By NC Raine

“We all need events like this that challenge our ways of thinking and take us out of our comfort zones,” says Brett Zabos of the Wicihitowin Conference. Zabos, a biologist from Saskatoon, attended the two day conference under his own fruition, citing a compulsory need for people of all walks of life to make a personal investment.

“It’s up to us to take the responsibility, and ownership, of developing healthy partnerships going forward,” he continues.

Zabos perhaps exemplifies just what the Wicihitowin Aboriginal Engagement Conference is all about. Wicihitown, which took place on October 12th and 13th in Saskatoon, set out build exactly those types of inclusive communities.

In only it’s second year, Wicihitowin has almost doubled in size, ballooning from 250 to over 450 attendees. The conference aimed to provide non-Aboriginal organizations with resources to better engage the Aboriginal community, as well as educate on Aboriginal values to ensure culturally safe environments.

Warren Isbister-Bear, Director of Aboriginal Relations at the United Way, says the conference is a direct response to the Call to Action put out by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission [TRC].

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“We’re hoping to reach out to the corporate sector, non-profit sector, and the community at large to really try to engage the Aboriginal community in the areas of reconciliation,” says Isbister-Bear. “[Reconciliation is] the theme this year, and our speakers and experts are talking about those calls to action.”

Some of those speakers included Chief Darcy Bear, seven term leader of Whitecap Dakota First Nation, and Dr. Marie Wilson, former commissioner of the TRC.

“We’re really hoping to drive home the message of more inclusion of Aboriginal people. Acting on these TRC Calls to Action, rather than taking them as a recommendation,” says Isbister-Bear.

“I’ve had so many personal comments that this event is exactly what their organization needs. We hope we can move the needle on engaging Aboriginal people and communities – creating better alliances.”

Reaction to the event seems unanimously positive. Lisa Johnson, journalist, and librarian at the Saskatoon Public Library, says she also felt a personal responsibility to attend.

“I work with a lot of Indigenous people, so I felt like it was my responsibility to learn more about how I can work towards reconciliation. Because that’s the whole point,” she says.

“We heard testimony [from TRC members]. It was heartbreaking stuff, but it’s good things to be reminded of these stories and reminded of the impetus for this kind of work. It’s been really positive – talking about what people can do to make positive changes tomorrow,” says Johnson.

It’s been over a year since the TRC issued 94 Calls to Action, urging all levels of government to work together to change policies and programs in effort to repair the harm caused by residential schools and move toward reconciliation,  a stark reminder of how much work is left to be done.

“The conference has been an incredible experience. It’s all been chock-full of learning,” says Camille Branger, clinical psychologist in training.

“Whether it’s the practicalities of how to work with elders and the protocol surrounding that, or if it’s learning to look through a new lens and shift your world view of how to approach your day, there’s just so much to absorb,” says Branger. “I’ve enjoyed every minute of it and keep thinking I can’t wait to come back next year.”

Two other speakers at Wicihitowin, who have long had influenced the Indigenous communities, are Betty Ann Adam, reporter at the Star Phoenix, and John Lagimodière, editor/publisher of Eagle Feather News. Both were speakers at last week’s Media and Reconciliation conference, addressing the need for responsible and fair reporting on Indigenous news from an educated perspective.

“As both writers and consumers of the news, you also have a role in asking the media to cover [Indigenous stories]. You can demand them, because if there’s a movement among the people, the media will cover it. But you have to let us know,” says Adam.

During her presentation, Adam spoke on meeting media outlets both big and small, many of who were entirely uninformed on Indigenous news and culture.

“We’re coming together, we want to teach you. You might be embarrassed, we understood that many of these people had little experience with Indigenous culture. We approached [the conference] in the spirit of friendship, and introducing people to our culture was really wonderful,” says Adam.

Lagimodière highlighted the importance of events like the Reconciliation and Wicihitowin conferences, respectively, illustrating why working together is essential for our future.

“It’s simple. It’s in the numbers. The average Aboriginal person in Saskatchewan is about 22. There’s about 180,000 Aboriginal people in Saskatchewan. It’s the fastest growing demographic in Canada. If you’re not prepared as a business to acknowledge this, you’re going to lose,” says Lagimodière.

“In order to consult and accommodate First Nations, Metis, Innuit communities, you first have to communicate with them.”

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