by John Copley
(ANNews) – The 522,000-square foot Edmonton Exposition (EXPO) Centre hosts more than 2500 different events each year while attracting more than 4 million visitors from across Canada and around the world. That number is expected to grow even larger this year when from September 11-14 thousands of First Nations and Métis Elders converge on Alberta’s capital to participate in the first-ever National Gathering of Elders event. This monumental and historic undertaking began with a vision by Tallcree First Nation Chief Rupert Meneen, Grand Chief of Alberta’s Treaty 8 First Nations.
“The National Gathering of Elders,” noted Chief Rupert Meneen during an April 12 press conference at the Doubletree by Hilton Hotel in West Edmonton, “will mark the first time that Elders from across the country have come together to gather in one location. We are inviting First Nation, Métis and Innu Elders and seniors from across Turtle Island to participate in a gathering being hosted for them here in Alberta. The focus of this unique undertaking will be to make everyone feel welcome and to create opportunities for sharing our cultures and perspectives and fostering good relations with all Indigenous peoples from across the nation.
“As a Cree person, a First Nation person and a community leader, I’ve called on many Elders for their counsel on many different occasions over the years. The words of the Elders are invaluable and I hold them all in high regard. This gathering will give us the opportunity to show our Elders that we honour and cherish them, that we value their words and their teachings and that we honour their legacy and their resilience.
“Our Elders hold, in their collective memories, the true history of Canada and its Indigenous peoples. Our Elders were integral to the survival of the European settlers as well as their allies in times of war. As Canada takes time to celebrate 150 years, we call on all Canadians to recognize not only the valuable contributions of Indigenous peoples but also the huge toll that colonization has taken on Canada’s Aboriginal population.
“Reconciliation that honours our Elders must include acknowledgment of our true history and our commitment to move forward together in a partnership that is both meaningful and respectful. Let us all work to ensure that the next 150 years are something we can all celebrate. It is my hope that this national event will not be the last but instead the first of many to come. We hope to see this event take place every few years and that it becomes a tradition. I encourage other communities to get involved in hosting the next event.”
Two members from the Elders Advisory Council also attended the press conference. New member Astinak Bishop represents the Innu community in the Northwest Territories while Alice Kaquitts is a Stoney Nakoda from the Wesley First Nation in southwestern Alberta.
“As a member of Alberta’s Elders Advisory Committee,” said Elder Kaquitts, “I am pleased and honoured to be here today to contribute to the vision of Grand Chief Meneen. We started the ceremony with prayer to ensure that the Gathering and all who attend will be blessed. Our council provided advice on all aspects of the event and we have enjoyed working with a dedicated group of coordinators.
“We are all so very excited about the prospect of meeting our Indigenous brothers and sisters from across Turtle Island and from within the Province of Alberta. The National Gathering of Elders will truly be an event for and about Elders and seniors. Canada is enriched by our diverse Indigenous cultures, languages and ways of life. We look forward to sharing our culture and to learning from each other as we forge new friendships together. We take this opportunity to invite our relatives from the north, from the east coast, the west coast, Québec, Ontario, Saskatchewan, British Columbia and Manitoba to the four-day Gathering and we hope to see you all at the beginning of the event on September 11.”
Alberta Indigenous Relations Minister Richard Feehan took to the podium and began by noting that “this is an incredible opportunity we share today as we move toward a greater understanding about the importance of First Nation, Métis and Inuit tradition. I thank the Elders for bringing this forward and for allowing us to understand the depths of their teachings.
“This opportunity really gives us the chance to have the Elders come together to share their ideas and pass on those ideas to the youth who will also attend this is important September event. This is an exciting time and I really appreciate the fact that this isn’t simply a one-day event but one that sees the Elders gather and host a number of Pipe Ceremonies as they talk about the process (that will bring this event to fruition.) I look forward to attending other gatherings that will lead up to the September event.
“There is absolutely no denying that that wisdom and life experiences the Elders bring is very important for our country and the meaningful and lifelong changes that will take place over the next number of years.
“As a province, we are very happy to have been invited to participate in and contribute to this important event. Today we announce a contribution of $100,000 to the organizing committee of this historic event and look forward to participating in other ways as we prepare for the main event in September. It is our hope that this funding will allow both Elders and youth to sit in the same room together, talking together and sharing their cultures and traditions as we all talk together about where we are going in the future.”
Assembly of First Nations (AFN) Alberta Regional Chief Craig Makinaw said, “The AFN looks forward to working with Grand Chief Meneen and the North Peace Tribal Council as well as with our Métis and Innu counterparts here in Alberta in organizing an event that has been long awaited. It has been a very rewarding experience working (with everyone involved and) with the Métis Nation of Alberta and the Métis Settlement General Council. We have been learning more about each other as we build bridges and create lasting friendships.
“This is historic undertaking will benefit Elders from every Indigenous group. I am pleased to inform you that the AFN executive has endorsed this gathering and shares in the commitment of Grand Chief Meneen in ensuring a successful event. We have reached out to our counterparts in other regions to get the message out and to find avenues of support so Elders from all regions can attend this event.
“Hosting an event of this scope is quite costly and we welcome the support of government and industry from across Canada. The sharing of stories, languages, traditions, arts and culture from the east coast to the west coast and from the north and south will have meaningful and lasting impacts. Our Elders deserve this honour and we are gathering youth and inviting the world to come and bear witness to the National Gathering of Elders later this year.”
Métis Settlements General Council president Gerald Cunningham expressed his gratitude for being able to speak to his colleagues and peers about the upcoming Elder’s gathering and said that “at the core of who we are as Indigenous peoples in our various cultures in Canada there are more than 1000 unique Aboriginal communities. For convenience, we are often grouped together as Indigenous – we are sorted out in Métis and Inuit and First Nation categories and although we all have our own uniqueness, we are also the same in so many ways.
“We recognize that there are many common themes when examining our unique histories –one of those common themes is the respect we have for our Elders, the important part they play in keeping our history, safeguarding our culture, protecting our languages and mentoring our youth. We owe a debt of gratitude to the many Elders who worked so hard to carve out a place for our members, fought for the land where we built our communities, and share their stories, their experiences and their wisdom with all of those who would come after them.
“This historic Gathering of the Elders is something that has not taken place before; it will be an historic event with First Nation, Métis and Inuit Elders, representing all three distinct cultures, to come together to share stories, laugh, educate and learn.
“The Métis Settlements look forward to participating in this historic gathering; I thank Grand Chief Meneen for his vision and for his commitment to this gathering and for inviting the Métis Settlements to participate and to be involved in the planning and organizing committee.
“When I think of Elders there are two words that come to mind – honour and respect. This National gathering will be a great event and the perfect opportunity to come together in respect and to honour our Elders.”
In his comments to the gathering Associate Regional Director General for the Alberta Region of Indigenous Affairs and Northern Affairs Canada, Kevin Murchie, recalled the words of his boss, federal Minister of Indigenous Affairs, Carolyn Bennett, noting that “she has said that Elders are keepers of knowledge who provide wise and invaluable council on our shared path to reconciliation. Our government is committed to the revitalization, protection and promotion of Indigenous languages and cultural traditions and recognize that they are fundamental to Indigenous identity and to the strengthening of Indigenous communities.”
Murchie spoke briefly about Canada’s commitment to Indigenous relations and the importance of culture and language retention, something he noted that Ottawa has recognized by the 2017 funding announcement of $89.9 million over the next three years – a figure that comes in addition to the $55 million promised in the 2016 budget.
“Listening to the Elders,” he said, “is imperative in renewing the nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous people in order for Canada to move forward in a good way. Elders are advisors, teachers, and leaders. I feel privileged when I hear their wise counsel before, after and during the meetings I attend on a regular basis. Their words are sometimes challenging to us, but they are always an inspiration as a source of guidance as they help steer our work in a good direction.
“I know that Canada’s journey over the next 150 years will be made better by strong and respected community builders. This National Gathering event is a good step in the right direction (and) INAC supports this timely gathering and the contributions that we will make.”