By Greg Price
Every worthy endeavour starts with a first step.
That first step was on Tuesday, as a room full of citizens from all walks of life gathered in the Horizon School Division board room to discuss forming an Indigenous education, cultural, healing and friendship hub in the Taber area.
Elder Charlie Fox of the Blood Tribe started the session with a prayer before giving way to facilitator Heather Brantner.
“The hard part is, it is so broad, how do we try and narrow down a vision and explain what we see as the possibilities,” said Brantner to start the meeting that saw just over a dozen interested stakeholders attend from the Taber/Vauxhall area. “We feel that we can enhance not just Taber, but the Vauxhall area as well. We can all benefit from some Indigenous education, healing and friendship. It is part of our area and a part of our world and we want to explore that some more.”
Preliminary investigations have been made for a facility to start some education programs, be that language, arts, healing or culture.
“We also want to make sure that with everyone in our area, that we are not trying to take away from other programs, the library is doing some fabulous things,” said Brantner. “We want to make sure we have support from people in the community to move forward to create a foundation. The primary reason for the foundation would be for us to apply for some grants. That will help us kick start some programs, look at some facility rentals and pay some stuff.”
Offering traditional education programming for youth, cultural camps that get away from technology and back to nature, Indigenous healing initiatives for youth that are struggling, transportation supports, and improving relationships with partner organizations are just a few of many ideas that were spitballed at the beginning of the meeting in how the base of the foundation would look.
“There are great networks and great supports here. But sometimes the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. Building those relationships as opposed to everyone doing their own thing,” said Brantner. “We want to build capacity in the community for youth and families that are in need. I wish we could say these issues are rare, but they are not. We have homeless youth and things like that. It boils down to no facility, no resources, no support.”
People gathered in a circle and passed around a Talking Stone to ensure everyone got an equal chance to offer insights and suggestions for the burgeoning organization. A Talking Stone (or stick or feather) is an instrument of aboriginal democracy used by many tribes, especially those of indigenous peoples of the Northwest Coast in North America. The Talking Stone may be passed around a group, as multiple people speak in turn, or used only by leaders as a symbol of their authority and right to speak in public.
A tearful Lisa Sowinski, FNMI liaison worker for the Indigenous program at Horizon School Division, was thankful for the support shown in the room.
“I’ve worked with some families that really need some support in Taber. We have some good agencies here. I just feel like there’s nothing here when compared to places like Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, Calgary, on the reserve. My passion has grown and grown and I really want to see something here in Taber,” said Sowinski. “It will bring people here. It is not just for the Indigenous families, it’s for everybody in our community. We live in a diverse community and it’s something we can learn about each other and open doors. I see this as something positive for everyone involved.”
Members from Horizon School Division, Safe Haven Women’s Shelter, the Taber Public Library, Town of Taber, M.D. of Taber, Taber Times/Vauxhall Advance, Taber Food Bank, Taber and District Chamber of Commerce, Blood Tribe and members at large from the Taber/Vauxhall/Lethbridge region were gathered at the start-up talks for the foundation.
Tamara Miyanaga who brought many hats to the meeting as an M.D. of Taber councilor, Taber Food Bank board member and concerned mother, noted she has seen first hand how poverty has affected the family unit.
“For me, for the last 20-ish years, I have seen some people at their very darkest moments. It is awful to see them not have food for their kids or not have a place to live. (A lot of people in this room) have tried to help them get out of their cars and off the ledge. For our area, it’s time we put something together where we can build community and not have to fight for every dollar just to buy a can of soup,” said Miyanaga. “It’s getting really exhausting to watch families suffer and see that they need community. We need to have a place. You see kids that have no adult person in their life that cares for them. Their parents are not bad people, but they are barely hanging on and we need to find a way to build community. Whether it’s an Indigenous centre that we build or whether it’s the town building a wonderful rec facility, I’m not stuck on any one thing. I think we owe it to the people of the community to build something bigger. It’s not just if you are a hockey player, or you happen to go to the right church with the right people for support, we have a lot of people in the community who need support as a whole.”
Miyanaga is baffled at times of how community members have to beg for money for the poor, yet fundraising to send people off to exotic locales to go to hockey tournaments or excursions, and money flows freely.
“It is not glamorous to raise money for people who are poor. I ask that you keep that in mind as we work towards this. I see this as helping Indigenous people, but also so many more people in town,” said Miyanaga. “I’ve heard people say, ‘well, if they didn’t gamble, they wouldn’t have to go to the food bank.’ Spend a day at the food bank and see for yourself exactly how many gamblers are there. See the look on a mom’s face who has to phone to beg because her utilities have been shut off. I don’t think people understand when we live in such a great community, there is still dire poverty and dire loneliness. We have a duty to build community and relationships.”
M.D. of Taber Reeve Brian Brewin echoed Miyanaga’s sentiments, noting these are issues that are all over the area, including the hamlets.
“It is ironic how we can fundraise to send someone to help someone in Mexico and yet someone three doors down there is someone who can’t afford to eat,” said Brewin. “We do need to have some sort of group to organize something. The willingness is there, we just need to organize and get together, and it will come.”
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has made 94 calls to action, urging all levels of government from federal, provincial, territorial and aboriginal to work together to change policies and programs in a concerted effort to repair the harm caused by residential schools and move forward with reconciliation. Initiatives like Tuesday’s meeting help with the process.
“Especially for non-Indigenous people to understand and learn the culture of our First Nations, especially through our communities. We have large reserves,” said a social worker from Lethbridge. “What I’ve noticed working with youth is a lack of traditional language. When I hear youth say I speak more Blackfoot than they do, I don’t want to hear that anymore. What the elders have taught me has been more significant than my own family has taught me. I have learned collectiveness through the Indigenous ways of knowing and targeting youth and learning Indigenous ways is something we can all be part of.”
Taber Mayor Andrew Prokop added the pillars of a foundation are vision, dedication, organization and commitment.
“It’s also about making noise in the right places. There are monies out there. It’s all about the awareness in putting this together,” said Prokop.
Aline Holmen, director of recreation for the Town of Taber, noted seeing lots of synergy that could be made between the town and the foundation if it were to get started.
“We see the bigger picture. We can bring the culture into some of our community events. Have a Cultural Day. I think about Canada Day. With summer programs, we could easily have a summer camp with our programs that falls around this culture, it’s something we could do easily,” said Holmen.
The call out to the brainstorming session was made to many different organizations and prominent individuals in the Taber/Vauxhall area. For anyone who did not attend the meeting and would like to offer input and support and become a board member or member at large for the initiative, they can e-mail Sowinski at firstname.lastname@example.org.