By John Copley
(ANNews) – On Monday, September 11, 2017 several thousand Indigenous Elders from Canada’s First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities sat down together in Edmonton, Alberta, and in doing so not only made history, but carved out a template to help ensure a lasting history.
The day also fulfilled the vision of Tallcree Tribal Government Host Nation Chief Rupert Meneen, a vision he’d been talking to his Elders about for some time – hosting a National Gathering of Elders (NGE) event. The first speaker to address the gathering, Chief Meneen thanked the prayer givers, the drummers and dancers, volunteers, Elders and the thousands in attendance for their participation and support.
“This gathering marks the first time in Canada’s history that First Nations, Métis and Inuit Elders and seniors from every region of the country have come together in the spirit of friendship and reconciliation,” stated Chief Meneen. “Building on the theme ‘Coming Home – Voices of Elders,’ the gathering is intended to be a place for laughter and the opportunity for the creation of long-lasting connections. We have the opportunity with this gathering to show you, our Elders, that we value your words, we value your teachings, and we honour your legacy and resilience.”
The September 11-14 NGE event took place in the spacious Hall D auditorium at the Northlands Expo Centre; a capacity crowd nearing 5,500 Elders, dancers, event organizers, volunteers, and participants, coupled with a steady stream of spectators, ensured that the venue maintained a full-house status throughout the event.
Co-emcee’s George Tuccaro (Mikisew Cree First Nation) and Elder Tom Ghostkeeper (Paddle Prairie Métis Settlement) were the first on the podium. They kept the large audience smiling with some one-liners, talked about the importance of the first-ever gathering of its kind in Canada and introduced the Parade of Nations, a long and winding line of Grand Entry participants as they danced their way into and around the large facility in a colourful display of Indigenous pageantry and culture.
As the day began opening prayers were delivered by Elders Mike Beaver (First Nation), Doreen Bergum and Francis Dumais (Métis) and Goota Desmarais (Inuit).
Elders’ Advisory Council members Alice Kaquitts and Jenny Meneen were the first to address the gathering.
“I am honoured to have been invited to sit on the Elders’ Advisory Council,” began Elder Kaquitts, a member of the Morley, Alberta-based Stoney Nakoda Nation. “I hope that this gathering will induce a sense of pride within the Elders and the youth, both personally and within their nations. Today is a time to feel good and to enjoy each other but it is also a time for discussion and for learning; I thank everyone who is participating in this important event.”
Elder Jenny Meneen noted that “this is my first time being involved with the Elders at a gathering like this – with First Nations, Métis and Inuit. I am so proud to be here today as a First Nations person and it is so nice to see so many off our youth join together today with our leaders and Elders. No matter what Indigenous language we speak, or how our cultures may differ, we can talk together about the issues and we can share our ideas. I want you all to have fun and to feel honoured for being here today to support this national gathering.”
The first day of the NGE began with an enthusiastic and supportive capacity crowd and a line-up of speakers that included Chiefs, Elders, government representatives and members of the Elders’ Advisory Council. Several National Gathering Leadership Council members spoke about the significance of the first-ever gathering of Elders and seniors; they included Audrey Poitras, President of the Métis Nation of Alberta, Gerald Cunningham, President of the Métis Settlement General Council and AFN Regional (Alberta) Chief Craig Makinaw.
“It is very exciting to see so many people gathered here today in the spirit of sharing and learning,” Poitras beamed, lauding the efforts of the organizers, welcoming guests from both near and far and thanking “the Elders for their prayers and for guiding us in the right direction. It is so nice to see so many Indigenous leaders here with our federal, provincial and municipal partners – supporting our Elders and being a part of this great occasion.
“As one of many Indigenous nations gathered here today, we are proud to be a part of such a great journey. Together we will share our cultures, our stories, our traditions; this is truly an historic event that will hopefully mark the beginning of many more to come.”
Leadership Council Member Gerald Cunningham said, “This historic event provides an ideal opportunity to not only share our cultures and knowledge with each other, but also with non-Indigenous Canadians; knowledge is power and events like these are about sharing knowledge and bridging cultural gaps so that we can all work together for a better future.”
Cunningham also spoke about climate change, the need for better health care, meaningful reconciliation and the Métis Settlements’ ongoing work with the Alberta government to create a framework for self-governance and its current work with Ottawa as they seek “respect and recognition for our unique Métis rights.”
Alberta’s Métis Settlements are the first legislated land-based Métis communities in Canada.
AFN Regional Chief Craig Makinaw lauded the Elders and seniors who made their way to Edmonton for the NGE event. He thanked the Chiefs and leaders and others who participated in putting the event together and emphasized the “important role fulfilled by the Elders’ Advisory Council and the many volunteers,” whose cumulative efforts helped to bring a full year’s worth of work and planning to fruition.
“It is humbling,” said Makinaw, “to be part of such a large gathering of Elders who are here to share their knowledge; it’s a blessing to have them all here.”
Treaty 6 Grand Chief Dr. Wilton Littlechild, a visionary whose dedicated work helped to bring the World Indigenous Games to Edmonton this summer (July 1-9, 2017), was introduced to the podium by George Tuccaro, who called the internationally renowned Chief, “a longtime hero and a role model to many people here today.”
Grand Chief Littlechild thanked the Elders, dignitaries, participants and spectators and offered a special thank-you to Chief Meneen for “his vision and to everyone responsible for assembling this amazing and powerful collection of Indigenous wisdom and rich diversity. This week is also a commemoration of the 10th Anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. I mention this because there are two specific references to the rights of Elders in the Declaration – but also a very important third article that recognizes traditional knowledge of Indigenous peoples as the keepers of those sacred teachings – traditional knowledge, which of course, is you – the Elders who have gathered here today.”
He went on to tell a humorous story about asking the United Nations to allow a group of Indigenous Elders to offer a prayer before the assembly got underway. Until that day, prayers and/or invocations, were not allowed at United Nations meetings, but after the visiting Elders had finished their prayer, that policy changed.
“Thanks to you, our Elders,” said Littlechild, to a rousing round of applause, “every meeting that now takes place at the United Nations begins with a prayer.”
National Grand Chief and head of the Assembly of First Nations, Chief Perry Bellegarde spoke briefly but powerfully about Indigenous nations and the future.
“When we gather as First Nations and as Indigenous peoples,” said the National Chief, “we don’t want to use our Elders to simply open or close meetings. We need more than ever now to draw upon your wisdom, your guidance, your teachings, your prayers and your ceremonies to deal with something that is not only hurting Canada, but the world – and that is climate change. We need your help now because when you look at Mother Earth, she is suffering – the water and air are suffering. We need your prayers and guidance now to help us deal with this important issue.”
Chief Bellegarde addressed several issues and told the Elders that “we also need your help and guidance when it comes to reconciliation, missing and murdered women and girls and we need your help to address the TRC’s Calls for Action and we need help as we move forward to revitalize our cultures and our languages. If we are to have these things for our future generations we need your help now.”
Clement Chartier, President of the Métis National Council, talked briefly about the decade he spent in residential school and focused on the positive reinforcement he received from Elders and leaders he met early in life.
“When I was a younger man, back in the 1970s,” he explained, “I had the opportunity to meet and to learn from several Métis Nation Elders including Ross Cummings, Louis Morin and Jonus Clark. Also from First Nations Elders – William Joseph, Lazarus Roan and Albert Rechi. They taught me a lot and they set me off on the right path. William Joseph was a great man, a spiritual leader who bestowed upon me the protection of the thunderbird. He gave me a medicine pouch and he gave me a lot of knowledge. That knowledge was very helpful to me in the 1980s when I, and others, came under attack in Nicaragua.”
Chartier spoke about the power of Indigenous spiritualism and the importance of knowledge and wisdom that has been passed down by Elders throughout the ages. He told the audience that he “strongly believe(s) that the prayers and wisdom of the Elders, the protection of the thunderbird, the power of that medicine the sweetgrass that blessed our post,” saved his life when their entire party managed to escape.
“The spiritualism of our Elders is strong and with that I know that eventually we will succeed and it will be because of the wisdom and spiritualism of our Elders.”
Prime Minister Trudeau didn’t take the podium but he did deliver a positive video message and offer his and the federal government’s sincere congratulations on the NGE conference. Among other things Trudeau spoke about reconciliation, noting, “as we move forward on the path to reconciliation, we know there is much more to do – but thanks to leaders like you I know we can build a better future for Indigenous people and a more just and inclusive world for all of us.”
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley then took to the podium and said, “I am so honoured to be able to attend today’s celebration here on Treaty 6 territory. And I acknowledge the Metis people who share a deep connection to this land. We are so honoured be the first province to host this first-ever national gathering of Elders. The work that you do here will be an example of partnership and cooperation for all Albertans and for all Canadians. We welcome you and look forward to your wisdom and your experience – and we look forward to the advice and recommendations that come out of this forum.
“When our government came into office in 2015 a top priority was a stronger relationship with Indigenous people. It was time to work toward fairness and reconciliation, to build respect and partnerships and new opportunities for the future. We heeded the TRC’s calls for action on urgent matters and we made a commitment to engage closely and respectfully with Indigenous peoples and organizations on economic, social and cultural issues. We pledged to live up to the principles of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and we are now acting on those commitments. To date we’ve made direct investments in social, economical and cultural areas and we’ve made sure there is additional participation in our climate leadership plan.
“Our country has a shameful record of making sure that Indigenous communities have clean and reliable drinking water – this is unacceptable! We are working with First Nations and the Federal government and through the leadership of our Indigenous Relations Minister, Richard Feehan, our government is addressing this historic wrong and have set aside $100 million to help communities to get access to clean, reliable drinking water here in Alberta.”
The final speaker on the National Gathering of Elders opening day was Jim Sisson, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada’s (INAC) Regional Director General for Alberta. He congratulated the host nation and Chief Meneen for his vision, offered words of appreciation to the Elders and thanked the many people and organizations who helped to ensure a successful and memorable venture.
“This week,” noted Sisson, “we celebrate the Elders, their teachings, the life knowledge that they hold to share with the younger generations gathered and for future generations yet to come. We’re in a particularly interesting period of time in terms of the relationship between Indigenous nations and the federal government and indeed with the Province of Alberta. There’s a real window of opportunity I see here today that I don’t think we’ve seen in many many years. This truly offers an opportunity for a new and defined nation to nation relationship that’s based on reconciliation, respect and rights. I believe we are going to be seeing this coming forward, certainly with the recent changes in the federal cabinet there’s going to be more emphasis from the federal government in terms of making it a reality. As I stand here today I see the power of this historic gathering, the first of its kind and know that this is the first of many more to come. Congratulations to you all.”
The first day of the NGE conference also offered a video presentation on Canada’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and concluded with A Taste of Indigenous Culture, featuring well-known and talented entertainers that included the Métis Child and Family Jiggers, Crystal Shawanda, First Nations dancers and the Dene Tha Drum Group.