Learnings from TPW’s Immersion Journey to Canada, focusing on Indigenous Rights

As a Canadian, stemming from European ancestors to Canada, I have always been keen to learn more and understand better the consequences of our settling here in Canada with the Indigenous communities.  They, after all, had been here on this great land for thousands of years before we first stepped on these shores.  

I was lucky enough to join fourteen other TPW members in the Northwest Territories for three days to embark on a learning journey into the Truth & Reconciliation process that the Canadian Government has embraced, the land claim settlements and the programs in place that are reconnecting Indigenous people to their lands and paving the way for success in the future.  

The journey was diverse in that we looked both at the role of government, community initiatives and market-based solutions over the three days.  We used these opportunities to discover best practices and some of the levers of change that are making a difference in the North.   

We started the journey with a dinner with Dr. Marie Wilson, one of the commissioners of the Truth and Reconciliations Commission.  This Commission was officially launched in 2008 and was a “process that would guide Canadians through the difficult discovery of facts behind the residential school system”(1).

This commission was a six-year discovery and documentation process by the federal government (they collected close to 7,000 statements) of what actually happened to Indigenous children that were taken from their families and put into schools in remote areas of Canada, mostly run by the Catholic and Protestant churches.   There were over 150,000 kids put in these schools over a period of 150 years.  It was a positive experience for very few – most of the kids were abused, both physically, psychologically and sexually.  They were, in some instances, hubs for pedophiles, who had free rein by the school to come and go, cloaked in the mask of “volunteerism”.  We heard this firsthand from Stephen Kakfwi, former residential school student.  Stephen has told his story to many Canadians, particularly when he became Premier of the Northwest Territories in 2000.

The children were not allowed to speak their language or use their native names, and some didn’t see their families for years.  They grew up in an institutionalized setting, not knowing their siblings, having no news from home.  They were the first generation to not keep the cycle of learning going of their culture and as a result, were completely disconnected from their land and traditional ways of the land.  This deliberate exercise of cultural genocide wiped out the identity of a whole generation.  Not only that, but many of the older population left behind died of TB and other diseases brought by the Western explorers, some of which was deliberate, with smallpox-infected blankets being handed out to communities.

We met with Mindy Willett, from the Department of Education of the Northwest Territories, who is working diligently to create learnings for Canadian students on the colonization of Canada, as well as a curriculum to provide indigenous youth with education in their native language.  Mindy explained that it is a “race against time” as language will be soon lost with the Elders passing away.  It was evident this partnership of government and community was working well, with utmost respect for the sharing of goals and paths to achieve these goals. 

We traveled by plane North to the community of Deline, which sits on Great Bear Lake, in the Sahtu region of the Northwest Territories.  The population of Deline is a mere 550 people.  It is also the capital of the Deline Gotine Government, Canada’s first combined public/Indigenous self-government that was formed in 2016.  The area is so remote, with the nearest community 100 miles away.  The air is dry and cold, the land desolate but majestic and the people proud and forward-looking as they now hold in their hands their rights to political self-determination.

We felt so welcomed by the community, who in a sense, was overjoyed that we were there and that we cared to know and understand their struggles and their hopes.  We spent the evening having dinner with the Elders, who talked about their aspirations for the community and for their people.  Their government is still in its formative stages, but they have already achieved a UNESCO designation for the Great Bear Lake and its watershed as an important biosphere.  It was clear to me that the struggle continues, with a community tied to federal subsidies and social assistance,yet looking to a future of a possible independent economy, while concurrently holding on to their traditional ways.  Not an easy task to say the least. 

The community members took us fishing; always great to have a joint activity to spark conversation.  Our guide, George, gave us a smidgen of his life, but I could see his awkwardness at trying to connect with us; something that did not come easily. 

We all circled back after our fishing expeditions to the community center, a simple building where the Dene celebrate occasions and come together.  What an important place this must be, I thought, when there are limited hours of light in the winter and temperatures reaching a brutal -50 degrees Celsius.  The fish we caught was grilled on the shoreline outside the center as we gathered to eat with the other community members and youth and speak about life, traditional indigenous legends and their plans for the future.  We spoke about the Guardianship Program that is in place in the North; a program that trains young people to be “guardians of the land”.  With scientific programs and trainings on preserving ecosystems, the youth guardians work to collect data and information that then underpins governmental decisions about land and resources.  It not only serves an important purpose, but also helps to bring the youth back onto the land to re-connect.  This resonated with me as a constant theme amongst the Northern First Nations, Metis and Inuit.  The land is their compass, their heart center and their healing place. 

We said goodbye to the Dene community and traveled back to Yellowknife to delve into the legal framework by which the original treaties sit.  Many of the old treaties were negotiated in the 1800s and were a deliberately inaccurate account of what took place in verbal negotiations.  As a result, many of these treaties were challenged and re-negotiated to form new modern treaties.  Canada today has some of the most complex treaty negotiations in the world, with many individual communities negotiating in silos.

We had a chance to dive into market-based solutions with Jeff Cyr, of Raven Capital Partners & Indigenous Impact Fund.  Jeff provides flexible, patient capital to Indigenous entrepreneurs that are looking to scale their businesses.  We also learned about social impact bonds, in partnership with the energy companies and Raven that are taking hold in the North, around residential geothermal installations that reduce energy usage and provide energy sovereignty in communities.  We spoke of other collaborative funding models with government, the private sector and philanthropists that are spurring economic development in the North.  All these solutions are working to invest in emerging leaders and help provide sustainable livelihoods.

We were privy to some very good advice in this session, about venturing into this arena with philanthropy – understanding triggers for Indigenous populations, protocol, respecting their ideas and goals and avoiding our all-too-often tendencies to  look at social investments through a western lens.  One particular takeaway for me was a comment  from Steve Ellis of Tides Canada North.  He was speaking about philanthropy and its association with the controversy around the fur trade.  “Philanthropy paved the way, so to speak, for the shutdown of the trapping industry” he noted and as a result, the three entities that are most distrusted by most of the indigenous communities in the North are the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police), the Church and Greenpeace.

The journey was yet another success from TPW and its first-class learning opportunities.  It was also great to get the Canadian members together; we made up the majority of the cohort.  It was a chance for us to connect, as always and share best practices, stories and share an adventure.

I want to say a big thank you to the London team – Jo Ensor and Marylou Gourlay for their tremendous efforts to put this immersion journey together.  This visit, yet again, emphasized the importance of these journeys as a core part of the ongoing TPW learnings.  The proximity of getting out into the field and close to the communities is so critical with all of our work and so important in understanding how we invest in systemic, sustainable and meaningful change.

Lisa Wolverton

Chair, Board of Directors

The Philanthropy Workshop

1. Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Canada, by Catherine Bell, William B. Henderson, published 02/07/06

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