How Canada's philanthropic sector is engaged in Reconciliation

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After the Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued its final report in 2015, all sectors of Canadian society began asking themselves what came next, in how to redress past wrongs and how to create a more reconciled future in which Canada’s Indigenous peoples have a seat at the table.

This has also been an important question for the philanthropic sector and, in fact, now is “an opportune moment for Canada’s philanthropic community to engage in and demonstrate leadership on reconciliation” according to The Philanthropic Community’s Declaration of Action, a statement prepared by a group of Canada's philanthropic organizations including The Circle on Philanthropy and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada, Community Foundations of Canada, Philanthropic Foundations Canada, and The Counselling Foundation of Canada. The statement has been signed by more than 100 charities, nonprofits, foundations and community foundations around the country.

This same commitment to Reconciliation has been an important focus within Canada150 projects and events perhaps most especially through the Community Foundations of Canada’s Community Fund for Canada’s 150th. As such, CharityVillage thought it would be important to talk with community foundations about the Reconciliation work in which they are engaged.

The national picture

Community Foundations of Canada (CFC) describes 2017 as a “transformative moment in time to support Reconciliation and reshape the relationship between Aboriginal peoples and all Canadians.” Sara Lyons, vice president at CFC and who leads many of CFC’s strategic initiatives including partnership with Indigenous people, says, “We are thinking about what role community foundations might have in Reconciliation. There are obvious roles, such as making grants to Indigenous-focused charities, but there are other ways such as building relationships with Indigenous communities, leaders and charities.” Lyons further observes, “The first step is personal development and organizational learning within our organization. Unless we do this well, we aren’t ready to build partnerships.”

Among the ways CFC is doing this is a focus on reconciliation at their recent national conference and inviting Indigenous leaders to share their wisdom as plenary speakers, exhibiting art made from of remnants of residential schools and collaborating with Reconciliation Canada around a series of pre-conference activities.

The Community Fund for Canada’s 150th provided a unique opportunity for community foundations across the country to support Indigenous-led projects. The Fund, seeded by the Government of Canada and matched and delivered locally by Canada’s 191 community foundations, provided support to more than 2,100 projects across the country, and included among its objectives: “[to] inspire a deeper understanding about the people, places and events that shape our country and our communities” and/or “[to] build vibrant and healthy communities with the broadest possible engagement of all Canadians, including Indigenous peoples; groups that reflect our cultural diversity; youth; and official language minorities.”

More than 550 of the 150 Fund initiatives were Indigenous-led projects. These included Adventure in Understanding, a six-day 100-kilometre canoe voyage led by the Rotary Club of Peterborough Kawartha, Camp Kawartha and the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough in an effort to engage First Nation and non-Indigenous youth in an opportunity to learn about Indigenous culture and to develop greater understanding. “Building relationships of trust and understanding with our local First Nations is an emerging, but important part of our foundation’s work,” said John Good, executive director of the Community Foundation of Greater Peterborough.

Other community foundations across the country are ensuring Reconciliation is integrated into their work. The Ottawa Community Foundation is partnering with the Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health to create and implement a unique culturally-based curriculum rooted in traditional teachings, led by the Indigenous community. The Victoria Foundation has established a Reconciliation task group within their board of directors to define and examine the relationship between philanthropy and Reconciliation, and to determine the most effective ways of integrating the two. The Edmonton Community Foundation made the city’s Indigenous population the focus of its 2015 Vital Signs report, forming an advisory committee made up of Indigenous community members, committing to ongoing storytelling in its quarterly magazine, and hosting an event highlighting Aboriginal women and the arts.

A look at Calgary

One community foundation doing substantial work in this area is the Calgary Foundation. President and CEO Eva Friesen recalls the challenge to community foundations by former Governor-General David Johnston to make an impact on a group not currently being served by their foundation. “We realized that we weren’t serving the Indigenous population of Calgary well – if our purpose is belonging, they were belonging less.” Friesen cites familiar but still shocking statistics: while 16% of Alberta’s population is Indigenous, First Nations’ people make up 90% of people in jail, with similar discrepancies around education, homelessness, etc.

Initially, the Calgary Foundation, like many organizations, began by spending money to address this problem. “Nothing changed as a result of prioritizing spending on Indigenous young people, but when we looked at this, it hit us hard: it might not make a difference because it wasn’t about money. We had it all wrong if all we did was make grants.” The foundation realized that many of the recommendations from the TRC were about relationship. They experienced an attitudinal shift, pulling together an advisory group of Indigenous people in the community and eventually hiring Tim Fox as the Foundation’s Director, Indigenous Relations.

A proud member of the Blackfoot confederacy from the Blood (Kainai) reserve, Fox says, “I’m trying to contribute to a shift in thoughts.” His work includes context-setting workshops, legacy identification and increasing awareness around the treaty relationship, Indigenous and non-Indigenous history, etc. One of his key projects has been developing and offering workshops on intergenerational trauma. In Fox’s workshops, he uses an activity with playdough to help visualize what Impacts of Intergenerational Trauma looks like today for the Indigenous community.

“Only when you feel what a residential school survivor feels can you understand the importance of Reconciliation,” explains Fox, who adds that the notion of intergenerational trauma is not unique to Indigenous people.

Because Fox draws on his own family history and his personal story in this and other exercises, he says that initially the process was retraumatizing. Lyons emphasizes, “We need to recognize the emotional labour involved in being the person in the room who brings this perspective – to recognize that in contexts where there has been violence and trauma, this isn’t abstract for people.”

Fox says he has come to lean on Indigenous practices for healing, as well as the support of elders who encourage him in this work. He also observes the healing power of talking about experiences. “Many survivors have negative health and mental health issues because they have internalized their grief, and they are holding onto traumatic experiences. Sharing my story has helped me let go of some of the things I held onto.”

Of his role, Fox says, “Non-Indigenous people are afraid to offend, but true dialogue begins with truth-telling and sharing.”

Truth-telling and listening

“Sometimes our greatest barrier to success is the expertise we feel we have,” says Friesen. “When you are ‘the expert’, you have bigger blind spots.” She recalls sitting next to Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, who said to her, “We won’t see change until we can have a mutual value exchange.” While she did not want to seem offensive or ignorant, Friesen asked Bellegarde what this meant, saying, “I can see the value going from my direction to yours. Help me see the value in the other direction.” When Bellegarde explained the way an Indigenous value for land would speak into the community foundation’s sustainability initiatives, “It was an ah-ha for me,” says Friesen. “We don’t know what we don’t know, and we need to learn to see through this lens.”

And this goes beyond Calgary. “I’m seeing huge energy around Reconciliation and Indigenous people in the ways that the philanthropic sector talks to itself, learns and catalyzes change,” says Lyons. “I’ve heard Indigenous people speaking from the stage at events or on social media describe a growing interest that the nonprofit and foundation sectors are playing a role in Reconciliation — but I have also heard caution. The first step is not to pick up the phone and say, ‘hey, we have money for a program. Do you want to be our partner?’ It begins with self-education, self-awareness and relationship building.”

And there is still significant contention. Lyons says, “I hear frustration with the extent to which there are still a lot of people in significant power in Canadian society — including in the nonprofit sector — who have very little knowledge of Canadian history and politics around Indigenous people. Others are frustrated by those who are starting to learn and who act as though this is all new, when many people have been devoting our lives to working on this for a long time. The onus is on leaders to do their own work in getting educated and understanding issues, and not treating an Indigenous person who generously comes to a conference as a resource bank.”

Further issues surround Canada’s sesquicentennial. Fox says, “Canada 150 was a point of contention for Indigenous communities, not a time to celebrate.” However, he sees change here too, citing the dialogue between the Canada150 movement and Dr. Leroy Little Bear: “When Leroy Little Bear was asked to be an ambassador of Canada150, he said, ‘You need to know this is not a cause for celebration but assimilation and genocide, so if I take on this role, I will use the platform to tell that untold story, to encourage Canada to enter into the truth-telling movement and prioritizing Indigenous experience.’ And they were fine with that. A lot of Canada150 projects focused on incorporating that truth-telling first, and authentic Indigenous experiences where people are connecting to knowledge keepers and elders on land in that territory.”

Moving forward

“When we talk about Reconciliation,” Fox says, “we shouldn’t have a deadline or a certain amount of money, but rather to move away from a prescriptive approach focused on creating programs meant to fix a population. We will see real change when we work together and when Reconciliation is embedded in society as a movement of societal shifts.” He adds, “This work doesn’t belong to any one sector, but is a basic Canadian responsibility of all sectors. Impact happens when people continue the dialogue about Reconciliation with their family and friends.”

Citing the term used by Indigenous Canadian filmmaker Cowboy Smithx and Saskatoon-based Indigenous feminist and community organizer Erica Violet Lee, Fox calls on all Canadians to not only be allies but accomplices in the work of Reconciliation – “Allies are necessary and a good thing. But an accomplice suggests action. It’s one thing to educate yourself and be open to change, but the question is what are you doing to bring about change?”

Friesen is joining Fox at the North American Community Foundations Summit in Mexico City in February 2018 where together they will talk about Reconciliation.

While much is still to be done, Fox says, “These dialogues are happening a lot more than they did five years ago. There is an increase in interest and prioritization of Indigenous voices, and organizations who are open to provide space and opportunities to learn from one another. I’m also hopeful about younger generations: when I present these ideas to a group of youth, we find that young people are ready for change and coming to understand the impacts of the untold story, and they want to be engaged in this dialogue and in change. But ultimately, whether you are Indigenous or non-Indigenous, young or old, and in whatever sector, this is something to prioritize and integrate in your work.”

Resources for further information

Reconciliation Canada - registered charity engaging Canadians in dialogue and transformative experiences that revitalize the relationships among Indigenous peoples and all Canadians. (BC)

The Circle/Le Cercle - an open network to promote giving, sharing, and philanthropy in Aboriginal communities across the country. (Ottawa)

Truth and Reconciliation Commission Reports

Reconciliation 101: Activate Your Journey

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

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