One day, a young man walked up to a grandmother and asked: "How old do you have to be to become an elder?"
"I don’t know," she responded with a smile, "but I’m 50. Ask that man over there."
The young man went up to the man and asked him the same question.
"I don’t know," he said with a laugh, "but I’m 65. Ask her over there."
The young man asked the old woman the same question.
"I don’t know," she responded, "but I’m 88." Then, she pointed at the first woman and said: "Go ask my sister."
My favourite teaching in this story is it demonstrates being an elder has little to do with age and everything to do with humour, wisdom, and humility.
"Elder are not old people," declared former Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak grand chief Sheila North, "they are the knowledge carriers of our people."
North is one of many leaders hosting discussion forums at the National Gathering of Elders, taking place this week at RBC Convention Centre Winnipeg (hosted by Peguis First Nation).
More than 10,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit elders from communities across North America are expected to participate. Approximately half are from Manitoba. Some have come as far as Mexico.
For four days, they will engage in discussions on topics ranging from confronting climate change, educating children and families, missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, revitalizing language and culture, and reconciliation — with recorders compiling and later publishing the knowledge shared.
This is the second Gathering; the first was held in Edmonton in 2017. At the time, organizers had planned for 2,500 attendees but more then 4,600 showed up.
In such a big event, you’d expect it to feel overwhelming, but in my first 10 minutes I find an auntie, Glenice Smith from Roseau River First Nation.
"I marched with your mom to Ottawa in 1981 to demand (prime minister Pierre Elliott) Trudeau include us in the Constitution," she tells me. "You were just a baby then."
I watch Glenice stand in the same spot and greet around 50 other elders, recounting stories of marches and protests, grandchildren and divorces, governments and elections.
"All these people here have made big strides for our people," she says later.
"And don’t forget," she adds with a hug, "you are walking in those footsteps."
The rest of the day is spent in failed attempts trying to interview people one-on-one. Some tell me they have nothing to say; others tell me to ask my questions to others. Most tell me stories about seeing me as a baby, and ask about my children, why I’ve gained weight, and if I met their grandchild at the University of Manitoba.
Later, I accompany these same elders to the discussion forums and witness some of the most brilliant and brave words I’ve ever heard.
In the forum on climate change, I heard an Inuit woman talk about the melting of polar ice and how this has changed her relationship with her grandchildren, because they don’t understand her stories or access the land she used to.
In the forum on educating children and families, a Cree grandmother talks about how she taught beadwork to her granddaughter and this helped keep her in school.
The forum on language and culture room was full beyond capacity. (They say traditional language and culture are the most important parts of Indigenous nations and, apparently, the elders treat it this way.)
The forum on reconciliation was — ironically — nearly empty. The discussion was best summed up by a Mi'kmaq elder: "Reconciliation is a nice word, but means nothing if we have nothing to eat and drink."
I spend nearly the entire afternoon in the forum on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
I hear stories shared by family members of women such as Elaine Freida Alook (last seen in 2004 outside of Fort McMurray, Alta.) or Misty Faith Potts (who went missing in 2015) or Christine Wood (murdered in Winnipeg in 2016). I hear stories of police refusing to investigate rape and abductions. I hear stories about murdered men such as Darcy Lizotte from Slave Lake, Alta., too.
At one point, Winnipeg MMIWG activist Alaya McIvor gets on the microphone and asks the crowd of 500 who had a family member missing or murdered. Over half put up a hand. I hear so much bravery and dignity in stories of brutality and violence, I am overwhelmed.
The last speaker is elder Lily Jorgensen from the Nisga'a Ts'amiks Vancouver Society, who works in the lower east side of Vancouver with sexually-exploited workers. She tells the crowd: "The only way we will save our children is if we unite as a people. When we are together, caring for one another and our children, nothing and no one can hurt us."
Love. What a revolutionary idea.
And this was just Day 1.
The term "elder" is a title, of course, but it’s really a verb rather then a noun.
An elder is someone who is kind, funny, patient, sharp, and ready to inspire a hard conversation. Being an elder isn’t something someone reaches at a certain age, but a state of being one is.
While I’m leaving, I’m asked 10 different times if I am coming back.
I say, yes, there are more footsteps to walk in.
Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.