Six Visionaries Discuss Reconciliation at Fort William Historical Park
Sam Mathers, News Editor
On September 13, the first installment of the Lieutenant Governor’s Visionaries Prize was held in Thunder Bay. Six Ontarians competed by sharing their ideas around reconciliation, including one Lakehead University student.
Her Honour, the Honourable Elizabeth Dowdeswell created the prize “to invite Ontarians to join a deliberately forward-looking conversation about how we can creatively navigate the challenges facing society over the next fifty years.” Those challenges include reconciliation, governance, inclusive prosperity, environmental stewardship, social cohesion, and scientific and technological innovation. The Lieutenant Governor received more than four hundred submissions and six finalists were chosen for each topic.
McGillivray’s Landing in Fort William Historical Park was filled with audience members who were given a device that allowed them to vote in real time on each speaker’s depth of knowledge and overall performance. The winner was announced immediately following the presentation.
Dowdeswell referred to Canada 150 as “a wonderful time to consider who we are and who we want to be as Canadians.” She spoke of “two competing truths about Canada,” saying that on the one hand, Canada is a country that is “lauded internationally for its commitment to multilateralism, pluralism, and inclusion,” and a place where “anyone who works hard enough can have a chance to be successful.” On the other hand, however, “centuries of colonialism and cultural assimilation continue to affect Indigenous peoples. Too many have had their cultures and languages stolen, have experienced the trauma of residential schools, have had their voices ignored by decision makers, and struggled with attaining the basic necessities of life.”
Piya Chattopadhyay, host of CBC Radio’s Out in the Open and head judge reminded the audience that although there is a winner, the Visionaries Prize is not about competing, but rather about “being optimistic” and “forward thinking.”
The optimism and forward thinking of all six finalists was evident. Eva Kratochvil spoke about the preservation of Indigenous languages, Dianne Lalonde about understanding cultural appropriation, Channarong Intahchomphoo about social media, and Jessica Bertschmann about health education and the AIDS epidemic.
Gaylen Beaudoin, a Lakehead University Orillia student, discussed the important relationship between language and identity and the need for making Indigenous languages official languages of Canada. She said that our two current official languages “[have] opened doors for equal opportunity for French and English-speaking people alike, within the highest level of government. People accept that in Canada you are French or English.” Beaudoin’s idea is that a multilingual policy should be established at the provincial level that would require anyone attending school to take Indigenous language classes. According to Beaudoin, “it wouldn’t be universally applied, but each individual school would offer the Indigenous languages native to that geographic location and Indigenous principles, values and cultural practices would be able to be incorporated into corresponding language classes.”
Beaudoin spoke to The Argus following the competition about why she wanted to apply for this award: “I saw a posting on the media bulletin at school and decided to apply. I got into a debate with a friend actually in one of our study groups about why I felt that Indigenous languages should be an official language and I thought it was a good idea and so I wrote about it.” Reconciliation is a relatively new idea to Beaudoin, who learned about it in her social work class, she says, “I had no idea and it really hit me… you always think of Canada as being this kind and sweet, wonderful place and we have a dark history.” What makes her hopeful about reconciliation is “that so many people are opening their eyes, and just like me are learning more about it and are putting their ideas forward on how to fix our issues and how to grow together and be more connected.”
The winner of the Visionaries Prize for reconciliation, Jessica Rumboldt is working on her PhD at York University. She discussed the overrepresentation of Indigenous women in the criminal justice system. According to Rumboldt, Indigenous women are “the most growing population behind bars.” She shared some disturbing statistics, such as “Indigenous women make up 33.6% of all federally sentenced women in Canada,” and that “from 1997-2007 the population of Indigenous female offenders increased by an alarming 151%. Since 2004, the overall number of Indigenous female offenders has grown by an alarming 90%.” This high number of Indigenous women behind bars has increased correctional spending by an estimated $1 billion. Rumboldt believes this money would have a greater and more positive effect if it were “used to find culturally appropriate services and programs that address issues like chronic unemployment, mental illness, childcare, affordable housing, violence, and poverty.”
Rumboldt believes we need policies “that decrease the number of Indigenous women and girls in the criminal justice system by increasing funding to support alternatives to incarceration and to ensure these women are provided with the culturally appropriate support they require, as well as free and affordable legal aid.”
Rumboldt spoke to The Argus following her victory, and says that winning this prize “has really motivated [her] to pursue different avenues like this to be able to talk publicly about this topic, and continue researching and hopefully make a difference, through publications and through speaking.” She was inspired by her great grandfather Mattie Mitchell, who was a Mi’kmaq chieftain. She discovered the large impact he had in Newfoundland, including the discovery of a large mine, but that he was only given a bag of flour in return. “Learning that I kind of understood the relationship better between Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people.”
When asked what makes her hopeful about reconciliation, Rumboldt told The Argus, would be “the discussion. The fact that this amount of people showed up in the audience tonight is huge. When I first started talking about this topic, a lot of the audience[s] were very minimal, a few stragglers would come in, and now to see people actually showing up, registering to hear this, that makes me hopeful, and I think that the discussion itself is the pathway to reconciliation.”
While all of the competitors shared bright and interesting ideas around reconciliation, the most touching came from a personal story by Special Advisor to the Deputy Minister of Ontario on Indigenous Issues and guest judge Laurie Robinson. Robison spoke of her mother, who throughout her childhood often told Robinson and her siblings they were lucky they didn’t have to attend “boarding school” like she did. It wasn’t until her first year of university in a Canadian history course that Robinson learned her mother was talking about residential school.
Looking back, Robinson doesn’t know why she and her siblings never asked their mother what she meant, saying, “maybe it was that we never really knew that we were any different from anyone else… that in our minds, we saw ourselves as human beings and not as Indians.”
After that first class in Canadian history, Robinson phoned her mother, who later told her that was one of the first times she had ever been asked about boarding school. Robinson said “what we now collectively call reconciliation was really, well, it was really me seeing my mom in a whole new light. Maybe seeing her for the very first time.”
Before giving the podium to the first finalist, Robinson said, “let’s make it different this time. Let’s recognize that together we will achieve reconciliation with Indigenous peoples in Ontario and in Canada.”