Walk with Me, the library way

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In addition to all of the books on shelves, libraries have long established themselves as community gathering spots: centres for greater conversations and education about the world that we live in. They have gallery spaces now too, and one such public institution is helping to right some great historical wrongs and help everyone towards the healing path.

Earlier this month, the Morinville Community Library unveiled the Walk with Me travelling exhibit. Produced by Reconciliation in Solidarity Edmonton (better known as RISE), it features photos and audio clips from 12 different Indigenous people from the metro Edmonton area, each of whom was asked the question: ‘What does it mean to be Indigenous in Edmonton?’

With each story comes a photo of that person’s feet.

“The idea of the whole exhibit was so that people could put their feet in someone else’s shoes: what it feels like, what it looks like,” explained Marina Hulzenga, a member of the guiding council for RISE, an Edmonton area group of people that is committed to supporting reconciliation in words and actions. She says that RISE is “about continuing the conversation on reconciliation, continuing the education and bringing awareness to the lasting impacts of the residential school system, and creating safe spaces to have those conversations and ask those tough questions or things you’re unsure of.”

If anything, a library is exactly that safe place that offers as much of a sanctuary for free speech.

Hulzenga said that stories such as these aren’t told as openly in Morinville, or even Edmonton.

“We wanted to start sharing them more – especially with non-Indigenous communities – to give more light and more idea into what’s going on in the city. It was meant to be seen outside of the areas where the stories came from but also go into neighbourhoods and communities that may not know these stories and these people.”

“You really get to hear the really, really personal aspect to being an Indigenous member of the city. It is different. There are little, small details that make it different. Things that maybe we never thought about, things that non-Indigenous people don’t think about or encounter in their day-to-day lives in Edmonton. Sometimes those are things from the past. Sometimes those are things that are happening right now. It really connects to the person on a human level. When I read through the stories, you really get a sense of who that person is. It’s often a really beautiful moment.”

If you look closely, you might be able to determine what Crystal Fraser’s feet look like. The Morinville woman is a member of the Gwich’in nation who also co-authored the article 150 Acts of Reconciliation for Canada’s 150 along with Sara Komarnisky, which was originally published on ActiveHistory.ca.

Before she became directly involved, she was approached by the organization to be one of the 12 people at the heart of the Walk with Me exhibit. She’s come a long way to tell even two minutes of her story.

“My response was ‘I’m Gwich’in. I’m Treaty 11. I’m originally from Inuvik, Northwest Territories. Even though I’m Indigenous, I’m still a guest in Edmonton. I’m still on Treaty 6 land. It’s the homeland of the Métis Nation. I talked about how my relationship being here is pretty unique and special … and about my involvement in local Indigenous issues.”

You can listen to Fraser’s story as well as the others anytime online at www.soundcloud.com/risedm. It’s sometimes heavy stuff, Hulzenga continued, “but that’s good. It’s good to go to those places because then you can really open up with somebody and start that process of reconciliation. That’s great.”

Since the exhibit opened, Fraser has been invited to be on the programming committee at the library.

“I view all of that as pretty positive in the right direction,” she said. “I think Morinville is going in a really good direction for reconciliation.”

She also organizes the RISE Book Club for its 150 members. Right now, the club is immersed in This Wound is a World by Billy-Ray Belcourt, a member of the Driftpile Cree Nation who is a current U of A English student and was a 2016 Rhodes Scholar. Book publisher Frontenac House describes his book as “part memoir, part manifesto” to help everyone understand how Indigenous peoples “shoulder sadness and pain like theirs without giving up on the future.” Belcourt will attend the book club meeting on Feb. 9 to discuss with the gathering. You can join in too by visiting www.risebookclub.ca.

In the meantime, the Morinville library has begun to expand its programming to offer more Indigenous education. Stacey Buga, the facility’s programming co-ordinator, said that the timing of the Walk with Me exhibit was perfect, as she was just in the plans of starting an Indigenous Canada learning circle going.

“I’m hoping that we just open the conversation and make it feel a little bit easier to talk to each other. With Alexander First Nation right down the road, we have a huge Indigenous population that we need to be able to relate to them a little bit more,” she said.

While the stories at the heart of the exhibit are primarily urban, she noted that they still ring true in our town.

“There’s a lot of talk about living between two worlds and how to cope with that. It’s an empathy-building exhibit.”

While Fraser’s story is more of a person feeling “swallowed up” (to use Buga’s words) by the love and the movement that arose after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Idle No More movement had finished, others tell of surviving the residential school system, others talk about heartaches, pain and addictions, while some stories talk about success and what that actually means when you’re Indigenous.

“It’s something that a lot of people take for granted and don’t really think about, how that would make a difference. It’s really important that people understand that there is a difference.”

The Morinville library is set to host a blanket exercise early next month, but starting tomorrow, it will be the setting for the 12-week learning circle focusing on the University of Alberta’s massive open online course (MOOC) on Indigenous History. If you’re interested, you’ll have to keep your enthusiasm for the waiting list as the registration is full with 25 participants.

If you can get yourself to the capital city, the Edmonton Public Library system has its own focus on Indigenous issues.

“Libraries can take a leadership role in the reconciliation process, and have a role in advancing awareness and understanding of the history of Canada’s residential school system,” began Danielle Powder, EPL’s Indigenous Relations Adviser.

“We have a responsibility to share all perspectives and ideas, and to create spaces to hear from communities about how libraries can offer responsive services that will best meet needs. Exploring reconciliation with our communities is a significant way we can engage people in dialogue, and to help fill the gaps in our collective awareness of our shared history.”

EPL introduced an elder in residence program last year as well plus it hosts a series of events on learning about Indigenous issues. Reconciliation: Power, Promise and the Pathway Forward is a free event with Miranda Jimmy at Grant MacEwan University as part of the library’s Sustainability 201 Speaker Series. The next day, the Amiskwaciy History Series will host an evening with elder Charles Wood at the Telus Centre at the U of A. It’s also free.

“The Edmonton Public Library has long had an interest in understanding and addressing library service needs of Indigenous communities, and has an action in our Business Plan to ‘work with Edmonton’s Indigenous communities to champion the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada report and advance its Calls to Action’,” she continued.

The growing public interest and popularity in these events cannot be underestimated. Its ongoing Exploring Reconciliation Series events are regularly sold out.

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About Author

Scott Hayes

Scott Hayes joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2008. Scott writes about the arts, entertainment, movies, culture, community groups, and charities. He also writes general news, features, columns and profiles on people.