Position a show of respect for First Nations people

Indigenous relations director post newly established at Siloam Mission

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Christine Vanagas’s grandmother laid out tobacco each morning as the sun stretched into the yawning sky above Long Plain First Nation.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 07/03/2022 (267 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Christine Vanagas’s grandmother laid out tobacco each morning as the sun stretched into the yawning sky above Long Plain First Nation.

“Even in -30 C weather,” Vanagas says. “I dreamed to be like that and to be committed in that way.”

She tells the story as an example of the richness of Indigenous spirituality and the connection to family and nature it can inspire. As of Feb. 28, Vanagas has brought this understanding to the newly created position of Indigenous relations director at Siloam Mission.

Establishing the position was a key recommendation in a report by Laborero Consulting, a third party hired after former staff and a past board member levelled accusations against the non-profit that it failed to provide adequate spiritual care for its Indigenous clients. Shortly thereafter, in February 2021, chief executive officer Jim Bell left the organization and Riley Coulter resigned as chair of the board.

Vanagas wasn’t aware of the controversy at the time it was unfolding and couldn’t comment on the specifics of the situation, but in researching for her new role, she’s come to understand why Siloam has been trying to change its culture.

“It wasn’t a surprise, because Indigenous people represent a large segment of the homeless population,” she says. “And if the organization isn’t so much as reflecting it back, then it obviously will lead to what happened here.”

Before accepting the position at the Christian non-profit, Vanagas worked closely with residential school survivors at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Winnipeg, which she credits with broadening her understanding of Indigenous experience.

“There are so many diverse survivors with different opinions,” she says. “I really carry this forward to (Siloam). The clients we serve are very diverse. Some are going to have close connections to Indigenous values, some will be looking to reclaim them. So it’s all different.”

Having glimpsed a wide spectrum of viewpoints has strengthened her frame of reference and broadened her understanding, she says. “I think it really helped me understand colonialism, it’s historical impact. Now, I’m in an organization that’s seeing people live out the impacts.”

As Indigenous relations director, she’ll be looking at the 22 recommendations in the Laborero report and attempting to build an internal structure capable of carrying them out on a continuing basis. As a start, she plans to stoke a dialogue between the organization, those it supports and the community.

“I’m really conscious that I’m just one person, and there’s a need to bring the community back to continue the dialogue that was started a year ago,” she says. “And I really feel that I need to do that in order to ensure that we are moving forward in a way that is respectful, that’s appropriate, and that’s going to make a long-term impact that will benefit staff, the community and seven generations from now.”

The idea of being “good ancestors” for generations to come is a guiding principle for Vanagas. It’s a standard that helps ensure she is moving toward strengthening her community and “closing the gap” caused by generations of trauma and spiritual harm, she says.

But figuring out exactly how to do this can be a challenge. Hand-in-hand with sparking a dialogue is simply becoming immersed in the community.

“One of the things that really makes an impact is to be present in the community and spend time with people. A lot of people throw around this word ‘ally,’ but ally really means having a trust relationship, which means knowing who you’re in alliance with,” Vanagas says.

“Being present is the first part to show I’m willing to invest my time and resources to help the community.”

Siloam CEO Tessa Blaikie Whitecloud, who assumed the role in November, says she is ecstatic to have Vanagas on board.

“She checked all our boxes in terms of what we were looking for in a leader, to help us bring a new way of being to Siloam that allows us to continue being a Christian humanitarian organization,” she says.

The diverse experiences Vanagas gained in her work with the survivors circle at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, and work she’d done helping find housing for elders, will help Siloam in its mission to implement all 22 recommendations of the Laborero report, Blaikie Whitecloud says.

“She’ll be able to help us in all of those different avenues, as well as build a team who brings that to life.”

fpcity@freepress.mb.ca

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