seen as "outsiders" by the Canadian government because most of their homeland is south of the U.S. border.

The Dakota of southern Manitoba never signed a treaty with the Canadian government.



The Dene people (T'suline Dene and Sayasi Dene) were thriving in northern Manitoba for thousands of years, living a hunting lifestyle that depended on caribou.

After a forced relocation by the government in the 1950s, the Dene suffered severe breakdown and dysfunction of their families and community, recounted in the 1997 book Night Spirits, The Story of the Relocation of the Sayisi Deni, co-authored by former chief Ila Bussidor.

The Dene relocated to part of their traditional land in Tadoule Lake in 1973.



Every Manitoban knows -- or should know -- the Red River Métis nation was born here.

The fur trade brought prosperity to Manitoba in the 18th century, but also intermarriage between the original people and newcomers who helped build it. The Métis of the Red River Settlement were a hardy mix of European, French-Canadian voyageurs and mostly Cree and Ojibwa women.

Their settlements existed mainly along the Red and Assiniboine rivers.

By the 19th century, they were a strong force, but not enough to overcome the takeover of their lands that set off the Louis Riel-led Red River Rebellion of 1869.


The treaties

Treaties are the "dry stuff" that scares people away from history, but they deserve mention.

Canada was built on treaties, agreements between two groups of people. There's nothing scary about that.

With First Nations people throughout Canada, the newly formed government knew it had to cook up a deal in order to relocate them and settle the land. They decided on treaties -- which were popular at the time.

Seven treaties were signed in Manitoba from 1871 to 1906. First Nations people moved on to designated reserve land and the new Canadian migration began.


A group of Island Lake Oji-Cree at their winter camp in the 1920s.

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A group of Island Lake Oji-Cree at their winter camp in the 1920s. (UNITED CHURCH OF CANADA ARCHIVES)


The '50s migration

A modern migration of aboriginal people started in the 1950s.

Small numbers started moving to cities and towns, leaving their reserves behind. The city meant exciting opportunities: jobs, education and a better life.

Changes in the Indian Act helped spark the migration. The 1876 piece of legislation determined anything and everything a treaty Indian could and couldn't do.

In 1951, the pass system was officially taken out of the Indian Act, and First Nations people were allowed to leave the reserve on their own. Prior to that, they needed a pass signed by an Indian agent in order to leave for any length of time.

The only way to be off the rez permanently was to "enfranchise" -- sign away your treaty rights and become a Canadian.

Many women were also "enfranchised" when they married non-aboriginal men. That changed in 1985 when Bill C-31 reinstated treaty status to some of those women and their children.

The use of the word "enfranchisement" instead of "disenfranchisement" -- which is what it was -- is indicative of the mentality of the federal government. It believed giving up Indian status made that person "gain" Canadian status.

The year 1951 also saw change in the form of cultural freedom.

The ban on traditional ceremonies such as the sun dance was officially lifted in 1951 as well. This policy was seen by many as part of the cultural genocide leading to termination of indigenous title to the land. It had much to do with a lack of understanding about indigenous culture.

"We didn't worship the sun," says Cree elder Betty Ross. "We walked and talked with the Creator."

The general consensus is that lifting the ban on ceremonies came about after Canada signed onto the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. It made Canada more accountable to First Nations people and more willing to update the Indian Act.

As aboriginal people became more urbanized, their rights also gained momentum. Status Indians were granted the right to vote in Canadian elections in 1960.


Residential schools

The residential school era began in the 1880s. An estimated 150,000 aboriginal children were placed in residential schools over the course of 100 years. Most were First Nations kids but Métis and Inuit were included. The federally funded schools stripped kids of their language and culture, in an attempt to "get rid of the Indian problem" and assimilate them into society.

Generations of residential school children survived physical and sexual abuse, as well as the loss of cultural identity and language. Many of the children didn't survive at all. There are still unanswered questions about how some of the children seemed to disappear.

The last of these schools closed in 1996.

First Nations groups filed a class-action lawsuit and in 2007 the Government of Canada announced a settlement. Several churches apologized for their role and, in 2008, Canada officially apologized for the damage done.


The Sixties Scoop

While some aboriginal people were leaving the reserve, others were making their way onto the reserve -- in the form of Child and Family Services.

The Sixties Scoop began in the 1960s and lasted until the '80s, seeing an estimated 20,000 aboriginal children across Canada taken out of their homes and placed in foster care or adopted as far away as the U.S. and Europe to primarily non-aboriginal families.

The residual effects of the residential schools included family breakdown and dysfunction. That played a major role in the Sixties Scoop. As well, social workers were suddenly dropped into a culture where they had little training and even less understanding.

Many Sixties Scoop children were emotionally scarred. They suffered loss of identity, connections to their culture, home communities and birth families.

Judge Edwin Kimelman released No Quiet Place -- a report on Manitoba's child-welfare system in 1985. He called the system a "cultural genocide."

The resilience of aboriginal people continued despite generations of struggle against paternalistic forces and strife within their own communities.


The turning point

It's debatable when a turning point for aboriginal people came.

It might have been the striking down of the 1969 White Paper then-prime minister Trudeau tried to pass, attempting to scrap the Indian Act and land claims and assimilate First Nations people into people with no distinct rights.

The move sparked national outrage. Leadership banded together and spoke out strongly, and the document was put on the shelf.

Maybe part of it had to do with the American Indian Movement in the 1970s and the fear it instilled in a mainstream population that did not understand its effect north of the border.

Many people remember Elijah Harper raising his eagle feather and saying no to the Meech Lake accord as a turning point, because it affirmed aboriginal people must be consulted when it comes to changing the constitutional landscape of the country.

Often, turning points meant resistance.

Oka, the uprising to the east of us in Mohawk territory in the summer of 1990 erupted over tribal burial grounds that were going to be turned into a golf course. Oka garnered international attention and brought a nation of aboriginal peoples together in support of aboriginal rights.

There are many others, too: The occupation of Anicinabe Park and the Native Caravan of 1974, the Red Power movement, the Native Youth Movement, Burnt Church and the shooting of Dudley George and the subsequent inquiry into the government's role and what went wrong in policing ranks.

Perhaps it wasn't one specific turning point but a series that led to where we are today. Maybe the important thing is they happened and people remember them.


An abandoned sweat lodge on the grounds of the former Brandon Residential School.

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An abandoned sweat lodge on the grounds of the former Brandon Residential School. (PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVE) Photo Store


For the younger generation, maybe the turning point is now.

The "aboriginal baby boom," babies born in the 1990s, are being educated and will hopefully be poised to fill our province's labour gaps once the aging population retires in great numbers.

In 2006, 15.5 per cent of Manitoba's total population was aboriginal, according to Statistics Canada. That's 175,395 aboriginal people.

Winnipeg has the highest aboriginal population of any Canadian city, with 68,380 people identifying as Métis, First Nations, non-status and Inuit. That means one in 10 Winnipeggers is an aboriginal person.

Our numbers may be growing faster than any other demographic, but many aboriginal languages are declining with increased urbanization.


Migration continues today

Urban migration continues, with an estimated population of 500 Inuit people now calling Manitoba home. Still other aboriginal people -- from Mi'kmaq to Gitxsan -- come to the Prairies for opportunities.

Aboriginal people still move to cities for the glittering chance at a better life -- in the form of education and jobs. They are becoming increasingly successful and educated, contributing to a huge variety of industries.

Take a look at our Faces of the Community list (J12) and you'll see proof.

Times are far from perfect.

We still have higher-than-normal rates of high school dropouts, incarceration and poverty. Many reserves resemble the developing world. Social problems developed over generations will not change overnight, but we are bouncing back faster than expected.

Aboriginal people are a hidden boost to our local economy. People lucky enough to live a few hours from urban centres make the trek a few times a month to buy clothes and food, rent hotel rooms, go to the movies and eat in restaurants.

The McPhillips Street Walmart is widely known in aboriginal circles as the "Peguis Walmart" because of the many Peguis First Nation members who shop there.

Many aboriginal people travel to Winnipeg to access health care that's impossible to receive in their home communities. We give birth here, see doctors, get treatment and get healthy.

The people of Lake St. Martin First Nation are here because flooding in 2011 left their reserve uninhabitable. For the second year in a row, they have spent Christmas in downtown Winnipeg hotel rooms instead of home. The evacuees seem to be in limbo because leaders on all sides have failed to reach an agreement on the next step.


Hunting rights

For Métis people, the recent decision to grant them hunting rights similar to those of First Nations people was a big victory. Outstanding Métis land claims have yet to be dealt with in the courts, but may eventually generate more economic opportunities.


Sisters in Spirit

The Native Women's Association of Canada estimates Manitoba has the third highest number of cases, 79, of missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls in the country, behind British Columbia and Alberta.

With increased protests and public awareness by groups such as Sisters in Spirit, Canadians are starting to take notice. Many aboriginal groups have been calling for an inquiry for several years.

Liberal Sen. Sandra Lovelace Nicholas recently called for a national inquiry into Canada's missing and murdered aboriginal women, and it's likely just a matter of time before it happens.


Urban reserves

Urban reserves will become an increasingly important topic as the federal government and Treaty One leaders decide what to do with the abandoned Kapyong Barracks land in Winnipeg.

The response from the public is, at times, optimistic. Maybe the name "economic development zone" has finally stuck, allowing people to see it for what it really is -- business, jobs and economic growth not just for aboriginal people, but for everyone.


Grand Chief Derek Nepinak, joined by activist and former MP Tina Keeper (below), leads marchers to an Idle No More rally at the Oodena Celebration Circle at the The Forks.

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Grand Chief Derek Nepinak, joined by activist and former MP Tina Keeper (below), leads marchers to an Idle No More rally at the Oodena Celebration Circle at the The Forks. (WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS) Photo Store

Idle No More

Protesting is nothing new to aboriginal people. What is new is increased solidarity thanks to social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook.

The Idle No More campaign began in December by five women unhappy with Bill C-45 and its effect on aboriginal people.

Idle No More is a people-driven movement, although several chiefs support it individually -- such as Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence, who is on a hunger strike in Ottawa.

The grassroots movement that started with a Facebook page and a Twitter hashtag has gained momentum, with thousands turning out for flash-mob round dances. Support reaches across Manitoba, Canada, the U.S. and as far away as Egypt, Ukraine and the United Kingdom.

Bill C-45 gives aboriginal affairs ministers an easier route to terminate treaty lands, and reduces environmental laws without properly consulting with First Nations people who are affected.


The renaissance of culture

My theory is a cultural renaissance has been happening on Turtle Island -- what aboriginal people often call North America -- for a while now. Culture is in everything we do; it's what we say, paint, cook, sing and dance. Renaissance is just a fancy word for awakening.


-- -- --


It's a cold winter night -- the kind Winnipeg is famous for -- and a powwow group meeting has started at Ma Ma Wi Chi Itata Centre's new King Street building, which used to be an Autopac office.

Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata -- is Cree, meaning "We all work together to help one another." It's a fitting name for an organization that works with families and children throughout the city.

Dianne Roussin, executive director of Ma Mawi, says working together is vital to the organization's existence.

"We rely on the community to make it happen."

The kids' powwow group is just one of 50 programs the organization offers, but it's a program bursting at the seams, with people literally crying to get into the classes.

"This place is all about resilience. It's rooted in identity," say Roussin. "We're trying to be the kitchen, the living rooms of the North End. Our youth get such a bad rap out there; we say 'you're a good person. Those are behaviours, not who you are.' "

Roussin sees powwow class as an entry point into culture for kids and a way for some of their parents to experience what might not have been accessible to them if they grew up in the city.

There are about 30 kids and a few adults milling around what used to be the drive-in garage area of the old Autopac centre. Some kids are hyper, after indulging in candy canes, and ready for powwow lessons. They range from two years old to teens. Most of them are wearing hoodies and jeans, but a handful dress in traditional regalia.

There's plenty of time to get an outfit for summer powwows; in tonight's class they will learn the stories behind the dance and practise their moves.

After everyone smudges, the powwow instructor sits down in the big circle of chairs with his drum and gets down to business. He explains one girl's shawl dance outfit to the others.

"It's basically Indian ballet, with a twist," he says, the kids listening intently.

Wayne Ruby, 22, the Ojibwa youth teaching the class, remembers coming to powwow class himself 10 years ago.

"It's a way to give back to the kids," Ruby says about his job.

Ruby tells the kids all about the song he's going to sing, and then he starts drumming. Later, the kids break off into groups; boys with men, girls with women. The place is hopping with energy.

The drum beat carries beautifully in the huge space, and a few other workers can't help but jump in and sing along with Ruby. If you close your eyes, it sounds like summer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 29, 2012 ??65535

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