It was September of 2001, just after 911. A guest of the US State Department’s Visitors Program, I was on the tail-end of a one-month tour of five American cities, which had been scheduled to launch on September 12. It was the opportunity of lifetime which on that fateful morning got cancelled and then put back on provided I could get myself to Washington. The first leg of the trip, New York, had been struck from the itinerary flights all over North America had been canceled. Through some stroke of fate, Air Canada got me on a flight to Toronto and sixteen hours later, I nervously disembarked a Greyhound bus in Washington DC.  As the cab driver noted, with not a plane in sight, a rarity for this capital metropolis, “It’s quiet. Awful quiet.”

They say that you might not remember a person’s name, or what they do, but you can always remember how they made you feel. Over four weeks, I met with community and political leaders, and experienced the major attractions of the five cities I had selected to explore their unique solutions to  issues of race, language and diversity. Along the way, I was moved to tears at the Chicago Museum of Art’s Van Gogh – Gaugin Exhibit, went behind the scenes at NASA, was welcomed with open arms as the only white person at a Sunday Baptist Service in Houston, and learned by osmosis The Star Spangled Banner, which inaugurated most events and concerts, including opening night at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra which closed with Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. Over these four weeks, I felt America, the shock, the trauma, the anxiety, the depression, the bewilderment.  And the kindness, hospitality and generosity of spirit.

From Washington, DC the train took me Chicago, then I boarded my first flight since Calgary to journey to Houston and from there I flew to Santa Fe. My final destination was San Francisco and on my way to listen to talk by David Eggers on his newly released, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, I received a call from the board chair of the Canadian Unity Council to discuss how we as an organization should react to 911, suggesting a full page ad in the Calgary Herald in support of the Muslim Community.

We can do better, I thought. We needed to talk about this, bring people together, quell the fears, put out the metaphorical fires that were igniting in Calgary’s Muslim and Jewish communities. Casting back to that time, our homogenous, energy-based town knew little or nothing of Al Queda, Osama Bin Laden, or Islam in general. This, if there ever was one, was a teaching moment.

On my return, we gathered the leaders of the three faith communities and proposed a dinner where we would invite 250 influencers from all sectors – education, non-profit, law, policing, business, social services – to explore the challenges and opportunities arising from 911. The timing was ideal, it would occur 90 days after 911, during the holy month of Ramadan, an annual celebration unknown to the majority of our citizens.

We called it Breaking the Fast and designed the event so that every viable element would be an opportunity to learn, about Islam, about each other. Iftar, the evening meal, began with the call and prayer mats welcomed all guests in the room adjacent to the ballroom. The Palliser Hotel catering staff prepared a Halal feast, served family style. The dialogue was facilitated and each carefully curated table used a feather as a talking stick, to ensure that all voices were heard.  Participants enjoyed the opportunity to engage in conversations about Islam, pluralism, racism and bridge-building initiative ideas.  They put faces to names and settled into a comfort level with the “others”. I watched the evening unfold as we all experienced the power of symbols, rituals, music – art in its many forms.

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I began to experiment with Cultural Strategy in 2000 when I was working with the Canadian Unity Council. As Director of the Western office, one of my responsibilities was to identify issues and challenges, existing or fomenting, that divided us as a Nation. Obvious examples included western alienation and Quebec separatism, more subtle were systemic weaknesses such as voter apathy and gender imbalance in political representation. Inclusion and diversity were on the rise, yet we were still more than a decade away from the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Two opportunities arose to test my hypothesis. The first was Crossroads, an initiative we piloted in 2000 and due to its success, reproduced annually over the next five years in Winnipeg, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Yellowknife and then back to Banff, Alberta with a focus on youthIn retrospect, the concept was revolutionary, bringing sixty Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal women from Calgary and area together for a weekend long “sharing circle” to explore the challenges and opportunities facing urban Aboriginal youth. The theme was not as important as the gathering itself. This was a first. All but a few of the participants had ever had a meal with a woman from the other culture. We were in every sense foreign to each other even though, geographically, we were neighbours.

It took nine months to plan with an extraordinary team of courageous women from both cultures who committed to understand each other, exercise patience with each other’s cultural idiosyncrasies and unconscious biases, calmly point out insensitivities, all united in the common goal of finding common ground. This is where I had my first taste of art and experience as a powerful tool for profound change. We were appropriating what Indigenous people have known and lived for millennia – art, design, creation is in everything. Quoting from Gerald T. Conaty in the preface to Honouring Tradition – Reframing Native Art:

Art has always been an integral part of Native People’s lives. It was interwoven with the production of tools, the construction of dwellings, and the manufacture of clothing. While European cultures separate art as a practice that is distinct from most aspects of daily life, First Nations people have a more holistic understanding of the world. Visual art has always been integrated with song, dance, ceremony, and oral traditions. In these cultures, it is not possible to speak of art; art is part of everything. “

Over the weekend, we came to know each other through sharing meals, art, dance and stories. But first we had to “break the ice” as the Westerners would say. As organizers we devoted considerable time to this important exercise. Would we do something with nametags? Play a game? We landed on talking sticks. Carol put the suggestion forward and as with all elegant solutions, the positive outcomes are innumerable and unpredictable.

On arrival, all the participants sat in a large circle. In a middle on the floor was a basket with a number of willow branches, each carefully harvested and pruned by Carol’s husband, an arborist, and later blessed by an Elder. The concept of the talking stick in Aboriginal culture was explained, how it was passed from one person to the next in a sharing circle. If you had the stick, you could speak or not speak and for as long as you needed. Carol also spoke of the strength of the group by demonstrating how easy it is to break one stick but if you hold five for six in a bundle, it becomes impossible. After each participant handpicked her stick from the basket, we distributed small containers of colored ribbons, beads, feathers, strips of hide, small silver jingle bells. Our task was to take the weekend to decorate our stick.

We spent the next fifteen minutes meeting each other by shopping for our supplies. I smiled as I watched the Indigenous women circulate, knowing exactly what they were looking for, the others in new territory, with trepidation but open to the adventure. This, I realized later, was perhaps the first time the non-Indigenous women felt at some level that there may be more to learn from the people who had been here for millennia. Through the creation of something together, through humility, bonds were being forged, braided, like sweetgrass.

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