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Between The Rows

Reconciling the truth

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This week is a special edition of Between the Rows focused on Reconciliation. Urban Indigenous writer Shelley Cook shares what visiting an ‘Every Child Matters’ corn maze meant to her and her children; and, professor and writer Roger Epp talks about how farmers choosing to share the land with Indigenous people has made him hopeful. Hosted by Ed White.

Read the full transcript of this episode

Ed White: [00:00:05] Hello and welcome to a special edition of Between the Rows . I’m Ed White. This week, we, like millions of Canadians, are pondering the issue of reconciliation since the work, the findings and the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. People across the country have been thinking about how to help reconciliation take place between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. Farmers are in a unique position, living in rural areas often close to First Nations and other indigenous communities, but in many cases having little interaction with those nearby communities. If there’s anywhere that reconciliation could have a real, tangible impact on lives, it’s in the countryside. That’s why Glacier Farm Media Publications have an array of stories about indigenous agriculture online, which you can find at any of the GFM sites. Just look for the Orange banner. Today, we’ll hear from a long-time advocate of reconciliation about a recent event that has given him hope and optimism about the way forward.

Speaker2: [00:01:19] You had farmers and ranchers sitting in a circle on the grass, listening to a cree elder accepting the authority of a Cree elder as he talked about protocol, then passing the pipe around that circle.

Ed White: [00:01:39] But first, corn mazes, there are common sight in autumn and going through them is a common activity for many Canadian families. For most people, they’re just an afternoon of fun. For indigenous writer Shelley Cook, a visit to a corn maze had a deeper meaning.

Shelley Cook: [00:01:58] Hi, my name is Shelley Cook. I’m a columnist and the manager of the Reader Bridge at the Winnipeg Free Press. I’m also a freelance writer. I’m from Broken Head Ojibway Nation on Treaty one. I was asked to go to the Deer Meadow Farms, Every Child Matters and Turtle Island Corn Maze. So I packed up my kids and my partner, and we drove out there and we experienced it. And this is my story. It’s hard to describe the feeling of wandering through the Deer Meadow farms, every child matters and Turtle Island corn mazes to be completely candid, it was humbling to walk along the pathways of this monument for people like my grandmother, Annie Prince Cook, the older sister to decorated war hero Sergeant Tommy Prince and a residential school survivor. It was humbling to tread through the paths of this maze because it felt sacred and meaningful and offering a validation and reconciliation. For so many years, they were forgotten and they didn’t matter. Or at least that’s what they believed. Some children never made it home, and many of the children who survived these schools grew up, lived complex lives rooted in trauma and died, never knowing that they or their suffering they endured would ever matter or be recognized. Walking through the short, drought ridden rows of corn on a warm Sunday afternoon while listening to the sound of my kids chasing one another through the wrestling stocks laughing and screaming and excitement felt like a moment of validation for people like my grandmother in all her life.

Shelley Cook: [00:03:32] She didn’t get a chance to witness a reckoning or a nation coming to terms with what the Canadian government did to her and the estimated one hundred and fifty thousand First Nation Inuit and Metis children who attended residential schools in the middle of the every child matters corn maze the heart. There’s a sign that reads This maze is to remind us that our children matter. It’s a tribute to every child that was taken from their home and separated from their family. Stripped of their culture and identity. Victimized by those in authority. And treated like second class citizens in what is supposed to be one of the greatest countries in the world to live in and to be a safe place to live in. After the discovery of the unmarked graves of the two hundred and fifteen children on the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School and to Kamloops Misquaking First Nation last June, the nation shuddered and let out a collective gasp. Canada’s barbaric and racist legacy that is the residential school system was glaringly obvious as the remains of the children were being discovered.

Shelley Cook: [00:04:38] Canada’s barbaric and racist legacy that is the residential school system was glaringly obvious as the remains of the children were being discovered. Corn holds a significant meaning for indigenous people. Farming and agriculture were a way of life. The plant has historically not only had a practical meaning in use to feed and nourish. It also had a spiritual meaning and teaching the Ojibwe word for corn is Mandamin. The legend of Mandamin is that he was a spirit man, the spirit of corn who sacrificed himself for the Ojibwe people. Mandamin is a gift from creator. So the Ojibwe people did not have to depend on the hunt and the waters alone for food. I didn’t grow up learning about my culture or any of the teachings of our people. I didn’t practice our traditions or even know where I came from. My grandmother, Annie, died when I was a baby. I have a handful of old photographs of her and as an old woman cradling me as a baby. But that’s it. Our lives touched briefly before they ended. And yet I have this profound sense of love and loss for her. But I’m learning now, and I’m sharing her name and her story and what I know of it because it’s important and she mattered.

Ed White: [00:06:02] That was Shelly Cook in southern Manitoba, the heart of Treaty one territory. This is Between the Rows. Next, we’re going to have a conversation with a man who has thought deeply about how indigenous and non-Indigenous people can begin coming closer together. There may have been traditionally happening. Farmers farm and live on their land. Many indigenous people live on reserves or in town, but there often isn’t much sharing between the populations, especially with land. Some farmers are trying to change that, and I spoke with the University of Alberta’s Roger Epp about this. He’s a political science professor who is often focused on notions of rural reconciliation, including with his 2008 book. We Are All Treaty People. Here’s our conversation.

Ed White: [00:06:57] Hello, Professor Epp, welcome to the show.

Roger Epp: [00:06:58] Thank you. It’s great to be here.

Ed White: [00:07:01] So you’ve recently written a piece that’s going to be running in the Glacier Farm Media Publications, and it’s about an event and sort of a movement that you have been out to witness and participate in, which is actually given you both hope and optimism for the interaction of indigenous and settler farming communities in rural western Canada. So I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about what it was you’ve witnessed and what your thoughts were upon this?

Roger Epp: [00:07:33] Sure. So I should start by saying I’m not indigenous and I can’t, don’t want to speak for indigenous peoples. I am not really rural. If you take my postal code as evidence. Although I grew up in rural Saskatchewan and count, I don’t know, count myself as a rural person in terms of formation and maybe the way I think some of the time.  Family history, for sure, I’ve got four generations buried in, you know, in Treaty six territory in one country cemetery. So I have been interested in, what strikes me is the toughest, toughest rural question of all. The one that is most likely to get the hackles up quickest, which is to say that relationship with indigenous peoples. You mentioned land treaty and indigenous in the same sentence and you get all kinds of instant defensiveness. And certainly, rural Saskatchewan has known some of that in a really intense way, but it’s really prairies wide in the months that followed the shooting of a young Cree man on a farm in west central Saskatchewan. The trial and the acquittal of the farmer, all the social media posts the farmers with firearms Facebook group, the anti-trespass laws that got passed quickly in the Saskatchewan Legislature. All of that so intense.

Roger Epp: [00:09:09] Well, defensiveness fear. Two solitudes. And so you can draw that picture really easily. And my I guess my point is that it’s dangerous, but it’s also wrong. To suggest or assume that that’s the only reality that’s possible in the countryside. And so I have been paying attention and more recently again. To instances that that seemed to run against the grain that don’t fit the stereotype. And so in, this is a very long way of getting around to your question, but in in July. In in the midst of all of that, there was a the first public launch of the Treaty Land Sharing Network. Now I’m not going to speak for the treaty land sharing network either. Some really smart, articulate people and persistent people at the core of that small organization. But there we were on a hot, hot day in in in July, and you had farmers and ranchers sitting in a circle on the grass, listening to a cree elder accepting the authority of a cree elder as he talked about protocol, then passing the pipe around that circle. And there was lots more talk during the day, but one of the things the really concrete things that happened was that farmers took signs home and they took them home to points all across the province.

Roger Epp: [00:10:48] And those signs said treaty land sharing network Indigenous users welcome and then a space for the for a phone number. And so this was they took them home to post on fence lines, not sure what kind of reactions they would get, knowing they would get some reactions, but kind of saying. We don’t want that other version of our province to be the one that prevails. We don’t want it to go unanswered. And here’s what we’re doing. For some of them, this is a way of becoming public with Practices that have been part of their own way of living for a long time. For others, this will be a very new and public act. But a really important kind of counter initiative to say, OK, let’s take treaty seriously and not get defensive about it. What’s the core of treaty? It sounds like sharing and mutual support and land and access to land is key to that. So whether it’s land for hunting, land for medicinal plants, berries, deadfall for ceremony, sometimes all those uses. And so it’s this is an initiative. It’s small. Be interesting to see what kind of momentum it might gather. But it is something it is a countryside that doesn’t fit the stereotype.

Ed White: [00:12:23] So here’s a very practical and pragmatic way that people can share land. Find a way to do it without fear of each other, without skepticism. There’s a way to communicate and share right out there in real western Canada.

Roger Epp: [00:12:43] Yeah, I think the word practical is a really important one for people who say, I want to do something. But I don’t know what to do, And I, Well, I had one farmer say to me later. He wanted to take the danger out of sharing, because sharing is what treaty people do. So. Lots of this is going to get negotiated on the ground. But it that sense of having something practical to do and especially. Well, in places I grew up in in the prairie grain belt, where has a title of a recent book, calls it the plains had been cleared. They were not indigenous communities nearby. As if to say this is not where you belong. And here are farmers, some of them in that grain belt saying, actually, we know better and we know from our land better.

Ed White: [00:13:52] And what I thought was interesting with in your piece was you were encouraging people to not be waiting for the government to come and set this up for them. You didn’t like the idea of a top down government run program. You liked what you saw on the ground in in a real community.

Roger Epp:: [00:14:13] I think again, let’s call it reconciliation well or what the TRC called a new way of living together. At some level, you can’t pass that off to the national government, a national government can get in the way. It can make things easier or harder. Absolutely not like there’s nothing to do. But. It’s most meaningful, and it’s most important and most urgent, I think, at a more local level and a more relational level. So there’s no reconciliation by proxy.

Ed White: [00:14:52] And, you know, over the years, you’ve studied this area over the years and have there been other attempts to cross this divide or as have been one that most people have really tried to shy away from because it’s very fraught with a lot of stress, as you’ve pointed out on on, on on, you know, if you could call it both sides, but there’s a lot of stress all around these issues of land and sharing and ownership and being neighbors, but also being divided.

Roger Epp: [00:15:25] A really good story in Saskatchewan, and I’m sure readers of farm publications have from time to time seen reference to it, the film Reserve 107 captures it really well. So this is north of Saskatoon, in a rural area that had been allocated for the young Chipewyan Band under Treaty six. They here’s where they well, they in that transition out of the buffalo economy and everything else going on in the late 19th century. They may not have occupied that land in the way that the federal government decided was occupation, but the federal government then at that point dispersed the band opened the land to settlement and. I remember this in the 70s farmers being afraid because these young cree guys had come onto their land in trucks saying, this is our land. And farmers are saying what no one told us, we thought that was all taken care of. And of course, the fear factor escalates, but over time. The relationship in that part of the province has been transformed so that that young Chipewyan descendants and descendants of those former ancestors have had a ceremony together up on the The Hill, where there is also a Lutheran cemetery, there was a gathering there this summer, I gather to renew that that relationship. So Reserve 107 is a spectacular film that again raises it. Well, it does two things. It says. This can happen on the Prairies. Where people can come to a different relationship. Right now, some of those people are continuing to raise funds to settle the young Chipewyan land claim. But it also raises the question, if it can happen there, why can’t it happen in lots of places? Which I think is is the challenge.

Ed White: [00:17:28] And if someone you know, hearing this or reading about this wanted to begin organizing some sort of a bridging relationship in their local area in their very real rural local area, would you have any advice on how they would go about doing that, thinking it up and making it start happening?

Roger Epp: [00:17:54] It’s a good question. Part of the challenge, you see this in in in areas where. We saw it up Highway four in Saskatchewan with with that farm yard shooting. What happens after is the proof that there is not much connective tissue between communities. To find a way to deal with the aftermath. So how to start that relationship there? Well, in Saskatchewan, I know the Treaty Commissioner’s Office. Has is supporting regional groups interesting, often it is women who take the settler, women who take the leadership on their side in bringing those groups together. But there are a number of regional groups now which might constitute a maybe a safe place to have an initial meeting just because people may not know each other, I think there are communities where people do actually know each other or some of them. There are some connections. But to be intentional about building on those and saying it’s important for us to get this relationship right, we better get the relationship right because in some ways our community might depend on it.

Ed White: [00:19:27] And Professor Epp, you’ve been studying this for a couple of decades, you’ve published books on this. You’ve thought about it a lot. There’s been a lot of fraught feelings, a lot of tension. There’s been violence out there. There’s been struggle and ill feelings all around. Why do you think after all this time and looking at it in such a granular way, you’re still hopeful and optimistic?

Roger Epp: [00:19:57] Well. Hopeful and optimistic. A little. It’s as much a sense that this is really urgent now, urgent in a number of ways, I think it’s urgent for the relationship to get better for rural people to actually take up the challenge of a new way of living together and not pretend that somehow they get exempted from it. So real challenge, real urgency, but also the urgency that says. If there can’t be land based reconciliation now. That question of what the next generation on the Prairies looks like, who owns the land, who farms it? Is that’s a daunting question in its own way. And that prospect of a whole lot of three and four generations that there are people actually being displaced as well. By a different kind of economy is a worry that’s out there. It’s it’s just beneath the surface in lots of places. So I think the time for achieving land based reconciliation and seeing where that might go in a different way than simply the logic of a of a of a different economy. This is the time.

Ed White: [00:21:19] Well, thank you very much, professor up for sharing these thoughts, this perspective with us and for taking to the pen. That’s right it up as well for our various publications. It’s certainly a topical idea of the time, and you’ve certainly taken a fresh, look at it. So thank you very much for that and for coming on the program today.

Roger Epp: [00:21:40] Very welcome. Thanks for taking this on.

Ed White: [00:21:43] Roger Epp is a professor with the University of Alberta.

Ed White: [00:21:53] To read what Roger has written for us about this. You can look in Glacier Farm Media publications or go online to our websites. You’ll also find they’re under an orange banner. More stories about indigenous people and agriculture. Reconciliation is one of the most critical issues of our times, and certainly for farmers and others in rural Canada. We hope you found something to think about in this week’s special edition of Between the Rows. Please join us again next week for a regular episode. I’m Ed White and it was my pleasure to be your host this week.

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