Sunday August 28, 2016

Elijah Harper inspired Winnipeg librarian to make change

Monique Woroniak co-created the website Groundwork for Change as a place non-indigenous people can learn about and connect with Métis, Inuit and First Nation communities.

Monique Woroniak co-created the website Groundwork for Change as a place non-indigenous people can learn about and connect with Métis, Inuit and First Nation communities. (Aaron Pierre Photography)

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She calls it her watershed moment. 

Monique Woroniak was 12 when she first saw the man who sparked her passion for social justice. She was watching the news with her parents.

"Elijah Harper stood up in the Manitoba Legislature and held his feather high and effectively killed the Meech Lake accord," she recalled.

"Elijah was the first 'real live Indian' that I remember seeing … ever."

Defeating Meech Lake

Elijah Harper, a former Manitoba MLA and MP, played a key role in defeating the Meech Lake accord. ((Wayne Glowacki/Winnipeg Free Press/Canadian Press))

Woroniak grew up in a working class family in Winnipeg's Fort Richmond neighbourhood. Her early school days in the city's public school system didn't include much education about Indigenous nations, treaties or colonialism.

So when she saw Harper on TV, she was confused by his long braid — something she had seen only in textbooks — and his business suit. Her father patiently explained who Harper was and why he was opposing the accord.

"[My dad] used the word Native and I'd heard it before, but I thought that means an Indian, right? And I thought, 'but Indians are dead,'" Woroniak said with a laugh.

"I didn't ask a lot of questions. I remember not wanting to look stupid in front of my father. I just sort of kept that in my pocket and I thought, 'Well, there's a huge piece of the puzzle I'm missing here.'"

Idle No More 

Fast forward to 2013 when the Idle No More movement was sweeping across the country. Thousands of indigenous people and allies occupied public spaces in what was dubbed the round dance revolution.

This time Woroniak, now a librarian, had more of those missing puzzle pieces in her pocket, and she wanted to get involved to make change.

"For me it felt like the world cracking wide open, and I thought, 'Well, I have to be present in this space if I'm invited.'"

She attended many round dances, rallies and marches, helped to share information and made connections between the indigenous and non-Indigenous community. 

'The most racist in Canada'

But it was when Maclean's magazine published a scathing article in January 2015, labelling Winnipeg the most racist city in Canada, that Woroniak decided to take more direct action using her vast knowledge as a librarian.

Strangers began to email and contact her on social media, asking her for information about treaties and various issues related to indigenous community.

With the help of other allies and indigenous groups, was created. The website shares information, articles, videos, maps and links meant to help non-Indigenous people learn about and connect with First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities.

"I knew this is a piece that — if it's wanted by the community — that I can give, and I know I can … help to do a good job at it."

The site has since had thousands of visits and feedback has been positive, Woroniak said. But while education and increasing awareness are important, they're not necessarily the most important part of being an ally to any community, said Woroniak.

"I think people need to act in responsible ways in terms of allyship after they learn things."

5 tips for being an ally

Monique Worniak says while she's uncomfortable calling herself an ally, she is often asked about the dos and don'ts of building partnerships. 

1. Don't ever call yourself that. People will know that you are there to help without reminding them.
2. Listen more than you talk.
3. Take direction from the group you are working with. Don't try to take over the group.
4. People who are facing challenges know what the solutions are. Don't try to fix it for them.
5. It's fine to say 'How can I help?' but then only help in the specific ways you were asked to help.