A day of learning can make a lifetime of difference

Kelly Brownbill exuded warmth as she welcomed Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) staff to a small room at Ottawa’s Lord Elgin Hotel.

As an educator and facilitator, Kelly wanted to create a space that is safe and comfortable for participants, which is why she introduced the concept of a circle.

Circles, she explained, have always been used for meetings of importance, whether for ceremony or for governance. Circles are a way to form trust, to sit without hierarchy, and to feel heard. “The best thing about a circle,” she said, “is that you can’t get cornered in one.”

After a smudging ceremony and a round of introductions, “Indigenous people like a good, long introduction,” she quipped, Brownbill was quick to point out that she speaks only from the teachings she has been gifted from her elders. It would be impossible, she explained, for one person to purport to have expertise on the disparate Indigenous cultures that have walked Turtle Island for some 20,000 years.

Brownbill did a masterful job of boiling down millennia of thriving Indigenous culture into a concise and accessible form. She explained, at times with comedic flare, the cogent and thoughtful traditional method of government, the clan system, for example. Her lucid depiction of Indigenous governance made it apparent why and how a consensus-based society, rooted in what Brownbill called “a plurality of wisdoms,” had been effective for thousands of years.

“No one skill was valued above the other, just as no one person’s perspective was prized above others. We were a society that didn’t keep score. We worked in concert for the betterment of the community.”

And it was this attitude of sharing — not only of tangible resources like food and land, but also of intangibles like decision-making power — that baffled the European settlers whose world view comprised a strict hierarchy and inherent competition for scant resources. By painting a vivid picture of a thriving pre-contact civilization — within a challenging environment — Brownbill showed participants the value of what was lost.

She also debunked the moral authority of the Doctrine of Discovery, the justification for the dispossession of Indigenous peoples by European colonists. “People often say Indigenous people survived for thousands of years before contact. We didn’t survive, we thrived!” she said. “You don’t manage for 20,000 years if you’re hanging on by your fingernails. We didn’t need saving, or civilizing. But the chasm of misunderstanding between our ways of being and doing and those of the settlers was so vast that what at first may have been a well-intentioned effort to ‘educate us’ soon became an overzealous determination to erase us.”

In other words, said Brownbill, while in the earliest days of contact Indigenous people were useful to the settlers, as waves of Europeans arrived in search of land and furs, Indigenous peoples began to get in the way. What was once a mutually beneficial relationship — for what she calls the “mere blink of the eye”— quickly became a concerted campaign of destruction.

Balance, said Brownbill, is the key to Indigenous culture. But when, as she described, systematic policies were mounted against Indigenous peoples to take the “Indian out of the child” — as with residential schools and Indian day schools, the balance in communities was thrown totally out of whack.

“The day the laughter left, that’s how I’ve heard it described,” said Brownbill, referring to the haunting emptiness that echoed in communities where children were forcibly removed in the name of assimilation.

While Brownbill was visibly emotional when sharing personal stories of family members who endured the horrors of residential schools, she was also quick to point out that they are just one chapter in a book full of policies written with the intent of rubbing out an entire people.

She ticked off the injustices thrust upon Indigenous peoples, from forced “enfranchisement” — which translated to trading your Indian status for basic rights like voting — to the plight of returning war veterans, who fought for freedom on equal footing but were forced to renounce their Indigenous identity to gain equal benefits back on home soil.

“After first contact, as many as 50 to 75 per cent of a thriving population was eradicated due to disease and other complicated societal shifts,” said Brownbill. “It’s actually a miracle, given the hundreds of years of colonization and relentless assimilationist policies that followed, that I can sit here and speak to you in the language of my ancestors.”

The atmosphere in the room was one of concentrated learning with a sprinkling of levity. It was Brownbill’s ability to deliver the harrowing story of the near extinction of a people, without pointing a finger of blame or asking participants to shoulder the guilt of their forebears, that created a sense of shared purpose and bridged a deeply fraught cultural divide.

The stark realities facing Indigenous people today are not in dispute: rates of addiction and suicide five-times greater than the general population; significant overrepresentation in the penal system; and underrepresentation at universities and colleges. The impact of generations of theft — of identity, resources, autonomy, hope, and opportunity — has ripped holes in what was once a vibrant cultural fabric.

But from where Brownbill sits, reconciliation isn’t about settlers atoning for the sins of their fathers. It’s about working together, where we can, to mend the holes left behind. It’s about combatting ignorance — which she happily declared is “one hundred per cent curable!” — in order to address the vast inequities facing Indigenous people.

For MHCC staff, the day was about making space, in a small meeting room in a downtown hotel, for the stories of a people whose resiliency and unbreakable spirit survived a campaign of destruction and who are rising to reclaim cultures and kinships that were lost but not forgotten. It was also about examining their own roles in creating a better present, and a brighter future, out of the ashes of the past.

Brownbill herself went on a personal journey of discovery later in life, having grown up outside her home community. But it was with glowing pride that she described a very different reality for her own daughter, who has known her spirit name from birth and will never have to reclaim a culture that was rightfully hers.