(Continued from Part 1)

International Women’s Forum and Reconciliation

Changes were afoot at the Stampede. It remains one of the few organizations in the country that has maintained a solid partnership with Indigenous people for over 100 years. Representatives from the surrounding Treaty 7 Nations have played an important role in the annual celebrations, through their participation in the Parade (over 500 in some years), the rodeo (as competitors and bullfighters) and the chuck wagon races. Every year, the Indian Princess is crowned as a member of the Stampede Royalty and over twenty families raise their teepees and welcome visitors at the Indian Village. In 2019, these components were renamed to the First Nations Princess and the Elbow River Camp.

Time to Talk: “Canada’s Indigenous Women Leaders: Resilience and Promise for the Future”

Why not celebrate that relationship and build a dialogue around the challenges and opportunities of reconciliation? Further discussions ensued and the culmination of months of conscientious deliberations led to an immersive an experiential breakfast and conversation.

This innovation featured a departure from the traditional “continental” breakfast to a feast of bison, bannock, Saskatoon berries and Tsuut’ina Apiary honey; a dance performance by First Nations Princess Falon Manywounds; an audiovisual presentation depicting the 100 year collaboration between the Calgary Stampede and the Treaty 7 Nations of southern Alberta; drumming and an honour song performed by the Spirit Winds female drum group; and a keynote address by the Honourable Roberta L. Jamieson, President and CEO of Indspire Canada.  Each guest also received a lapel pin with a “moosehide” to acknowledge murdered and missing Indigenous women and was invited to take home a logoed jar of the Tsuut’ina honey.

It was billed Time to Talk:  “Canada’s Indigenous Women Leaders: Resilience and Promise for the Future”. Our table hosts were Canada’s leading Indigenous female influencers and the sponsoring companies who made the event possible.

At the Westin Harbour Castle

Doors were scheduled to open at 7:30 am, and at 7:15, guests from around the globe started streaming down the escalator to the Frontenac Ballroom at the Westin Harbour Castle. Their eyes and smiles widened as they were welcomed by the beat of the drums and the sweet aroma of bannock, elegantly laid out on long, marble buffet tables, adorned with Saskatoon berries and fall foliage. We were ready, greeting our colleagues and ushering them to tables to meet their hosts. By start time, it was standing room only. The energy and enthusiasm in the room was palpable. Large screens scrolled photos of the First Nations Princesses in front of world icons – the Sydney Opera House, the Pyramids, the Eiffel Tower. Bright colours and pageantry created a sense of celebration. The air was electric as guests engaged in conversations about colonization and reconciliation, bringing their own unique perspectives to the dialogue.

The formal program was short but impactful. The land acknowledgement took the form of a dynamic video, with a commentary by Mary on the Rozsa Foundation’s role in making this creative option accessible to all. Kara represented the sponsors and spoke eloquently about the role of the industry. The IWF international and national presidents took the stage to deliver, emotionally, their pride in hosting this first and hopefully not last acknowledgement of the role of the country’s first and founding Nations. And Dr. Jamieson held the audience spellbound with a riveting address on the urgency and realities of reconciliation, here in Canada and around the globe. To close, Falon took the stage to perform a dance, her feet like feathers gliding effortlessly to the beat of the drums and Indigenous vocables. 

Powerful Response

We were overwhelmed with the positive response and proud that our national sisterhood, comprised mostly of members from the dominant culture, and our Indigenous sisters, had embraced and supported this ground breaking initiative. Equally important to Mary and me, we demonstrated how art, visuals, food, music, and dance were powerful communication vehicles and transformative tools that provide a common language to bridge complex divides and pave a path to reconciliation.

(For Part 1 of this article, go HERE)

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Turning tragedy into opportunity was at the heart of Breaking the Fast. In 2001, immediately following 911, as the Western Director of the Canadian Unity Council, we responded to this event by designing an opportunity for Calgarians from all faiths to come together to explore the challenges and opportunities arising from this tragic event. Leveraging the timing, symbols and experiential methods, we broadened perspectives, addressed fears and established foundations upon which to build a more inclusive community. 

Imagine being invited to participate in an all-expense paid, four week tour of the United States as a guest of their US State Department’s Visitors Program. I would get to choose six cities to visit and request meetings with individuals and groups that would help inform my body of work with the Canadian Unity Council. On September 11, my bags were packed, as I was scheduled to depart on September 12, on a flight from Calgary with a connection in Toronto.

It was the opportunity of lifetime which on that fateful morning got cancelled and then re-instated provided I could get myself to Washington. The first stop, New York, had been struck from the original itinerary as all flights to the big apple had been cancelled until further notice. 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 a 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 might 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 350 influencers from all sectors – education, non-profit, law, policing, business, and 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.

The result? Smaller groups continued to convene to address specific issues and a second dinner was organized for 2002. The initiative was perceived as a ground breaker and the model was repeated in Vancouver with the UBC Museum of Anthropology as a partner.


Full report: Breaking the Fast 

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We piloted Crossroads in 2000 in Calgary and due to its success, reproduced it 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. Our cross-cultural committee was 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. Would we do something with name tags? Play a game? We wanted to create an interactive activity that would establish trust and encourage the women to get to know each other, and one that would establish a theme that could be carried through the weekend and beyond.  We landed on “talking sticks” – a symbolic branch decorating activity. 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 the middle of the floor was a basket with a number of branches from a fruit bearing tree, 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. We would use a talking stick in sharing circles throughout our sessions.

Carol also spoke of the strength of the group versus the individual by demonstrating how easy it is to break one stick, but if you hold five or six in a bundle, it becomes impossible. She spoke to the symbolism of uniqueness (each being different), of strength (all together, they couldn’t be broken), of womanhood (fruit-bearing trees), and of community (part of a whole).  The branches united the women during the weekend and continue to serve as a reminder of their personal and group commitment after the event, a memento of our learnings.

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, and take it home as a memento of our learnings.

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.


Full report on the conference:Crossroads 2000 

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