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National Indigenous Peoples Day 2017 Presentation

Marianne Reid, CND

To begin with, I am not an expert on the history and customs of First Nation People. So I can only share with you what I have learned and experienced in my 29 years with the people of the Canim Lake Reserve, Shuswap Nation, known in Secwepemc as Tsq’escenemc.

I would like to tell you a little about the Congrégation de Notre-Dame, of which I have been a member for 61 years. Our foundress, Marguerite Bourgeoys, came to New France in 1653 to be the first teacher of Ville Marie. She fought long and hard to have her group of women recognized as an uncloistered religious community. She wanted the sisters to go out to the native people around the fort that was Montreal at that time. She opened a school located in one of the towers, which still stands on the property of the Sulpician Fathers. So, we have always been a congregation devoted to education and inclusive of all people.

Before talking about my time with the Canim Lake people, I wish to speak about one experience. Each summer, sisters of the Congregation and students from Notre Dame High School in Toronto went to some of the reserves in Northern Ontario to prepare the children for First Communion and Confirmation, and to do crafts. I never volunteered for this ministry. However, in 1970, my friend, Sister Maureen, was asked to go to Japan. So, she asked me to replace her in the Mobert Reserve in Ontario. I went unaware of what I was getting into. When I arrived, I was in cultural shock. The children were dirty. They were full of blackfly bites, with snotty noses and dirty diapers. One of the girls held up a baby for me to take, but I could not do it. I was ashamed, but I was not prepared for such conditions.

Fast forward to 1988, when Sister Mary Alice Danaher called and asked me to come to Canim Lake to teach math and science. In consultation with my superior, we decided that I would go for one year. Once again, I suffered from cultural shock. By this time, I was a very successful teacher. But, these students were not motivated, did not do any of the homework that I assigned to them, and their attendance was sketchy. Some of the boys were very cruel to me (ex. money was stolen from me). Luckily, I was able to "hang in there." I taught in the high school program for three years and later taught grades two, three and four singing for six years. I could fill volumes with some of the things that I experienced over these 29 years. One thing is sure, they were blessed years.

I was asked to talk about the culture, traditions, etc. of the Canim Lake people. I can only speak from my experience with these wonderful people, who are in fact my family. I want to speak first about education. When Sister Mary Alice Danaher arrived in Canim Lake, the whole reserve was alcoholic. She believed that education could change this situation. So, she started a school, a high school and, eventually, a seven-year program through Gonzaga University. In the summer, people descended upon the Gonzaga campus. Twenty-seven persons, from children to grandmothers, started the course and twenty-one completed the program in Business Administration and Education. Some continued to complete their degrees; others went on to obtain their Masters degrees; others still went even farther toward their PhDs. Education also brought sobriety. Today, the children and grandchildren of these "pioneers" are finishing high school and going onto colleges and universities.

Respect for the eIders is a quality of all First Nation People. I have witnessed how this is true in many ways. Every Tuesday and Thursday, the bus picks up the eIders and brings them to the EIder Centre for lunch. Every Friday they are bused to 100 Mile House, Kamloops or Williams Lake. Each year, they are taken to the elders gathering. Fifty eIders from Canim Lake attended the gathering in Campbell River. Most of them are "speakers" and the Keas "Kye7e" (grandmothers) and Baas "Xpe7e" grandfathers are very loved.

We cannot speak about First Nation People without addressing the topic of residential schools. Sir John A. MacDonald was the one who started the idea of these schools. He said, "The children are being raised by savages and they will become savages." The purpose of this system was to "deindianize," to take away their language, culture, way of life and dignity. We have all heard of the physical, psychological and sexual abuse that the children suffered. Because they were "non-parented," they, in turn, did not know how to parent their own children. As a result, the abuse and alcoholism continued. One true thing that I learned from Grannies Dora and Cecelia was that they learned how to sew, knit, crochet and cook at the schools. As Canadians, we should be very proud of what has been taking place over the last five years during the Truth and Reconciliation process. This has and is giving many the opportunity to speak and be heard about what they suffered.

There are still "speakers" in the Canim Lake Band and children are taught the Shuswap language from kindergarten on. The Sage and Sweet grass Ceremony is a very sacred thing. Women would carry sage in their medicine bags. The sage is lit then extinguished until there is only smoke. Then each person covers his or herself with the smoke as a cleansing ritual. The week begins with this ritual at the Eliza Archie School. The "smudging," as it is called, is used during solemn occasions such as funerals and burials. It is done at the house after a death. We performed it at Mass during the penitential rite. As I said, it is a very sacred ritual and it is used on many occasions.

When I first came to Canim Lake there seemed to be no drumming. You have to be sober to drum. But today school children drum. Drumming is performed in many ways and on many occasions. Drumming is the heartbeat of the Creator and of Mother Earth. A great deal of respect is given when drumming is going on.

Dancing is also important. When I first arrived, there did not seem to be much dancing. But today, children who wish to be dancers start as toddlers. Young girls do the shawl dance and the jingle dance, and later, the healing dance. The healing comes from the dress itself. Young boys do the grass dance. It is used to bless the site before a PowWow or a meeting outdoors.

The dancing "regalla" is unique to each person. It can be made of buckskin, moose hide or even silk. The pieces of the outfit are all meaningful. Some examples are feathers, beads, medicine bags, belts, etc.

The Sweat Lodge is a very simple structure used for sweating and cleansing the body (like a sauna). However, it is a sacred space as well. It is made of willow branches, quilts, etc. and lined with cedar boughs. The rocks, which have been in an open fire for quite a long period of time, are placed in the centre of the lodge and splashed with water. The women and men sit in a circle around the rocks and pray or tell stories or are just present. I was able to do this several times with Granny Cecilia, Granny Dora and their daughters. After a time you go outside and douse yourself with cold water and then return. This is done in the nude!!

There are many rituals and customs surrounding the dying, death and funeral of a person. Always they are performed with respect, dignity and love for their dear one. Death is dealt with in a very natural way. After the deceased has been prepared and brought back to his or her home, the body is never left unattended.

There are many traditions that have been passed down from their ancestors. Some of them are: berry picking, beading (moccasins etc.) making baskets (from birch bark and willow that will become cradles for their babies, medicines (natural), soap berries made into a liquid which is full of vitamins.

I am fiercely Canadian, but we cannot deny the atrocities committed against the indigenous people. Their lands and water sources were taken from them as well as their language, culture, etc. The Governor General had to make an apology after stating that Canada was built on immigration and left out the First Nations. Colonization was a damaging reality. So, I would urge each one of us to open our minds and hearts to acknowledge this system and, in some small way, show compassion for what happened.


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