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Coordinating Conversation: Niigaan looks to build Indigenous/non-Indigenous relations and learning

Ian Campeau of A Tribe Called Red in conversation with Qajag Robinson on Sept. 15

Ian Campeau of A Tribe Called Red in conversation with Qajag Robinson on Sept. 15

By: Greg Macdougall

The Niigaan: In Conversation grassroots project that brings Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples together for dialogue and discussion through workshops and symposiums held a recent event on Sept. 15.

The name Niigaan is an Anishinaabemowin word that the organizers chose to represent the themes of “at the front,” “leading,” or “looking towards the future.”

Building relationships and preparing the way for ever-deepening discussions around the way those relationships work are both keys to the future.

According to Niigaan volunteer and supporter Andrea Landry, an Anishinaabe-kwe from Pays Plat First Nation, “This is a kind of a ground point, we’re building the base of creating a better future between, if I were to have children and they [non-Indigenous] were to have children, those children will be able to have these kind of dialogues and discussions, but they’ll be a lot more advanced.”

The project began earlier this year in March, building on the energy of the Idle No More movement.

The first event brought together a couple hundred people for a series of paired discussions on different topics.

Landry was one of the speakers there, in one-on-one conversation with Craig Benjamin of Amnesty International Canada. They discussed Indigenous issues as they pertain to an international context through work being done by the United Nations. The UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples are both important for application here in Canada, they concluded.

Landry and Benjamin also discussed what Landry explained as “the concept of land ownership, and how a lot of our people are saying we need to take back our land, yet the Canadian government are saying ‘We want to own your land.’”

She elaborated on the conflicting worldviews concerning land ‘ownership.’

“We can’t own land, because once we own something, we’re enslaving it…we need to get out of that concept of the colonial mindset, of ownership in itself.”

Since that first event, Niigaan has held quarterly public symposiums.

Over the summer, they also held a series of four workshops on treaty relations in partnership with KAIROS Canada.

They also organized the local event that was part of the national “Honour the Apology” campaign — demanding the federal government make available all residential school documents to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission —  leading a march to the doorstep of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada headquarters in Gatineau.

The next Niigaan symposium is set for December, and there are other ideas about where this project could lead.

The organizers want to build on the especially positive feedback from the workshops they held in partnership with KAIROS, to extend the focus on learning about treaties. Melody McKiver, a core Niigaan organizer, said they are “developing more of a free-school model, where we’re also talking a lot about what we need to do to Indigenize and reclaim knowledges, whether that’s a relation to land and learning what plants it is that grow on this territory…and get people reclaiming their languages across all generations.”

In addition to the learning and discussion forums, she added, “we also recognize the importance of direct action and mobilizing on the streets.”

Niigaan: In Conversation has been well received by the community, judging by both attendance and the positive reactions and discussions that have been stimulated.

And it hasn’t been limited to Ottawa.

Sparked by social media, people from Toronto to Yellowknife have been in touch with Niigaan with positive feedback and reaching out for support and advice on how they can lead similar initiatives.

Further local community support came at the end of August, after Niigaan organizers had submitted a proposal to Soup Ottawa and were chosen to present their project alongside other community initiatives vying for the winner-takes-all funding.

Around 160 people each contributed $10, dined on donated soup and listened to the various pitches.

They were each then able to cast a vote towards the project they felt most worthy of support. Niigaan received the most votes, taking home all the money raised.

McKiver said that “there are these people who aren’t familiar with Niigaan before, but now, one, decided that they wanted to support our work, and two, are really interested in what we’re doing and putting the word out that way.

“So it’s a way of continuing to build these relations…and it’s also really affirming for us to see that the community wants to back the work that we’ve done to date and to see it continue.”

Landry has found Niigaan to be personally uplifting and reinvigorating, and feels that it is doing the same for others.

She said it is distinct from many other political spaces that centre on confrontation and butting heads. She described Niigaan as “safe and open honest discussions on Indigenous and non-Indigenous relationships in Canada,” before adding, “it’s a matter of creating change by shifting our dialogues and having more open minds in these discussions.”

“This will build on to a stronger base, a stronger ground point, and stronger relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, and I think that’s integral to the foundation of creating momentum and prominent social change in Canada.”

A shorter version of this article was originally published in Anishinabek News, www.anishinabeknews.ca

This article appeared in the Leveller Vol. 6, No. 2 (Oct/Nov 2013).

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