'Walking together': Indigenous reconciliation efforts create a new path forward

The spirit of healing is seen at the Fringe Festival, in church basements and at roundtables teaching about the treaties and what they mean.

Festivals, church groups and workshops about the meaning of treaties are part of the healing

Murray Utas (left) and Adam Mitchell (right) are doing reconciliation work with the Fringe Theatre Festival alongside Hunter and Jacquelyn Cardinal from the Edmonton company Naheyawin. (Gareth Hampshire/CBC)

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When the curtain raises on Edmonton's Fringe Festival this summer, there will be an unprecedented Indigenous feel to the event.

For the first time, the oldest and largest fringe theatre festival in North America will honour the Indigenous community in ways it never has before.

"I think it's happening now because we are awakening," says Murray Utas, the festival's artistic director.

In this time of reconciliation, the Fringe Festival is not alone among Edmonton organizations committed to reshaping the way they do things.

Get past the guilt, get on with the future

With elders and spiritual leaders providing advice, the Old Strathcona festival is planning to incorporate ceremonies of honour throughout its 10 days.

"We are at a social awareness where this can have resonance for us," says Utas, "where we can actually hear it and start to find a way of walking together." 

Murray Utas says the Fringe Theatre festival is building relationships with the Indigenous community in Edmonton as part of its reconciliation work. (John Shypitka/CBC)

That idea — of walking together — is not a first for the Fringe, which has embraced Indigenous performances and artists in the past.

What is new is the level of that commitment.

The adjustments at the festival this summer are the latest in a number of initiatives the Fringe has been taking since the calls to action made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015.

This year, they have more confidence to do it right after connecting with an Edmonton company called Naheyawin, which has been guiding them to think a little differently about the place of Indigenous culture in the festival.

One of the new things the company is doing is talking to people about what it means to be living in Treaty 6 territory.

"After the TRC report, how do we bring Edmonton to that next level of saying 'OK, how do we take that and really bring it to the next step?'," says Jacquelyn Cardinal, a co-founder of Naheyawin.

Jacquelyn Cardinal wants people to move past feelings of guilt from past wrongs and focus on building a better future. (John Shypitka/CBC)

Cardinal wants people to get past the guilt many feel for the past and look forward to making things better.

The company is holding roundtable discussions to teach people about the treaties — the kind of relationships they were supposed to create when they were signed, the way things could be today if everyone followed their spirit and intent.

The roundtables are based on the Cree word Tatawaw which means: "There is room for you. Welcome."

'Voicing the whispers of those generations'

The focus of these roundtables is on the treaties, and they're not to be considered Indigenous awareness courses. They are workshops that are geared to educating companies and their employees about the treaties and how they apply today.

"They have a place in the treaty relationship that was envisioned when Treaty 6 was signed," says Hunter Cardinal, who co-founded Naheyawin alongside his sister Jacquelyn.

"But in order to make a relationship that lasts, you have to have that peace, you have to have that understanding."

Hunter Cardinal is hoping to be a part of building a new sense of peace and understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Edmonton. (John Shypitaka/CBC)

To help build that peace and understanding, the Fringe expects to host gatherings where stories will be told.

And 24-year-old Hunter Cardinal will be front and centre with his own one-man show, one he hopes to stage in the river valley just as has happened for thousands of years.

He's even hoping to get a fire going.

"It's like I'm just voicing the whispers of those generations from the past," he says. "We're really trying to do the best that we can so that they would be proud."

Churches doing healing and education work

This evolving progression of coming together in the spirit of reconciliation is slowly permeating the city, with various groups taking initiatives to start the process of change.

A collection of United Church congregations and people from other faith backgrounds are part of a movement called Moving Forward with Reconciliation.

According to Cecile Fausak, a retired minister, "It's a case of walking the talk and living out those apologies."

Fausak, who spent the last 12 years of her ministry working on reconciliation projects, says the church is working to educate its congregations using a number of learning opportunities including Indigenous-themed movie nights.

Those who attend get to play a part in choosing the movie, then follow up with questions.

Adrian Lachance is there with the answers.

Lachance is the Indigenous resource co-ordinator with the not-for-profit Candora Society, which supports families in northeast Edmonton.

With a painful family history involving residential schools, he has dedicated himself to reconciliation.

Adrian Lachance says he's feeling a positive change in attitude towards Indigenous people in Edmonton. (Gareth Hampshire/CBC)

"It's to bring people together and talk about the history of First Nations people so they get a better understanding of what we've been through and some of the struggles we're dealing with today," he says.

The 45-year-old is heartened by what he believes is a shift in attitude in Edmonton.

Others have a less optimistic view of things. 

For Indigenous business owners in Edmonton, it feels like two steps forward and one step back as they wait for the kinds of change they hoped the TRC would bring.

'The more they stay the same'

Robb Campre co-founded Aksis, an association of about 50 Indigenous companies in the Edmonton area, to push for more inclusion In the business world.

The idea was that the association would help increase its members access to contracts in the region's big construction and resource development projects.

A photo from the 1960s shows Indigenous people fighting for inclusion in the economy.

But Campre says the breakthrough is yet to materialize and many companies still feel on the outside.

"The more things change, the more things stay the same," he says.

Campre, president of the site maintenance business Ogakie Industries, has been urging the governments of Alberta and Edmonton to remodel their contract bidding processes.

Governments examining contracts

"It would be great for the city and the province to have a 'set-aside program' or an Indigenous procurement strategy to allow Indigenous participation into the economy," he says.

It's not a new request.

Campre is reminded of a photo from the 1960s he saw at the Royal Alberta Museum; Indigenous people were asking for the same inclusion back then. "It's frustrating."

There are no promises yet, but the province and city both say they're working on the issue, examining current agreements that are in place.

Campre is still putting the pressure on behind the scenes for the kind of reconciliation approach he believes could make the most difference for Edmonton's Indigenous population today.

Read more stories from Edmonton: The New Capital on cbc.ca/edmonton or listen to CBC Radio One, 93.9 FM/740 AM.


Gareth Hampshire is an award-winning journalist who began his career with CBC News in 1998. He has worked as a reporter in Edmonton and is now based in Halifax.