Michael Champagne and the Aboriginal Youth Opportunities (AYO!) started Meet Me At the Belltower over two years ago, in Winnipeg's north end. The weekly event brings community members together to combat gangs, poverty, violence and youth suicide in their neighbourhood.
How have you been impacted by the legacy of residential schools?
My birth mother went to residential schools in Northern Manitoba and as a result, all of her children were placed into the care of Child and Family Services.
I grew up disconnected from my birth family, and disconnected from my home community, Shamattawa, growing up almost entirely in the North End of Winnipeg.
I continue to be further impacted today as the indigenous community in the North End of Winnipeg grapples with issues such as street and family violence and suicide.
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Have you participated in any of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) events? What was your experience?
I attended one event in Winnipeg. Overall, I had a traumatizing experience, but was happy that there was opportunity given for young people to share inter-generational stories of how IRS affects them today, called “Circle of Youth.”
What impact do you think the TRC has had?
I believe the TRC has had a large and valuable impact for indigenous communities who for so long kept their stories of pain hidden, the telling of these stories is part of letting the poison out.
It is encouraging to see media coverage and non-indigenous people talking about reconciliation, but I am nervous that the entire truth isn't being told due to access issues for survivors attending these national events.
Also, due to the lack of cooperation to turn over documents relating to nutritional experiments and other atrocities in residential schools. I think the TRC has succeeded in revealing the lack of empathy in our current government and also drawn out the courageousness of these survivors.
Is reconciliation possible?
This week, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada hosts its final national event in Edmonton. We've asked voices from the first generation of aboriginal people who didn't attend a residential school to share their thoughts on reconciliation and what the legacy means to them.
Reconciliation is not possible until our women and children are safe. The amount of indigenous children being taken (still) by Child and Family Services departments across Canada is an indicator that the challenges being faced during the Indian residential school (IRS) era of Canadian history is still upon us.
The lack of response and communication from authorities into the disappearance and murder of indigenous women is another reminder that we as indigenous nations (and even as Canadians) have a long way to go to get to reconciliation.
What are the biggest challenges facing reconciliation in Canada?
Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.
What can Canadians do to work toward reconciliation?
First, do your homework, reach out to indigenous groups in your territory, and find out what the most pressing local issues are.
For us in the north end of Winnipeg, street violence, youth employment and suicide are issues we could use a lot of help with.
Next, reach out; when you reach out to these groups, the first step is to listen to what they are saying. Find out what work they have done, what work they are doing and how you can share some of your gifts.
Finally, some support in terms of political pressure would be awesome. There is a national push on First Nations education issues, child welfare and of course, missing and murdered indigenous women that can always use non-indigenous helpers and voices to help spread the word.
What is one thing your are working on/engage in that is working towards reconciliation?
Creating hope. It is critical for young indigenous people to have hope for tomorrow (because there is lots to be hopeful for).
I believe my biggest focus is finding, supporting and celebrating indigenous leadership especially when demonstrated by our young people.
Have you seen any concrete examples of reconciliation?
Aboriginal Youth Opportunities partners with a church group every Friday, the Indigenous Family Centre, to host Meet Me @ the Bell Tower. This weekly, youth led peace rally in Winnipeg's north end provides an opportunity for young people to have their voices heard, be validated in their concerns for their community and be supported into action by the helpers who attend.
These young people are primarily (but not exclusively aboriginal) and these helpers are of all ages and backgrounds. This is a community standing behind their children and is a regular model of people freely giving their gifts and times to further this concept of reconciliation in a tangible and locally visible way.
Michael Champagne will also appear on a panel of Aboriginal youth on today's edition of The Current on CBC Radio.