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Photo by Samantha Rideout

Dancing at the Forks

The first Truth and Reconciliation event winds up with a spirited powwow, but much work remains to be done

By Samantha Rideout

On my way to the Forks in Winnipeg yesterday, I mentally prepared myself for heart-breaking stories of the kind that I had heard each day during the first national Truth and Reconciliation event. But instead I found a joyful powwow in celebration of National Aboriginal Day, which officially takes place on Monday, the longest day of the year.

After two days of rain and a tornado warning, calm weather had returned to the Forks. “The sun is watching us,” said the powwow announcer. “It’s a good sign amongst our people.”

For seven hours, drummers pounded and sang to accompany dancers dressed in beautiful regalia such as eagle feathers, beaded moccasins or jingle dresses, which are covered in aluminum cones that clink rhythmically each time the dancer takes a step.

Governor General Michaëlle Jean attended the powwow and said that everyone — whether directly affected or not — has a duty to break down indifference toward the suffering caused by colonialism and the residential schools. The Governor General’s words reminded me of a moment the previous day, when Elaine Jacobs, a member of the United Church’s Living into Right Relations task group, stood up and said, “Any non-Natives who are here, tell your brothers and sisters about our history.”

“And tell them there’s no need to envy what we have on our little reserves,” she added, referring to the resentment some non-Aboriginals feel toward the rights that First Nations people have under treaties. “The treaties were made under duress,” she said. “We gave up this beautiful country. In return, we asked for things like health and education, but what we got was epidemics and residential schools. Our education and health are still much poorer than that of others.”

Although the TRC event is over now, there’s still plenty of work to be done. A lot of painful memories have been brought to the surface, and the kind of support that will (or will not) be available to survivors when they return to their communities depends on where they live.

Before leaving, I visited the sacred fire and made an offering of tobacco. The fire was not extinguished at the end of the ceremonies. Instead, it was left to slowly and naturally burn itself out.

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