Gathering Theme: Indigenous Spiritualities


Indigenous Spiritualities


1. Opening for all gatherings

2. Introduction of the theme by Facilitator

Indigenous Spiritualities

The Circle of Life

“You have noticed that everything an Indigenous person does is in a circle, and that is because the Power of the World always works in circles, and everything tries to be round. In the old days, when we were a strong and happy people, all our power came to us from the sacred hoop of the nation and so long as the hoop was unbroken, the people flourished.”

Today we will focus on Indigenous Spiritualities, which includes both sacred ceremonies and sacred items. It should be noted that the various spiritual beliefs and sacred items and ceremonies vary according to different tribal groups across Canada. We have selectively chosen some to reflect the depth of indigenous spiritualities.

“The flowering tree was the living centre of the hoop, and the circle of the four quarters nourished it. The East gave peace and light, the South gave warmth, The West gave rain and the North, with its cold and mighty wind gave strength and endurance. This knowledge came to us from the outer world with our religion. Everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle. The sky is round and I have heard the earth is round like a ball and so are the stars. The Wind, in its greatest power whirls. Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours. The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon does the same and both are round. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing and always come back again to where they were. The life of man is a circle from childhood to childhood and so it is in everything where power moves. Our Teepees were round like the nests of birds and these were always set in a circle, the nation ‘s hoop, a nest of many nests where the Great Spirit meant for us to hatch our children. “


Native spiritual life is founded on a belief in the fundamental inter-connectedness of all natural things, all forms of life with primary importance being attached to Mother Earth.


Ceremonies are the primary vehicles of religious expression. A ceremonial leader or Elder assures authenticity and integrity of religious observances. Elders may be either men or women. Their most distinguishing characteristic is wisdom which relates directly to experience and age. There are exceptions. Elders need not be “old”. Sometimes the spirit of the Great Creator chooses to imbue a young native.


Pipes are used during both private and group ceremonies, the prayer itself being wafted through the smoke of the burning plant material. Pipes are of no set length. Some stems may or may not be decorated with beads or leather. Bowls may be of wood, soapstone, inlaid or carved in the form of various totemic power animals (an eagle with folded wings) or another sacred animal.

The pipe is never a “personal possession”. It belongs to the community. While every native has the right to hold the pipe, in practice, the privilege must be earned in some religious way.

Pipe Ceremony

Pipe ceremonies constitute the primary group gatherings over which Elders preside. Participants gather in a circle. A braid of sweetgrass (one of four sacred plants) is lit and burnt as an incense to purify worshippers, before the pipe is lit. Burning sweetgrass also symbolizes unity, the coming together of many hearts and minds as one person.

The Elder strikes a match, puts it to the end of the sweetgrass braid and fans the smouldering grass with an eagle’s feather. The Elder then goes from person to person in the circle where the smoke is drawn four times by hand gestures toward the head and down the body.

The Elder then places tobacco in the pipe and offers it in the four sacred directions of the compass. Spirits will be asked for assistance in the main prayer, which may be specifically for one individual, a participant in the circle or for someone far away or someone who has passed over. The pipe, passed from person to person in the circle, might be offered to all creation, to those invisible spirit helpers who are always there to guide humanity.

Sweat Lodges

Used mainly for communal prayer purposes, the Sweat Lodge may also provide necessary ceremonial settings for spiritual healing, purification, as well as fasting. Most fasts require a sweat ceremony before and after the event.

Lodge construction varies from tribe to tribe. Generally, it is an igloo-shaped structure about five feet high, built from bent willow branches tied together with twine. The structure is then encased in blankets to preclude all light. A maximum of eight participants gather in the dark.

In the centre, there is a holy, consecrated virginal section of ground (untrampled by feet and untouched by waste material) blessed by an Elder with tobacco and sweetgrass. There, red hot stones heated in a fire outside the lodge are brought in and doused with water. A doorkeeper on the outside opens the lodge door four times, contributing four additional hot rocks (representing the four sacred directions) to the centre. A prepared pipe is also brought in.


Drums represent the heartbeat of the nation, the pulse of the universe. Different sizes are used depending on ceremonial purposes. Drums are sacred objects. Each drum has a keeper to ensure no-one approaches it under the influence of alcohol or drugs. During ceremonies, no one may reach across it or place extraneous objects on it.

Herbs / Incense

Sweetgrass, sage, cedar and tobacco encompass the four sacred plants. Burning these is a sign of deep spirituality in Native practices. Cedar and sage are burned to drive out negative forces when prayer is offered. Sweetgrass, which signifies kindness, is burned to invite good spirits to enter. Participants also use these purification rituals to smudge regalia, drums and other articles before taking part in a pow-wow.

Medicine Pouches

Prescribed by an Elder, plant material can also be worn in a medicine pouch by a person seeking the mercy and protection of the spirits of the Four Directions. Elders caution Natives not to conceal any other substances in their pouches. To do so would make a mockery of their beliefs.

Once the Medicine Bundle has been touched by someone other than its designated guardian, it can no longer be used in its uncleansed condition. The custodian must again perform purification rites to restore the Bundle’s sacredness. Male law enforcement officers may conduct a search of someone wearing these without incident if they ask the wearer to open the bundle. If the person is genuine, then the request will be granted. The spirituality of the bundle is only violated if it is touched or opened without the carrier’s permission

Ceremonial Rituals


Some say the name is derived from the Algonkian word meaning “to dream”. Pow-wow an ancient tradition among aboriginal peoples, is a time for celebrating and socializing after religious ceremonies. In some cultures, the pow-wow itself was a religious event, when families held naming and honouring ceremonies.


For instance, a family celebrating a member’s formal entry into the dance circle, or wishing to commemorate the death of a loved one, often hosts a giveaway during a pow-wow. This tradition embodies the value of sharing with others.

Today’s pow-wow is more of a social event, although honour ceremonies and other religious observances remain important parts of the celebration. Elders say that coming together in dancing, feasting and having fun is an important unifying and healing experience which brings together many nations in a celebration of life.

Eagle Staff

The Eagle Staff is an important symbol to many North American tribes. The eagle represents the Thunderbird spirits of the supernatural world who care for the inhabitants of our physical world. Qualities such as farsightedness, strength, speed, beauty and kindness are attributed to the eagle, which never kills wantonly, only to feed itself and its family. The Eagle Staff symbolizes reverence for the Creator and all of life


Any significant event is initiated with words of prayer by a respected Elder. Traditionally, First Nations never had “priests” as such but rather spiritual leaders. They are often offered tobacco with a request for prayer indicating respect and honour for that person and the higher power.

These are just a few of the sacred rituals and objects which we hope will inspire respect for Indigenous spirituality.

3.    Talking Circle

4.    Determination of theme for next meeting and reader

5.    Closing for all gatherings

Gathering Theme: Intergenerational Trauma


Intergenerational Trauma

“Coming for all of the children for over 120 years”  

1. Opening for all gatherings.

2. Introduction of the theme by Facilitator

The accumulation of traumatic experiences endured by residential school survivors as well as many others in the Indigenous communities have been called “soul wounds.” It is impossible in 10 or 15 minutes to describe adequately all these wounds. We invite you to visit the ‘resources” section of our website, where you can access and reflect upon the 16 page document entitled: “The soul wounds of the Anishinabeh people; the psychological and intergenerational impacts of the Indian Residential school,” prepared by the Union of Ontario Indians.     

Yellow Horse Brave Heart (1999), the first to apply the term historic trauma to Indigenous people, describes it as follows:

With the break-up of the extended family, many indigenous women found they had no role models to teach them parenting skills. As many Native people were raised in boarding schools, the traditional roles and ways of parenting by both Native men and women were lost. The attitudes and norms, which then sprang up in parenting styles, such as harsh physical punishment, emotional abandonment, lack of parental involvement, and insensitivity to children’s needs added to imbalance in the family. As generations continued with these ways of parenting, the trauma was passed down until many believe it has become a cycle of despair and desperation (1999:70).

Current conditions such as the disproportionate apprehension of Aboriginal children by child-welfare agencies and the disproportionate imprisonment and victimization of Aboriginal people can be explained in part as a result or legacy of the way that Aboriginal children were treated in residential schools and were denied an environment of positive parenting, worthy community leaders, and a positive sense of identity and self-worth. When current traumas such as racism and discrimination are added, they perpetuate colonialism. This interaction of historic trauma and current traumas is sometimes called colonial trauma response.

So the impacts of the legacy of residential schools have not ended with those who attended the schools. They affected the Survivors’ partners, their children, their grandchildren, their extended families, and their communities. Children who were abused in the schools sometimes went on to abuse others. Many students who spoke to the Commission said they developed addictions as a means of coping. Students who were treated and punished like prisoners in the schools often graduated to real prisons. For many, the path from residential school to prison was a short one.

Children exposed to strict and regimented discipline in the schools sometimes found it difficult to become loving parents. Genine Paul-Dimitracopoulos’s mother was placed in the Shubenacadie residential school in Nova Scotia at a very early age. She told the Commission that knowing this, and what the school was like, helped her understand “how we grew up because my mom never really showed us love when we were kids coming up. She, when I was hurt or cried, she was never there to console you or to hug you. If I hurt myself she would never give me a hug and tell me it would be okay. I didn’t understand why.” Alma Scott of Winnipeg told the Commission that as “a direct result of those residential schools because I was a dysfunctional mother.… I spent over twenty years of my life stuck in a bottle in an addiction where I didn’t want to feel any emotions so I numbed out with drugs and with alcohol…. That’s how I raised my children, that’s what my children saw, and that’s what I saw.”

In the words of the Commission, genuine reconciliation will not be possible until the complex legacy of the schools is understood, acknowledged, and addressed. Parliament and the Supreme Court have recognized that the legacy of residential schools should be considered when sentencing Aboriginal offenders. Although these have been important measures, they have not been sufficient to address the grossly disproportionate imprisonment of Aboriginal people, which continues to grow, in part because of a lack of adequate funding and support for culturally appropriate alternatives to imprisonment. Honouring the Truth, pp. 135-136

Transmission of trauma always takes place in a social environment, which is assumed to have a major impact on children. It is true that Aboriginal children of today did not witness the death, terror and suffering of their ancestors. However, it is also true that many of them witnessed rampant domestic abuse, alcoholism and drug addiction of their parents who witnessed the lack of self-esteem and unresolved grief of their parents. According to Kellermann (2000), traumatized parents influence their children not only through what they do to them, in terms of actual child-rearing behaviour, but also through inadequate role modelling. As pointed out by Bandura (1977), children learn things vicariously by observing and imitating their parents. Children of traumatized parents may be assumed to have taken upon themselves some of the behaviours and emotional states of their parents. This matrix of unhealthy family relations frames the process of memory transmission and locates this social phenomenon on an individual level, thus affecting every person in Aboriginal communities and beyond. This is how universal trauma enters the lives of individuals. Chapter 3, page 76

To recapitulate: trauma transmission: the traumatic memories are passed to next generations through different channels, including biological (in hereditary predispositions to PTSD), cultural (through story-telling, culturally sanctioned behaviours), social (through inadequate parenting, lateral violence, acting out of abuse), and psychological (through memory processes) channels. The complexity of the transmission process, as well as the complexity of the “image of loss” that is being passed on, must be recognized in order to fully understand why unresolved grief and the residue of despair are still present in the Aboriginal people’s collective psyche. Ch. 3 p. 76

However, this healing process is long and tedious. Fragmented souls do not heal in a year. There is no quick, efficient band-aid-like remedy to correct extensive damages that have been perpetuated for so many years and, in the instance of Aboriginal people, generation after generation. After centuries of depersonalization, isolation from a sound culture and social milieu, with the group identity removed, all previous ideals and beliefs destroyed or stolen and being objects of ruthless exploitation, Aboriginal people became extremely vulnerable and almost naked in the face of their powerful oppressors. Being treated with utmost contempt and derision and being brutally stripped of every reminder of their previous cultural identity and their predictable social environment, they lost their strength as a people and as individuals. The almost complete destruction of their social context and their social identity left them unbearably anxious, tremendously uncertain and miserably subject to a new and uncertain world.

One must always remember that, in past centuries of mortal terror, the Aboriginal people’s intra-social structure was shattered.  Page 79

The trauma of residential schools was not the only indignity suffered by Indigenous people in Canada. They also endured the loss of territory, language, culture and heritage, children and far too many women and men to murder and suicide. Their Indigenous  governments and economies were disrupted, their spirituality distained. The intergenerational trauma continues. Adoptions outside the culture, pervasive foster care, often without concern for the cultures, and inordinate rates of incarceration perpetuate the trauma. Government policies, accepted by Canadians, have allowed poverty, poor educational opportunities, and poor health, polluted water and inadequate housing to dominate in many of their communities. The low self esteem that resulted has contributed to alcoholism, drug use and suicide.

But the story is not all doom and gloom. The commission affirms: The Survivors are extraordinary people; If theirs is a story of pain, loneliness away from their families, suffering and abuse, it is also a story of extraordinary courage, resilience and endurance. It is they who have not allowed us “to kill the Indian in the child” to quote the words recalled by The Prime Minister in his formal apology. Over 6,750 people gave recorded statements to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. They are the ones who have demanded that we face our history. Truth about our history comes before reconciliation.  If we listen, we will hear that they are generous in their forgiving, they are wise in their judgements, they are hopeful in the future.

3.    Talking Circle

4.    Determination of theme for next meeting and reader

5.    Closing for all gatherings


Major sources for this theme:

Historic trauma and aboriginal healing,  prepared for the aboriginal healing foundation, by Cynthia c. Wesley-Esquimaux, Ph.D., Magdalena Smolewski, Ph.D.

Aboriginal peoples and historic trauma: the processes of intergenerational transmission, by William Aguiar and Regine Halseth, National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health

Reconciliation: a spiritual process, by Maggie Hodgson

Intervention to address intergenerational trauma: overcoming, resisting and preventing structural violence, University of Calgary

Andrew Woolford, This Benevolent Experiment, Indigenous boarding schools, genocide and redress in Canada and the United States.  University of Manitoba Press, 2015.


Gathering Theme: Residential Schools


Residential Schools

“My father was raised by people who didn’t love him…” Wab Kinew, “The Reason you Walk”  

1. Opening for all gatherings.

2. Introduction of the theme by Facilitator

There is a separate volume published by the TRC, entitled “The Survivors Speak.” We encourage you to read it. Thirty different dimensions of school life are addressed. The full publication is available online here.

(What follows is an edited excerpt from Honouring the Truth, Reconciling the Future, “The History,” pages 36-43)

It can start with a knock on the door one morning. It is the local Indian agent, or the parish priest, or, perhaps, a Mounted Police officer. The bus for residential school leaves that morning. It is a day the parents have long been dreading. Even if the children have been warned in advance, the morning’s events are still a shock. The officials have arrived and the children must go.

For tens of thousands of Aboriginal children for over a century, this was the beginning of their residential schooling. They were torn from their parents, who often surrendered them only under threat of prosecution. Then, they were hurled into a strange and frightening place, one in which their parents and culture would be demeaned and oppressed.

For Frederick Ernest Koe,  “And I didn’t get to say goodbye to my dad or my brother Allan, didn’t get to pet my dogs or nothing.” (1) Larry Beardy travelled by train from Churchill, Manitoba, to the Anglican residential school in Dauphin, Manitoba—a journey of 1,200 kilometres. As soon as they realized that they were leaving their parents behind, the younger children started crying.

At every stop the train took on more children and they would start to cry as well. “That train I want to call that train of tears.” Florence Horassi was taken to the Fort Providence, Northwest Territories, school in a small airplane. “When the plane took off, there’s about six or five older ones, didn’t cry, but I saw tears come right out of their eyes. Everybody else was crying. There’s a whole plane crying. I wanted to cry, too, ’cause my brother was crying, but I held my tears back and held him.”

The arrival at school was often even more traumatizing than the departure from home or the journey.

Nellie Ningewance went to the Sioux Lookout, Ontario, school in the 1950s and 1960s. “When we arrived we had to register that we had arrived, then they took us to cut our hair.” Bernice Jacks became very frightened when her hair was cut on her arrival. “I could see my hair falling. And I couldn’t do nothing. And I was so afraid my mom … I wasn’t thinking about myself. I was thinking about Mom. I say, ‘Mom’s gonna be really mad. And June is gonna be angry. And it’s gonna be my fault.’”

Campbell Papequash (says) “And after I was taken there they took off my clothes and then they deloused me. I didn’t know what was happening but I learned about it later, that they were delousing me; ‘the dirty, no-good-for-nothing savages, lousy.’”

Archie Hyacinthe compared the experience (of going to the school) to that of being captured and taken into captivity. “That’s when the trauma started for me, being separated from my sister, from my parents, and from our, our home. We were no longer free. It was like being, you know, taken to a strange land, even though it was our, our, our land, as I understood later on.” When she first went to the Amos, Québec, school, Margo Wylde could not speak any French. “I said to myself, ‘How am I going to express myself? How will I make people understand what I’m saying?’ And I wanted to find my sisters to ask them to come and get me. You know it’s sad to say, but I felt I was a captive.”

On their arrival at residential school, students often were required to exchange the clothes they were wearing for school-supplied clothing. This could mean the loss of homemade clothing that was of particular value and meaning to them. When Wilbur Abrahams’ mother sent him to the Alert Bay school in British Columbia, she outfitted him in brand-new clothes. When he arrived at the school, he was told to hand in this outfit in exchange for school clothing. “That was the last time I saw my new clothes. Dare not ask questions.” Martin Nicholas went to the Pine Creek, Manitoba school. “My mom had prepared me in Native clothing. She had made me a buckskin jacket, beaded with fringes.… And my mom did beautiful work, and I was really proud of my clothes. And when I got to residential school, that first day I remember, they stripped us of our clothes.”   On her arrival at the Presbyterian school in Kenora, Ontario, Lorna Morgan was wearing “these nice little beaded moccasins that my grandma had made me to wear for school, and I was very proud of them.” She said they were taken from her and thrown in the garbage.

Gilles Petiquay was shocked by the fact that each student was assigned a number. “I remember that the first number that I had at the residential school was 95. I had that number—95—for a year. The second number was number 4. I had it for a longer period of time. The third number was 56. I also kept it for a long time. We walked with the numbers on us.”

Older brothers were separated from younger brothers, older sisters were separated from younger sisters, and brothers and sisters were separated from each other. Wilbur Abrahams climbed up the steps to the Alert Bay school behind his sisters and started following them to the girls’ side of the school. Then, he felt a staff member pulling him by the ear, telling him to turn the other way. “I have always believed that, I think at that particular moment, my spirit left.”

When Peter Ross was enrolled at the Immaculate Conception school in Aklavik, Northwest Territories, it was the first time he had ever been parted from his sisters. He said that in all the time he was at the school, he was able to speak with them only at Christmas and on Catholic feast days. Daniel Nanooch recalled that he talked with his sister only four times a year at the Wabasca, Alberta, school. “They had a fence in the playground. Nobody was allowed near the fence.

The only reason Bernice Jacks had wanted to go to residential school was to be with her older sister. But once she was there, she discovered they were to sleep in separate dormitories. On the occasions when she slipped into the older girls’ dormitory and crawled into her sister’s bed, her sister scolded her and sent her away: “My sister never talked to me like that before.” Bernard Catcheway said that even though he and his sister were both attending the Pine Creek school, they could not communicate with each other.

“I couldn’t talk to her, I couldn’t wave at her. On her second day at the Kamloops school in British Columbia, Julianna Alexander went to speak to her brother. “Did I ever get a good pounding and licking, get over there, you can’t go over there, you can’t talk to him, you know. I said, ‘Yeah, but he’s my brother.’”

Taken from their homes, stripped of their belongings, and separated from their siblings, residential school children lived in a world dominated by fear, loneliness, and lack of affection.

William Herney, who attended the Shubenacadie school in Nova Scotia, recalled the first few days in the school as being frightening and bewildering. “Within those few days, you had to learn, because otherwise you’re gonna get your head knocked off. Raymond Cutknife recalled that when he attended the Hobbema school in Alberta, he “lived with fear.”  Of his years in two different Manitoba schools, Timothy Henderson said, “Every day was, you were in constant fear that, your hope was that it wasn’t you today that we’re going to, that was going to be the target, the victim. You know, you weren’t going to have to suffer any form of humiliation.”  Shirley Waskewitch said that in Kindergarten at the Catholic school in Onion Lake, Saskatchewan, “I learned the fear, how to be so fearful at six years old. It was instilled in me.”

At the Fort Alexander, Manitoba, school, Patrick Bruyere used to cry himself to sleep. “There was, you know, a few nights I remember that I just, you know, cried myself to sleep, I guess, because of, you know, wanting to see my mom and dad.”

Students’ hearts were hardened. Rick Gilbert remembered the Williams Lake, British Columbia, school as a loveless place. “That was one thing about this school was that when you got hurt or got beat up or something, and you started crying, nobody comforted you. You just sat in the corner and cried and cried till you got tired of crying then you got up and carried on with life.”  Nick Sibbeston, who was placed in the Fort Providence school in the Northwest Territories at the age of five, recalled it as a place where children hid their emotions. “In residential school you quickly learn that you should not cry. If you cry you’re teased, you’re shamed out, you’re even punished.”  One former student said that during her time at the Sturgeon Landing school in Saskatchewan, she could not recall a staff member ever smiling at a child. (38)

Stephen Kakfwi  said this lack of compassion affected the way students treated one another. “No hugs, nothing, no comfort. Everything that, I think, happened in the residential schools, we picked it up: we didn’t get any hugs; you ain’t going to get one out of me I’ll tell you that.” (41) Victoria McIntosh said that life at the Fort Alexander, Manitoba, school taught her not to trust anyone. “You learn not to cry anymore. You just get harder. And yeah, you learn to shut down.”

These accounts all come from statements made by former residential school students to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. These events all took place in Canada within the realm of living memory.

Like previous generations of residential school children, these children were sent to what were, in most cases, badly constructed, poorly maintained, overcrowded, unsanitary fire traps. Many children were fed a substandard diet and given a substandard education, and worked too hard. For far too long, they died in tragically high numbers. Discipline was harsh and unregulated; abuse was rife and unreported. It was, at best, institutionalized child neglect.

5. Talking Circle

Option: Facilitator: “I want you to imagine you are a nine year old girl (or boy). How do you think you would feel  arriving at the school the first time?”

6. Determination of theme for next meeting.

“Intergenerational trauma” would be the logical theme to follow at the next gathering.

7.  Closing common to all gatherings.

Meaning of Land for Indigenous Peoples

Meaning of Land for Indigenous peoples

Why do Indigenous people stay on reserves when there is often water that has to be boiled, mold in the houses, few educational opportunities and no jobs? For the sake of the children, why don’t they leave and come to the city?  This is a real question posed by a non-Indigenous person. The answers are somewhat complex.

First, the reserves are home. Home is a very important reality for most people. Most refugees, given a choice would not want to come to Canada. It is so far from their beloved homes.  In Canada, at the holiday seasons people get in their cars or onto planes to go back home, to the farm, to the reserves, to their home cities.

The reserve communities provide a constant experience of belonging. That is why those who come to the city often experience loneliness and a real sense of loss. Those who come to universities or colleges take longer to complete their studies as family responsibilities and financial issues often draw them back to their home communities during their studies.  Universities recognize that Indigenous students face additional difficulties and try to ensure student success with special programming and academic assistance, and physical meeting places such as Indigenous learning centres on campuses. On the other hand, many Indigenous people who embrace higher education see it as “the new buffalo,” with its promise of economic benefits.

Nor can we discount the significant role that racism plays in making those who come to the city feel lonely, unhappy and unwelcome.  No matter how many troubles there might be on some reserves, they are, because of this sense of belonging, still perceived as a more comfortable place than the cities. Finally those who do come risk losing some benefits such as housing and at times are reluctant to lose connections and change relationships with family and friends. 

Even more important, Indigenous people see the land itself in ways non-Indigenous people often do not understand:  An Indigenous person’s sense of self is not separate from the land.  The interconnectedness with the land and the natural world is a lived experience.   Indigenous persons have a hard time knowing themselves and being themselves without this relationship to their homeland.   The vital knowledge of generations has taught them how to live with nature and be in balance and harmony with the natural world. It is compelling to see how often Indigenous art shows an interconnectedness between animals and people and the land.  Just one example: many Indigenous masks are created in the likeness of an animal. Some believe that each clan was descended from a different animal.

So coming to the city can be disorienting, although the intensity of this obviously varies between individuals. The land is sacred. When several Indigenous groups in B.C. were offered over a billion dollars for permission to develop oil projects, they turned it down –because they judged the project would destroy Mother Earth, and they could not allow that to happen. There is a relationship to Mother Earth that is sacred, nourishing and that carries responsibilities. “We do not own Mother Earth to give it away; we must respect it. We are part of it, it is part of us,” they would say.

Related to this is the fact that not all people want to live our urban live style.  For many Indigenous peoples, there is no ‘good life’ that does not include a daily, intimate relationship with land and nature.  Of course Indigenous people want access to some of the benefits of a middle-class lifestyle such as education, health care, housing and quality of life which are the most important drivers of migration, even from small town and villages. But it would be a mistake to go from there to the conclusion that we all want these things in the same way.

Another key factor relates to entering into the treaties in the 1870’s. Winnipeg is on Treaty # 1 land, signed in 1871 at Lower Fort Garry. We are located on the original lands of the Anishinaabeg, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dakota, and Dene peoples, and on the homeland of the Métis Nation. We are all treaty people and it is up to both parties to live by the responsibilities agreed to in the Treaties. In fact, as Jamie Wilson, then Treaty Commissioner for Manitoba pointed out, even the right of non-Indigenous peoples in Manitoba to own land and buy a house in Winnipeg is possible because of Treaty 1. Aimée Craft’s book, “Breathing Life into the Stone Fort Treaty: An Anishinaabe Understanding of Treaty One” brings a unique approach to the history of this treaty.  

Reserves were established by the treaties, and in principle the treaties provided for Indigenous people to select the areas of land they wanted.  They looked for land linked to their traditional fishing, burial and ceremonial customs at the same time ensuring they had steady access to wood, water, shelter and existing transport routes. However, their reserve lands were often badly or not at all surveyed and the federal government in some cases removed people from their original reserve in order to make way for land speculation. That is the story of Peguis Reserve.  This gave rise to the current issues of treaty land entitlement and land claims.  In brief, after treaties were negotiated, the Crown became the only significant interpreter of their terms. Then, under the aegis of the Indian Act, an Act never part of any treaty and never consented to by Indigenous people, the Crown launched a century or more of assimilation. Finally, even after treaties were signed,  “Aboriginal people in Canada did not view the land and its resources as something they owned, so they did not see the treaties as a transfer of ownership. Rather, they saw the treaties as providing a basis upon which the use of the land and its resources could be shared.”

Land is important in two respects. First, traditional lands are the ‘place’ of the nation and are inseparable from the people, their culture, and their identity as a nation. Second, land and resources, as well as traditional knowledge, are the foundations upon which Indigenous people intend to rebuild the economies of their nations and so improve the socio-economic circumstance of their people – individuals, families, communities and nations. Capturing this Fergus MacKay says the following when discussing the World Bank’s approach to Indigenous people: “For Indigenous peoples, secure and effective collective property rights are fundamental to their economic and social development, to their physical and cultural integrity, and to their livelihoods and sustenance.” (MacKay 2004, 17).

Twenty-nine comprehensive land claim and/or self-government agreements, covering over 40 percent of Canada’s land mass, have been ratified and brought into effect since the announcement of the Government of Canada’s Comprehensive Land claims Policy in 1973 and the establishment of the British Columbia Treaty Process (1992). These agreements change the relationship between Aboriginal signatories, the federal government and the provincial / territorial governments concerned. According to Comprehensive Land Claims Agreements and Self-Government Agreements, Aboriginal signatories constitute governments in their own right and, as a result, the Parties to the agreements form groundbreaking government-to-government relationships that transform how they relate to and collaborate with one another.

For a simple, straight-forward grasp of the history of Indigenous people and their relationship to land, we encourage you to take part in what is called a “Blanket Exercise.” These are one hour stories on the history of Indigenous peoples since the arrival of settlers. Our website will be posting opportunities for individuals to take part in Blanket Exercises.

The reserve system was not created by Indigenous peoples, It was never intended to provide an equal quality of life. Forced relocation has not been uncommon. In 2016 the Canadian government apologized and will provide millions in compensation for the forced relocation of the Sayisi Dene First Nation 60 years ago in northern Manitoba. “Without proper consultation, without explanation and without adequate planning, the federal government took your people from the land and the waters that sustained you,” Carolyn Bennett, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister said in prepared remarks delivered in Tadoule Lake. The pernicious Indian Act perpetuates principles making Indigenous people wards of the state which affects many aspect of peoples’ lives.

Attachment to home and reserve community has been central to Indigenous life in Canada.  It has had a great deal to do not only with family but with resilience and resistance to the attempts, both direct and indirect, to destroy so many aspects of Indigenous life.

Resources:  Google: “General briefing Note on Canada’s Self-government and Comprehensive Claims Policies and the Status of Negotiations.”

Aimée Craft  “Breathing Life into the Stone Fort Treaty: An Anishinabe Understanding of Treaty One” Purich Publishing Co. UBC Press, 2013.

Google: Kairos blanket exercises

Gathering Theme: The Pass System – Segregation in Canada


The Pass System: Segregation in Canada

“Charles Sawphawpahkayo wanted to get married. To do that, the man from a reserve near Duck Lake, Sask. now known as Beardy’s and Okemasis First Nation would need to travel to the bigger town of Battleford, about 140 kilometres away as the crow flies.

Before he could leave, however, Sawphawpahkayo would need the written authorization of the local Indian agent, who signed the required permission slip—issued by the Department of Indian Affairs — on June 3, 1897. The agent granted him 10 days away from the reserve.”

This is an example of the Pass System in Canada.

The  information presented here comes from viewing the film of the same name directed by Alex Williams, and by borrowing extensively from articles on the internet, particularly  a very extensive one by Joanna Smith, Ottawa Bureau correspondent for the Toronto Star, as well as on line conversations with Alex Williams. I think that we are indebted to Williams for five years of research before he produced his film, and he could not have done so without the oral history of a number of Indigenous persons.  See the RESOURCES section of our website for a link to the film.

The history of the pass system in Canada is very dark and shrouded in mystery and will require a great deal more research.  But there are several elements beyond dispute.  

Smith  states that the system was first implemented as an emergency measure — designed to be temporary — in response to the North-West Rebellion led by Louis Riel, and the Northwest Rebellion in Saskatchewan (1885) as” the Canadian government was concerned resistance could grow out of control if indigenous people began leaving their reserves to join in.”

It was formalized after 1885 at the suggestion of then Assistant Commissioner of Indian Affairs Hayter Reed and approved by his superior Edgar Dewdney, in a document entitled “Memorandum to the honourable the Indian Commissioner for the Future Management of Indians”. Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald’s  response was that “…it is in the highest degree desirable to adopt it.” He then signed an internal order that became an unofficial policy of Indian Affairs. Henceforth, a pass to get off reserve would only be issued at the pleasure of the local Indian Agent, a man who controlled every aspect of First Nations lives, holding judicial powers.

It lasted nearly 60 years without ever going through Parliament.

It is one example of policies and practices that were often arbitrarily applied by Indian Agents. What’s particularly suspicious about the pass system is how light the surviving documentation is, considering its powerful and illegal control of people. The pass system had no basis in law, but the system nonetheless lasted over six decades. Although not without exception, it appears to have been applied primarily in Treaties 4, 6 and 7.
Macdonald acknowledged they were on shaky ground in that requiring passes would violate treaty rights:

pass-161In a letter to Indian Commissioner Edgar Dewdney on October 28, 1885. Macdonald wrote : “…should resistance be offered on the ground of Treaty rights the obtaining of a pass should not be insisted upon as regards loyal Indians.”  Indian agents were supplied with books of passes, or permits to leave. As you can see from the photo of one of the passes, the time the individual is allowed to be off reserve is recorded, as is the purpose of the time away, and whether or not he is allowed to carry a gun. So the “pass system” was initially applied to “rebel Indians” but later expanded for all First Nations.

In order to obtain a pass, individuals would often have to travel many days by foot to the Agent’s house, not knowing if he would be there when they arrived. If the Agent was away, they would either camp and wait, or return home. If the need to leave the reserve was pressing, such as to sell market-ready produce, the delay resulted in produce that rotted. First Nation farmers also were required to have a permit to sell their produce. The pass system additionally enabled the government to attempt to quash potlatches, the Sun Dance and other cultural practices.

The North-West Mounted Police was the only agency that protested the system. In 1893, Commissioner Lawrence William Herchmer ordered members of the force to stop returning people without passes to the reserves.

(“You know something is wrong when the cops say don’t do it,” said film Director Williams)

Hayter Reed, who was then in charge of the Indian Affairs department, overruled the Mounties but acknowledged in a letter that year “there has never been any legal authority for compelling Indians who leave their Reserves to return to them.” Later, he also wrote: “all we can do is to endeavour to keep the true position from the Indians as long as possible.”

The system remained in effect until 1941 and was formally repealed in 1951. Oral history also records stories told by First Nations people who either experienced the pass system themselves, or remember relatives talking about it.

As reported by Smith, one powerful testimony comes from Elder Therese Seesequasis, of Beardy’s and Okemasis First Nation, who recalls spending 10 months of the year away from her family at residential school.

“We sure spent some lonely, lonely days . . . Our parents didn’t even come for Christmas,” Seesequasis says.

Smith points out that “the pass system helped support the residential school system as Indian agents would often refuse to sign passes if they suspected they would be used to visit children there.”

Winona Wheeler, an historian and professor of indigenous studies at the University of Saskatchewan said in an interview with Smith that oral history is crucial to understanding what happened.

“I think without hearing those stories, a lot of stuff has been glossed over or hidden or has not surfaced in the public realm, because documents go missing or documents have not been made accessible in the archives,” says Wheeler who drew a parallel to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission having to fight the government for access to archives on residential schools.

Williams said only two actual passes exist at Library and Archives Canada and he suspects many were deliberately destroyed by a government who knew what it was doing was illegal. There is also one at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary and two in the Saskatchewan archives.

A letter dated July 11, 1941 by Harold McGill, who was director of the Indian Affair branch at the department of mines and resources was circulated to Indian agents to put an official end to the pass system, saying there was no law compelling First Nations people to stay on their reserves and that they were “free to come and go” like everyone else.

McGill mentions government lawyers having come to that conclusion in 1900 — for which Williams could find no documentation — and also makes a request: “If you have any such forms in your possession kindly return them to the Department where they will be destroyed”.

Smith records the story of Leona Blondeau, 82, who “was 8 years old when the extralegal federal government policy was officially revoked in 1941, but she and other living witnesses to history recall restrictions on their movements lasting until at least her teenage years.

We never went anywhere. We stayed on the reserve. We were very segregated . . . It was the way life was, I thought. I didn’t realize that wasn’t the right thing to do,” said Blondeau.

She remembers being 14 years old when she and her siblings — she was the eldest of six — came home from residential school for the summer and their mother took them to the closest town, Punnichy, Sask., for the day.

“We travelled by wagon and horse and go there and our treat was an ice cream cone. That was our treat for the day,” Blondeau recalled.

She says her mother had to get permission from the local Indian agent before she could create those memories with her children.

permit-to-sell“They were like a receipt and you had to tell how long you were going away off the reserve and he signed them to give you his permission,” she said.

Blondeau remembers a happy childhood spent close to her family, but says that as she grew older she became angry and resentful at how limited her life and future appeared.

Why didn’t the First Nations people complain you might ask? Until 1951 First Nations people were denied the right to counsel; the Indian Act prohibited people to hire a lawyer to defend themselves.

In addition, Indian Agents in Western Canada were empowered as Justices of the Peace, and so mounting a defence against them would have been difficult. As well, people were not allowed to complain to anyone but the Indian Agent (who was the one implementing the policy) So, in fact the Agency could be the perpetrator, judge and complaints officer all in one.

Why do we need to know this history? The TRC report is entitled: Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future.” Can you imagine the sense of shame adults, both men and women would feel having to ask permission to go hunting, to go fishing, to go visit their own children? What would this do to the self confidence, the self worth people would feel?  Furthermore this control of Indigenous people, in their movements, in their rituals, in their farming and hunting and even in their visits to their children without question helped create an intergenerational sense of dependency. We need to support Indigenous people as they break out of it.  

Closing Protocol for Meetings

Closing Protocol for Meetings:

(Each sentence to be read by a different participant,
with the last sentence being read together by all six)

  1. Reconciliation must become a way of life.
  2. It will take many years to repair damaged trust and relationships in Aboriginal communities and between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples.
  3. Reconciliation not only requires apologies, reparations, and relearning of Canada’s national history, and public commemorations, but also needs real social, political and economic change.
  4. Ongoing public education and dialogue are essential to reconciliation.
  5. Governments, churches, educational institutions, and Canadians from all walks of life are responsible for taking action on reconciliation in concrete ways, working collaboratively with Aboriginal peoples.
  6. (All six readers) Reconciliation begins with each and every one of us.”

(Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future, Page 18)


Opening Protocol for Meetings

Opening Protocol for Meetings:

(To be read aloud at the start of each session)

  1. I wish to acknowledge that we are on the original lands of the Anishinaabe, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dakota, and Dene peoples, and on the homeland of the Métis Nation.
  2. Following the presentation of the topic for today, a general discussion will follow with each of you being given an opportunity to speak to the issue. You are encouraged to keep in mind seven sacred teachings of the Anishinaabe in your thoughts and words.
  3. (The Seven Sacred Teachings are then to be read aloud by one of the participants)

    LOVE: it is important to care for one another
    HONESTY: better to fail with honesty than succeed by fraud
    RESPECT: give it, earn it, receive it.
    TRUTH: it is always easiest to speak the truth
    HUMILITY: to be humble about your accomplishments is to be strong
    COURAGE: let nothing stand in the way of doing the right thing
    WISDOM: with hard work and dedication will come knowledge

  4. Sharing around the circle, clockwise  is  recommended. Should you wish to “pass” at that time, you will be given a chance at the end to offer your thoughts. While you may not wish to speak at all on a given week, your participation is desired as each individual has gifts to offer the circle.
  5. An item, such as a talking stick, will be passed around giving each person a chance to speak. Speak on behalf of yourself only and speak what comes from your heart and from your own experience.
  6. It is very important that we all recognize that the feelings of an individual are neither right nor wrong. They are real and need to be respected.
  7. In accordance with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, the four guiding principles for the new relationship are “mutual recognition, mutual respect, sharing, and mutual responsibility.” (Interim Report, page 23)
  8. We ask you to be conscious of your sharing time so that everyone has a chance to participate. Because we have a number of gatherings you will have ample opportunity to share your ideas and feelings.



General Procedures for Gatherings


Each meeting would have the following format:

    1. Opening standard Protocol (by facilitator)
    2. Reading (or alternate presentation) by facilitator or by a designated but volunteer participant, determined by the facilitator (10-12 minutes).
    3. Sharing by everyone in the circle using a talking stick
    4. Closing  (Initiated by the facilitator, but each phrase read by 6 different participants, with the last sentence read by all six). We consider it important that gatherings conclude after 75 minutes with the sharing of the Closing protocol.  In that way, those who wish to leave can do so without feeling guilt or disrupting things. Some may wish to continue discussions if that is acceptable in the facility. But our commitment is for meetings of 75 minutes.
    5. Items needed for each meeting
      • Refreshments, possibly muffins and a drink
      • A talking stick
      • A copy of the Opening Protocol
      • A copy of the  Sacred Teachings of the Anishinaabe
      • 6 copies of the closing Protocol for each group
      • Materials for smudging (if desired) or appropriate invocation


Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada


Indigenous Rights And Relationships

Liberated by God’s Grace, the ELCIC encourages all members and congregations to reflect upon our own national and church history, to seek greater understanding of the issues facing Indigenous peoples, and to walk with Indigenous peoples in their ongoing efforts to exercise their inherent sovereignty and fundamental human rights.

Canada is currently living in a historic moment for seeking truth and reconciliation. For the last 6 years, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been listening to the stories and gathering the statements of survivors of the Indian Residential Schools and anyone else who feels they have been impacted by the schools and their legacy in order to hear and document the truth of what happened. The TRC has also been considering what is required for reconciliation. While the work of the TRC is concluding, the recommendations of the TRC will be a new call to form more respectful, just and equitable relationships. This involves both a deeper, more honest understanding of the history of colonialism and Indian Residential Schools, and addressing current issues of indigenous rights, climate change, resource extraction, poverty and racism.

In 2011, the ELCIC made a commit to promote right and renewed relationships between non-indigenous and Indigenous Peoples within Canada. In July, 2015, the ELCIC renewed this commitment to truth, reconciliation and equity by repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery.

We understand this to be both an urgent and a long-term commitment.

An ELCIC Resolution on Encouraging Right Relationships with Indigenous Peoples

Click here for complete list of resources.