Manitoba

'Our elders are our libraries': 9 Indigenous grandparents honoured for work to protect culture

Hundreds of Winnipeggers came together Thursday night to celebrate nine grandmothers and grandfathers for their work to preserve and restore traditional Indigenous knowledge.

16th annual event hosted by Ka Ni Kanichihk at RBC Convention Centre in Winnipeg

Anne-Marie Desjarlais was one of nine grandmothers and grandfathers honoured at Ka Ni Kanichihk's Keep the Fires Burning event on Thursday evening. (Julianne Runne/CBC)

Hundreds of Winnipeggers came together Thursday night to celebrate nine grandmothers and grandfathers for their work to preserve and restore traditional Indigenous knowledge.

"Our elders are our libraries. They're the ones that have preserved and protected and then transmit traditional knowledge," said Leslie Spillett, executive director of Ka Ni Kanichihk, a support services agency for Indigenous people in Winnipeg.

Thursday marked the 16th year of the centre's Keeping the Fires Burning event honouring elders from across the province, hosted this year at the RBC Convention Centre. Over the years, Ka Ni Kanichihk has inducted more than 100 people into the ranks, each nominated by a different group.

Spillett said the event started as an effort to create a space to honour people who had spent their lives protecting, strengthening and sharing traditional knowledge.
 
"You have to honour that resilience and that spirit," she said.

Mayor Brian Bowman attended the event and called it an "incredibly special evening."

"Tonight's event is really about pride," he said. "It's about celebration and honouring those that have led and are leading in our community, but it is also a reminder of the ongoing work that we all need to do as Canadians to respond to the calls to action in the [Truth and Reconciliation Commission.]"

'We need to get back to our culture'

Anne-Marie Desjarlais said she was "in awe" when she found out she'd been chosen for the honour by the Southern Chiefs' Organization. 

The great-grandmother has been an educator in First Nations across Manitoba for more than 40 years, teaching Indigenous languages to children as young as kindergarten-age. Desjarlais grew up speaking Cree and learned Ojibway later in life through her husband.

Her students are eager to learn, she said, and she wants to see more elders in the classroom to help them.

"I feel that we need to go back to our culture. A lot of us have lost it, because of things that have happened in the past," she said.

Desjarlais said she found her culture again as an adult after losing it as a child living in Grand Rapids, Man. In school, she and her peers weren't allowed to speak Cree, although she says she's "one of the fortunate ones" who kept the language.

When she saw her first powwow in university, she had an anxiety attack.

"It was all new to me when I met my husband, because I didn't know anything about our culture," she said.

Cecil Desjarlais was a residential school survivor from Sandy Bay First Nation, and he helped her regain her connection to traditional practices, she said. Around 35 years ago, he gave her a feather, which she carried with her on Thursday night.

"It's very emotional for me right now, because my husband would have been proud of me," she said.

"I lost my husband five years ago. My husband was an educator, he was a politician. My husband taught me a lot, and that's why I'm carrying this feather now, because I got that good teaching from him, and I am so thankful to have gotten my culture back."​

With files from Aidan Geary and Janet Stewart

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