Well-intentioned, non-Indigenous Canadians can help carve a path toward reconciliation by taking a step back and supporting Indigenous people as allies, students at the University of Winnipeg say.

"I think that the Indigenous people have to lead that movement and the settlers have to listen and let the Indigenous people lead," said Lisa Strong, one of 20 students who finished the Youth United, six-credit-hour summer course at the U of W.

Lisa Strong, reconciliation North End work placement in Winnipeg

Lisa Strong drums and sings before sharing her thoughts on reconciliation Thursday at Thunderbird House in Winnipeg. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

The city-funded pilot program put students of all backgrounds and ages through work placements with North End community groups committed to carrying out the calls to action cited in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

"In a lot of these programs they have the white settler doing the work where it should be both doing the work, but the settler should be behind and let the Indigenous people lead in this reconciliation process," Strong said.

Strong, who spent her summer at the Indian and Métis Friendship Centre, is a survivor of the Sixties Scoop, a process that saw thousands of First Nation, Métis and Inuit youth removed from their homes and placed with mostly white families.

Twenty-two-year-old Alexandria Ireland's work placement was at the Graffiti Gallery, where among other things she helped instruct a dance class through a local studio. She agrees with Strong's message.

"On the larger scale we're looking at healing from genocidal policies from the Canadian government and the Crown," she said. 

"After this program I found reconciliation started to shift in my mind … right now [the process is] very colonized.

"There is a lot of settler leadership in the reconciliation process that is taking up a lot of space from revitalization in communities," Ireland said, "so I would like to see more increased push towards revitalization and allyship of settlers, rather than leadership from settlers."

Reinaldo Contreras

Reinaldo Contreras, 55, said he took the youth-focused course because he thinks people of all ages can stand to learn more about reconciliation. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Reinaldo Contreras, 55, was placed at a temp agency, and said it was eye-opening to see how many Indigenous men were seeking unstable, temporary work there. 

The Salvadorian-born man of Mayan descent came to Canada years ago and says there needs to be more Indigenous representation in leadership roles.

"I've come out with a whole bunch of new experiences, new insights into the process of reconciliation, and I think we're not doing enough," he said.

"This course needs to continue …It wasn't complete but it can be better. We can make this experience better for newer generations."

Strong said the course gave her an opportunity to start a "new healing journey" with herself and classmates, and she hopes more students take advantage of the experience next year.

"Reconciliation means a lot to a lot of different people," Strong said. "As a Sixties Scoop survivor, I think it means forgiveness. 

"I know a lot of Indigenous people aren't there. But if we work together, survivors and settlers, maybe we could get to that point. It won't happen right away. It's been 150 years of colonization, it's going to take us 150 years to heal."

The program is expected to take place again next summer.

Lisa Strong

Lisa Strong says she is optimistic that reconciliation can be achieved but says it will take a long time and require genuine efforts to listen to Indigenous voices. (Gary Solilak/CBC)