MacEwan University is committed to building respectful, reciprocal long-term relationships with Indigenous communities, says MacEwan University president Dr. Annette Trimbee. "We must talk to survivors of residential schools, engage in dialogue and determine where we can make a difference." Here, Distinguished Alumnus Lewis Cardinal, who has spent his career exploring how effective relationships are built, and Terri Suntjens, director of MacEwan’s director of Indigenous Initiatives and kihêw waciston, share insights and examples of what building those relationships can look like.
Lewis Cardinal (Native Communications ’86) received a Distinguished Alumni Award from MacEwan University in June 2008, just eight days after then-Prime minister Stephen Harper made a Statement of Apology to former students of Indian Residential Schools, on behalf of the Government of Canada.
“Residential schools suddenly became a topic of discussion,” says Cardinal, whose parents and grandparents are residential school survivors. “But I think it has still been a fairly abstract idea for many Canadians over the past 13 years.”
That changed when hundreds of unmarked graves were discovered – and continue to be found – on the grounds of former residential schools.
“Suddenly, for many people, what happened in residential schools was real in a way it hadn’t been before,” he says. “To me, the way Canadians are responding creates an opportunity to engage in this broad, societal conversation – one that has been thrust upon us.”
How we approach that conversation matters, says the MacEwan alumnus, who holds three undergraduate degrees and has dedicated his life and based his career on exploring how relationships are built.
“The only way we can truly achieve reconciliation is for people to talk to each other,” says Cardinal, who is also a member of MacEwan’s Indigenous Advisory Council. “I think we have a chance now to restart the discussion of, ‘What is Canada?’ and to rethink our future. The discoveries of the past several weeks have shattered our image of ourselves and created a major schism in our relationships as Canadians.”
That leaves us with two choices, says Cardinal: ignore the issue (which generally ends a relationship) or set a new trajectory through ongoing dialogue.
“Dialogue is the ceremony of communication. When you have good dialogue, you can begin to build trust, and when you have trust, you have a foundation upon which to build a lasting relationship.”
Cardinal likens the process to building a house. You can’t build a house and walk away from it, he explains. You need to attend to it, fix small cracks in the foundation as they appear and replace wood before it rots.
“When you take the ceremony – the communication – away from a relationship, you will see that relationship fall apart.”
Building relationships that won’t crumble like a house in disrepair also involves reverence, says Cardinal. “When Indigenous people sit in circle we begin with a prayer or invocation of some sort because doing that changes the environment. It asks people to concentrate on positive words, to create intent – to put their heads together so they can talk about the future and make the world a better place.”
He adds that engaging in this way is an act of creation – one that can lead to new relationships or reparations to an old one.
“When we come together knowing that each of us has unique gifts to pool, when we extend respect and create understanding, we can create whatever we want to meet the need of the day or the issue we are discussing.”
Cardinal knows this from experience. Back in the mid-2000s, he worked on multiple initiatives that brought together sometimes thousands of people using consensus as an approach to decision-making.
“In any group or organization, there are always divisions, but reverent dialogue and ceremony present a path forward. It is a relationship process and a healing process.”
With this kind of reverence, George Desjarlais opened the first meeting of the newest iteration of MacEwan’s Indigenous Advisory Council on June 14.
“We began with an honest and emotional discussion about the discovery of the graves – something that has been very heavy within our communities,” says Terri Suntjens, director of Indigenous Initiatives and kihêw waciston. “Acknowledging what is happening – and what the university can do to respond to it – is an important part of this council’s work.”
It was no surprise, she adds, that the council’s recommendations were rooted in education. “The only way through the racism and discrimination and stereotypes we have faced is to educate.”
It’s why she is so committed to creating opportunities for students that reduce barriers – and to building relationships, both inside and outside of MacEwan, that will reach greater numbers of people.
kihêw waciston’s plans for National Indigenous History Month are just one of many examples. Working together with Indigenous offices at Norquest, the University of Alberta, Concordia University of Edmonton and NAIT, the centre is extending its impact throughout June.
Each post-secondary partner focused on a different element of the Medicine Wheel model – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. The approach, and the collaboration it represents, are critical, says Suntjens. “We all share the goal of serving Indigenous students and creating opportunities that reduce barriers. As post-secondary institutions, we are not in competition – we need to work together.”
The post-secondary collaborators will close National Indigenous Peoples History Month on June 30 with a webinar featuring keynote speaker Dr. James Makokis (who is also a MacEwan alum) and a panel discussion with each institution’s Indigenous student services centre, facilitated by MacEwan’s Suntjens and social work assistant professor Amber Dion, who host the podcast Two Crees in a Pod.
Suntjens and her team are also partnering with educators at Victoria School of the Arts (they are sharing the students’ Indigenous research projects on kihêw waciston’s Facebook page throughout the month.
Suntjens appreciates that each of those relationships, and the many others they hold, will require the careful attention that Cardinal mentioned earlier – as well as his final piece of advice based on the “building a house” analogy: renewal through celebration.
“When we celebrate the accomplishments and recognize those who have gone above and beyond, it strengthens those relationships even further,” she says.
MacEwan’s president Dr. Annette Trimbee couldn’t agree more.
“In my view, shining the light on Indigenous heroes and leaders – including Lewis Cardinal and every member of our Indigenous Advisory Council, and all of our Indigenous faculty, staff and students – is part of the reason why celebrating National Indigenous History Month is more important now than it ever has been. We appreciate how critical providing brave spaces for dialogue and building strong relationships are to meeting our university’s responsibility to serve our communities in ways that recognize our past and build a better future.”
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