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Reclaiming the grandmother's place

March seeks to restore past role in native life

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Seven-year-old Ryleigh Todd-Moore (left) sits on her mother's lap while singing and drumming with a drum group on a float under a Main Street bridge Saturday.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Seven-year-old Ryleigh Todd-Moore (left) sits on her mother's lap while singing and drumming with a drum group on a float under a Main Street bridge Saturday. Photo Store

Resetting the role of the grandmother in the aboriginal community will take a lot of work, but Mae-Louise Campbell says her group is up for the task.

They have no other choice, she feels.

"Our children have suffered a great deal. You don't have to be aboriginal to know that things are not where they should be. This is why we've come together. We need to have a positive influence again."

Campbell was one of several "kookums" -- aboriginal and non-aboriginal grandmothers -- who took part in the seventh annual Grandmothers Protecting Our Children Medicine Walk through Winnipeg's North End Saturday afternoon.

The event, which started in 2007 after a group of aboriginal grandmothers came together to express their outrage over a child's abuse at the hands of a male elder years back, is aimed at reclaiming some of the status a grandmother once had in the community.

In broad stokes, the position of the grandmother has traditionally been one of respect and a source of wisdom. Having taken cues from the natural world over centuries, the matriarch in the community is the giver of life and a symbol of creation.

Grandmothers were the advisers. Grandmothers were the counsel. They not only looked after the children but they looked after everything, with the best interests of tradition, the individual and family in mind.

Over time, the role started to shift. Colonial values started to creep into the fabric of the traditional system and male figures started to wield more and more power in the community circle. Their influence further lessened with the introduction of residential schools and more recently, Campbell said, government-run family agency interference that has basically fractured and ripped aboriginal families apart.

"We are at a point now where families are separated," she said. "And there's not enough help to correct things. Really, the government is still telling us that we don't know how to raise our children.

"Keeping families apart is no way to fix a broken family."

Campbell isn't sure the "kookum council," as she calls it, is making a huge difference in the social work ranks, but she does believe there is an impact on the ground. "We're hearing from more and more grandmothers who want to be involved and more and more families are looking for support."

Levinia Brown has more than 40 grandchildren. Originally from Rankin Inlet, she has seen her voice in the family and in the community weaken. It seems everything is up for a vote now, everyone has an agenda, but things don't seem to be getting any better, she says.

"They call it a democracy, but I only see a few people happy. In the old days, I was approached for counsel by the young people. For whatever reason, that stopped and suddenly no one cared for what I had to say anymore."

It's not just the young who have been searching for direction, Belinda Vandenbroke says. Adults, and even elders in the community, are also struggling with the concepts of identity, too.

"You can't say that every grandmother and every grandfather knows that they're aboriginal, but most don't know anything more than that," she said. "So many families have been separated (through residential schools)... so much was lost during that time."

Vandenbroke, 65, speaks from the heart. Her regret over not fully exploring -- sometimes not even initiating -- the conversation of history and tradition with her own grandparents comes through in her voice. She wonders what traditions and stories she's missed out on through circumstances both in and out of her control.

It's a vicious cycle: Her disconnect as a child led to disconnect with her own children.

"People are waking up to the fact that traditional knowledge needs to be acknowledged," she said. "It never went away. It was hidden during those dark times. I worry though, that we'll never know about some things, some of the traditions, and it breaks my heart."

It would have been difficult to have those conversations with her grandparents during the residential school chapter of Canadian aboriginal history: Parents and grandparents weren't allowed to have any contact with the children.

Like the other grandmothers participating in Saturday's march, Vandenbroke catches herself worrying about the future and wondering if the modern daily distractions available to everyone across all cultures are too ingrained with the younger generations. The apathy is like a disease, she says.

"But you have to keep talking about it," she said. "I feel like we don't have a choice. It's what needs to happen."

adam.wazny@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 22, 2013 0

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Updated on Sunday, September 22, 2013 at 10:53 AM CDT: Updates photos.

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