Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bombers to honour First Nations

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The official opening of Investors Group Field tonight will be more than an historic moment for our city and province. It will also be a monumental occasion for First Nations.

As the flags are trooped out onto the field by the ceremonial colour guard, at their helm will be Sayisi Dene elder Joseph Meconse, bearing his eagle staff.

For the Winnipeg Blue Bombers to invite Meconse, an aboriginal veteran and Order of Manitoba recipient, to march in the eagle staff is not insignificant. It is a symbol of respect that honours the sacrifices and aboriginal contributions to Canada and a gesture of gratitude to all veterans. The eagle staff is considered by many to be the First Nations flag, its 13 feathers representing the 13 moons of the year. As far as I know, the marching in of the eagle staff is a first-of-its-kind event in Canadian professional football and certainly the first time an honour of this nature has been bestowed on national television.

The choice of Meconse is a great one, starting with the Citation for the Order of Manitoba that he proudly wears around his neck. In large part, this is in recognition of the role he has played serving his people and his country with distinction and for all he has done to help improve the quality of life for Canada's aboriginal veterans.

Joining the Canadian Forces in 1962, Meconse's service took him to Germany and Cypress for peacekeeping duties and to Quebec during the FLQ crisis. He left the Forces in 1971 and enjoyed a long career with Corrections Canada.

Since his retirement in 2000, he has travelled the province, visiting schools and other venues to promote awareness of the contributions and sacrifices aboriginal veterans have made. Among others, he is a member of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry Association and the National Aboriginal Veterans Association. His work with the latter was instrumental in the installation of the National Aboriginal Veterans monument in Ottawa in 2001.

It is fitting that the eagle-staff ceremony is taking place at this time of year, as First Nations across Canada are in the middle of sun-dance season -- ceremonies that honour the Earth through dancing in the sun and fasting, with no food or water for four days.

Old Carl Whitman, a Mandan elder who had led almost 40 sun dances when I first met him in North Dakota, shared their role with me. "The one thing you truly own is your body. By dancing and suffering, you are sacrificing yourself so that you can help others."

The sun dance is one of many First Nations ceremonies that involve personal sacrifice for the good of the collective group. Front and centre at these ceremonies? The eagle staff. It was at a sun dance that I became deeply aware that veterans are modern-day equivalents of this sacrifice and are honoured as such in First Nations communities and beyond.

Both Meconse and the eagle staff carry lessons of a growing awareness of the historical role First Nations have played in the development of Canada and will play going forward into our collective future.

The growing recognition of things such as which treaty territory we live on and whose traditional lands we share are reminders of the hard work educators and leaders from all backgrounds have placed on rebuilding the relationship between First Nations and all other Canadians.

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers should be thanked for having the foresight to honour the ground upon which Investors Group Field is built -- Treaty 1 territory -- and for recognizing First Nations veterans who have served with the Canadian Forces in every major conflict since Confederation and, in so doing, have given of themselves to Canada in the spirit of long-held practices.

As the Blue Bombers pass the torch from the "house that Jack built" -- a reference to First Nations quarterback Jack Jacobs, who was widely credited for getting the last stadium built -- to their new home at Investors Group Field, it is not lost on the First Nations community that this is exactly what the treaties are about -- working together to achieve great things for ourselves, our families and our communities.

Kinanaskomitin -- I am thankful to you.


James Wilson is commissioner of the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba, a neutral body mandated to encourage discussion, facilitate public understanding and enhance mutual respect between all peoples in Manitoba.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 27, 2013 A15

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