Aboriginal Heritage Day & Unionism on Turtle Island: An Interview
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
My name is Celeste and I’m originally from Toronto. I am currently going into year 17 as a Continuing Care Assistant (CCA) at Sunset Extendicare in Regina. My family reserve is Alderville in South Western Ontario, and my First Nations background is Mohawk and Ojibway.
What is Unionism on Turtle Island?
It is a four day course that the Prairie School for Union Women (PSUW) has offered for many years now, organized by the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour (SFL). It is a course that teaches us about First Nations people, their history, current issues, and how they connect to the labour movement. It is meant to foster a kinship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, and to break down the walls of stereotypes.
When did you take the Unionism on Turtle Island Course, and what were your experiences with the course?
I took the course several years ago. I was very fortunate to have such an amazing facilitator – she was the type of person who leaves such a permanent and positive influence – she has certainly left a permanent mark on me and I am very much inspired by her to this day.
While I had taken Indigenous studies at school, it was important to learn about First Nations in this style of learning. It was a very open and safe space, and I felt comfortable sharing my stories. Even though I am First Nations, I did not grow up on reserve, so taking this course made me appreciate what my grandmother would have experienced. I have memories of her – visiting on the reserve, being at pow wows – but she passed away at an early age so it was very special to get a piece of my own culture that, to be frank, was taken away.
Why is it important for people to take this course?
The big thing for people to understand is that the catastrophic events that happened to First Nations and Metis people in the past are still happening and affecting us today. Residential schools, the 60s scoop – this is not long ago and discrimination continues to occur. I often hear people say, “people should just get over it – it was so long ago.” Yet this is just wrong – it’s very current and happening now.
When people gather in a safe space to talk about issues, better understanding occurs. The course teaches how it’s very hard to understand that the attack on First Nations was a genocide – that it happened here, in Canada. Children were taken from their families and were not allowed to celebrate their culture, language, spirituality; it was nothing less than genocide of culture. Yet because it was not made obvious, people downplay the issues. But this course reveals the truth.
We should not be making assumptions and adding the stereotypes when we do not even understand the issues. We all learned about the fur trade when discussing First Nations in schools, yet not about the real issues affecting First Nations to this day. This course is very eye-opening – for example, the last residential school closed in the 1996 – a school located in Saskatchewan; up until 1985, First Nations women lost their status if they married a non-Indigenous man.
Learning about history is crucial because when you follow that timeline, it gives a bigger picture as to why you see problems today.
Can you give us some examples of how the course was outlined?
It is a progression of history. You are getting snapshots of First Nations and Metis people – from when settlers arrived, to residential schools to more current history. The teachings are also incorporated into activities. It is an interactive course as participants do their own research, present, watch videos and listen to guest speakers. An Elder came to speak with us – it is simply heartbreaking to hear someone speak of their experiences during residential schools. But hearing these stories inspires understanding and solidarity with our First Nations and Metis brothers and sisters. It was also important that we had time set aside for self-reflection time at the end of each day.
What’s next for Unionism on Turtle Island and SEIU-West?
I’m happy to say that shortly after taking the course, I took the facilitators training course for Unionism on Turtle Island. This means Unionism on Turtle Island will soon be offered as an educational for SEIU-West members! We will be sure to keep members updated as to when this course will be available.
What would you say to someone who wants to know more about our First Nations and Metis brothers and sisters?
Knowledge is power. I’m a big believer in ensuring people take real steps to understanding issues. I hear many people condemning and using stereotypes for a whole group of people, without being informed. If you have a strong opinion on something, you need to get informed first. Take this course, or rather, take this journey and see how we’ve come to this point in history. We all have to challenge what we already know. We also need to ensure the labour movement helps to foster a better understanding of First Nations and Metis people and to create a better working relationship.
 “About Indian Residential Schools.” Indian Residential Schools Educational Resources. Anishinabek Nation. <http://www.anishinabek.ca/irscp/irscp-about-residential.asp>.
 “First Nations in Canada.” Government of Canada. Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada.. <https%3A%2F%2Fwww.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca%2Feng%2F1307460755710%2F1307460872523>