One of Canada's best known international aid agencies is teaming up with a Winnipeg organization and a charitable foundation to help non-Indigenous people take their first steps on the road to reconciliation.

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One of Canada's best known international aid agencies is teaming up with a Winnipeg organization and a charitable foundation to help non-Indigenous people take their first steps on the road to reconciliation.

Cuso International announced the partnership Wednesday with the Winnipeg-based indigenous community agency Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata and the Winnipeg Foundation.

The program will be led by Indigenous staff with a goal to craft methods of reaching out to non-Indigenous organizations, including government, public institutions and business to help them learn about and understand Indigenous communities better.

Those efforts will draw on aspects of the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission's calls to action, and teach organizations how to incorporate Indigenous knowledge and expertise.

Lloyd Axworthy, chairman of Cuso International, said he sees the partnership as a major shift for the aid agency, which recently expanded to include indigenous communities in Canada.

"This is an historic partnership for us. Cuso is one of the most active international development agencies in Canada. We've had thousands of volunteers over the years serve in close to 25 countries. We have a long history of encouraging a sense of civic responsibility in countries like Tanzania," said Axworthy, the former president of the University of Winnipeg and Canadian foreign affairs minister in the 1990s.

Cuso only recently expanded to include indigenous communities in Canada, he noted. It will assign an indigenous consultant to work alongside Ma Mawi, an agency which has delivered services to indigenous families in Winnipeg for over 30 years.

The event at the Ma Ma Wi North End facility attracted community and political leaders, including NDP leadership hopeful, MLA Wab Kinew, Northern Grand Chief Sheila North Wilson and federal St. Boniface Liberal MP Dan Vandal among others.

Volunteer street safety patrol Bear Clan co-founder James Favel called the new program "right on the money."

"We've been trying to build the feeling of a village back in our community for the last two years and it's good to see it really push off now," Favel said.

The partnership will focus on a program called Mino Stat An, Cree for making things right, to help non-indigenous organizations create awareness and improve intercultural relations.

In the three years since Cuso first sought out the partnership, Axworthy said efforts such as this are taking on added weight with the eruption of deep divisions in global geopolitics and its corrosive brand of identity politics.

"Truth and reconciliation is a journey that calls on each one of us, individually or in corporations, and whatever path we follow, we know education is a big part of it," said Megan Tate, director of community grants for the Winnipeg Foundation. The agency, the oldest community foundation in the city with a history of investing $400 million in grants since 1921, is funding the project.

Some of the work is already underway, with people such as Rotary Club of Winnipeg members Roy Vallance and his wife Pat Vallance, both now volunteering at Ma Mawi.

"We've made a commitment to honour indigenous people," Roy said as the event ended and the audience of about 60 broke off for tea, coffee and bannock. "All of us are doing different activities, getting to know our indigenous brothers and sisters and to put right what should have been put right a long time ago."

"We are at a critical time in our history, the strongest place that we've ever been at in this work of reconciliation," said Diane Redsky, executive director of Ma Mawi.

"There is a growing push toward reconciliation that is grounded in meaningful work, and we want to lead this change, become leaders in reconciliation, and what better place to do that than in the city of Winnipeg, the Indigenous capital of Canada and the place where the Indigenous grassroots voice is loud and proud," Redsky said.

Ojibway elder Wally Chartrand wrapped up the formal part of the event with a healing song.

"I also asked we be honest with one another because that's how healing will happen, with honesty. And that will take courage, because there are hurts that get in the way of relationships," he explained after the drum fell silent.

 

alexandra.paul@freepress.mb.ca