'Build bridges rather than build divides': Program helps educate newcomers on Indigenous history and culture

The Regina Open Door Society is holding a summer program for youth, between the ages of 11 and 17, called Reconciliation through Education. 

Organization wants to dismantle racism, stereotypes

Instructor Bill Cook (far right) led a mini Cree camp in Regina this week to teach young newcomers to Canada about Cree traditions and games. (CBC News/Alex Soloducha)

Some young newcomers to Canada say they were bombarded with stereotypes about Indigenous people when they first came to the country.

Now, a Regina organization is working to combat those negative attitudes by educating teens who are open to learning. 

The Regina Open Door Society is holding a summer program for youth, between the ages of 11 and 17, called Reconciliation through Education. 

Youth case worker Megan Brooks said the teenagers are then able to take what they've learned back to their families.

"What they're saying to me is, 'Hey, my parents told me to stay away from First Nations people but now I actually have knowledge to present to them,"' said youth case worker Megan Brooks. 

"They're able to sit down at the supper table and give them that positive information."

Instructor Bill Cook competes in a traditional Cree hand game with one of the students, who is from Syria. (CBC News/Alex Soloducha)

The group of young newcomers is spending July and August learning about historic events in Canada that have impacted Indigenous people, including colonization and residential schools. They are also experiencing First Nation cultural practices. 

The course was developed by an elder and has included prayers, drumming, carving and lacrosse. 

"It's just an introduction of starting to build bridges rather than build divides," said Brooks. 

An instructor from Reindeer Lake is teaching the teenagers the basics of the Cree language, like how to introduce themselves and say hello, at a mini Cree camp this week.

The kids are also playing Cree games and making wood carvings. 

Finding similarities across cultures

Some of the teens said they haven't learned much about the history and culture of Indigenous people in school and the knowledge they've gained over the summer has led to a better understanding. In some cases, it's even meant finding similarities.

Anzal Omar, who moved to Regina four years from Kenya, said First Nations culture and her own culture both emphasize showing respect for elders. 

"Muslim people, when there's many older people, we go to them and shake [their hands] and then talk to them and ask them how they are. And First Nations people, they do the same thing," Omar said. 

From what she's learned of First Nations culture, it's focused on respecting and caring for each other, she said.

The youth enrolled in the course took turns playing run and scream, a game where participants test their lung capacity by using one breath to run as far as they can while screaming. The person who gets the farthest, wins. (CBC News)

Omar said she has often heard speculation from people questioning why Indigenous men have long hair, which is a question she had herself.

"But then right now I know what that meant for them and having the long hair is kind of their religion, like for us wearing hijab is our religion."

Many of the kids said the thorough course on Indigenous Canadians is something they want more people to experience. 

Raj Metker moved to Regina one year ago from India. On Wednesday he learned how to carve wood as part of the Reconciliation through Education course. (CBC News/Alex Soloduhca)

Raj Metker moved to Regina one year ago from India and said he didn't know anything about what First Nations people had been through. He said it reminded him of his own ancestors who experienced British colonization. 

"You should learn about Canada and its history, and the people who lived here before, before coming to Canada and before assuming something they are," said Metker. "I think all the newcomers should help Indigenous people regain and recover from the previous things. 

"I am doing that by learning about them."

The program will wrap up with a day at the Piapot Traditional Powwow on Aug. 17.