By Mitchell Kedrosky
Ottawa City Hall was more lively than usual during the first week of November, its halls flourishing with indigenous storytelling, song, dance and craftsmanship.
A five-day cultural expo organized by the First Nations Confederacy of Cultural Education Centres aimed to teach about the past and present of Indigenous affairs in Canada, and promote cultural awareness.
The event was funded in part by the federal Department of Canadian Heritage.
“We are teaching what the history books got wrong,” said FNCCEC executive director Claudette Commanda, a University of Ottawa law professor who was recently named the U of O’s first-ever Indigenous elder-in-residence.
Commanda is a prominent Algonquin leader and activist from the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation near Maniwaki, Que., about 130 kilometres north of Gatineau.
“We are teaching Canadians the first history, the first people, and the first languages of this land called Canada. We are telling our story through our culture.”
The expo shed light on issues that the indigenous community faces today, including the preservation of ancestral languages. Over the last 40 years the FNCCEC — a national non-profit organization — has worked to preserve and revive traditional Indigenous languages across Canada.
On the event’s closing day Nov. 5, linguists and other guest speakers talked about the importance of saving these threatened languages.
“Ethnocide was the devouring and killing of our languages through the residential school system.” said Chief Morris Swan-Shannacappo, of the Manitoba’s Rolling River First Nation, an Ojibway community 200 kilometeres northwest of Winnipeg. “It’s the language that passed on this culture, it’s the song that gave me my culture. Through the loss of language, we lose our history.”
Swan-Schannacappo went on to talk about budget cuts by the previous federal Conservative government that had impaired efforts to preserve Indigenous languages. He also praised the current Liberal government’s funding pledges to help preserve and revitalize Indigenous languages.
Though the expo was largely focused on youth, a diverse mix of people came to see the featured presentations.
“I was surprised to meet so many new Canadians coming to the expo,” said Swan-Schannacappo. “There were many people who have immigrated from far away places that were very interested in the story, culture, and languages of my people.”
Brendan Zhang, a Chinese student studying in Ottawa, said: “I learned a lot today about Canada and the Indigenous people. It was a great history lesson.”
Many other important issues were addressed at the expo. Environmentalists came to speak about climate change, and how it is destructive to the land that is central to the beliefs of Indigenous people.
Swan-Schannacappo talked about the child welfare crisis in Manitoba, and how it is institutionally damaging the Indigenous youth.
“The Creator put us on the Earth with a set of rules. To fix all of the problems in the world today we as people have to go back to the first rule, which is love,” said Swan-Shannacappo.
The FNCCEC has plans to continue to educate Canadians about Indigenous heritage, said Swan-Shannacappo. Because of the success of the Ottawa event, he said he expects the expo to travel to more communities, reaching other Canadians around the country.