Report: Champions of Change: 4 stories of Indigenous champions changing Ontario

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On National Indigenous Peoples Day CBC Ontario profiles four champions of change, people who are working to make ongoing contributions to their community: meet Rita Corbiere of Wikwemikong First Nation on Manitoulin Island; The Bear Clan Patrol in Thunder Bay, Stevie Jonathan of Six Nations of the Grand River near Hamilton;  and Melanie Garant, a Mohawk living in Windsor.

Rita Corbiere: teaching the language she was told never to speak

Imagine being told never to speak the language you were first taught.

That’s what Wikwemikong First Nation’s Rita Corbiere was told when she went to residential school. Since then, the 83-year-old Corbiere has laboured tirelessly to ensure an integral part of her culture isn’t lost.

Although Corbiere regularly speaks the language, effortlessly weaving Anishinaabe phrases with English, she says it falls to the community to ensure the language flows along in everyday usage.

“We have to continue doing what we’re doing,” Corbiere told CBC News. “Those who are hesitating, we need to help them along, start using the language.” 

Rita Corbiere of the Wikwemikong First Nation, along with other community members, have been compiling what they refer to as “The Old List” – words that Corbiere says people hardly use and words that will one day form the basis of an Anishinaabe dictionary. (CBC)

To assist in that, Corbiere and some community members have been compiling what they refer to as “The Old List” – words that she says people hardly use and words that will one day form the basis of an Anishinaabe dictionary.

She said she hopes that reference tool will encourage more youth in speaking the language.

‘I was forced to learn.’

“We have to motivate them, we have to find that one magic thing that will help motivate them to start speaking, be confident and use it everyday,” she said. “It defines you.”

Corbiere said she learned English when she was in Grade 8 at a Spanish River residential school.

“That was full immersion when I entered residential school,” she said. “There were no native language speakers at that time. Everyone spoke English.”

“I was forced to learn. And I learned it, because I wanted to, because I had to.”

Now in her retirement, Corbiere says she attends weekly classes at a heritage association in Wikwemikong, sharing the language and making herself available to anyone hoping to learn about the culture. She said she hopes there’s not as much hesitation about taking the first steps in learning.

“The elders, the fluent speakers are always available to help,” she said. “All they’ll say is use one of the seven teachings, be courageous and say, ‘I need help.'”

Thunder Bay: The Bear Clan Patrol

Many of the members in the Bear Clan Patrol have CPR training and they also carry Naloxone kits if they come across a person in distress. (CBC)

The Bear Clan Patrol in Thunder Bay was born out of a need for change. There was a desire to make the city a safer place. The group of volunteers would do regular patrols, search for missing students, and get involved in community outreach.

As Anna Betty Achneepineskum, a Deputy Grand Chief with Nishnawbe Aski Nation, a political territorial organization representing 49 First Nation communities within northern Ontario, said in late 2016: “If we’re visible out there in the community, and promoting respect and care, then we can be part of … dealing with some of these issues that continue to harm our people.”

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To put Achneepineskum’s comment in perspective, between 2000 and 2011 seven students died while attending high school in Thunder Bay, hundreds of kilometres away from their remote First Nations where access to education is limited. Three of them were just 15 years old when their bodies were pulled from a local river. Two other teens are believed to have drowned while two more may have overdosed. The province eventually agreed to hold a coroner’s inquest to examine the circumstances of their deaths and make recommendations to prevent others. Sadly, less than a year after the end of the inquest, two other First Nation teens were found in a Thunder Bay river, within weeks of each other, in May, 2017.

Following a strong initial response for volunteers when patrols started in the spring of 2017 there was a struggle to keep the numbers up. Achneepineskum said “There was a few times where, if myself and one of the team leads couldn’t come out, then pretty well there was no patrol. There was a real concern the Bear Clan Patrol would not continue because the core members were starting to burn out.

Discarded needles

Last month, however, the group launched its spring and summer season in hopes of boosting volunteer numbers. They are also getting more support from the community. The group “100 People Who Care” gave the Bear Clan Patrol nearly $4,000.00 and the local Home Depot is donating safety vests, flashlights and gloves for ground searches.

What scares me is the thought that, what if no one was around.– Jen Chisholm 

The boost seems to be working. On a recent Saturday evening over a dozen people showed up to conduct patrols. Jen Chisholm was one of four team leads taking the patrol out that night.

“It’s always nice to see people who hear about us and want to spend their time out with us walking around,”  Chisholm said. “It reminds you of how much people in this city care about each other for the most parts.”

It was a fairly quiet evening. They stopped and chatted with a couple of groups who were sitting by the Neebing-McIntyre Floodway. It’s a simple conversation asking them how they are and ending with a “be safe” as the patrol moves on. Many of the members in the Bear Clan Patrol have CPR training and they also carry Naloxone kits.

 The thought of coming across a really stressful situation doesn’t weight too heavily on Chisholm’s mind.

“We are in contact with each other, we have walkie-talkies and we are able to get help if it’s needed,” she says.

“It feels a lot more empowering than scary. I think what scares me is the thought that, what if no one was around, right, so that seems more worrisome to me.”

After over two hours the most serious issue the patrol has had to deal with is the collection of about a dozen discarded needles found in various neighbourhood locations. Their reward is a few shouted calls of ‘thank you’ and a couple of beeps of the horn from passing motorists. That’s all the group is asking for.

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“I think we are making a change. I think we’re just by being present, by being a presence in this city where people know that there’s just folks out walking around looking out for them and making sure that people are safe,” Chisholm say. “Yeah, I think we are a positive presence in the city.”

The members of the Bear Clan Patrol in Thunder Bay walk the streets to make the city a safer place. 2:06

Stevie Jonathan: A young leader from Six Nations of the Grand River

“Stevie is absolutely a fantastic role model and young leader within our community,” said Jennie Anderson, a director of academic and student affairs at Six Nations Polytechnic. (CBC)

It’s hard to say exactly how bright the future is for Stevie Jonathan, 24, of Six Nations of the Grand River but her supervisor at work knows a leader when she sees one.

“Stevie is absolutely a fantastic role model and young leader within our community,” said Jennie Anderson, a director of academic and student affairs at Six Nations Polytechnic, where Jonathan works.

“She’s so involved in so many different things and she’s a young woman that’s grounded in language, culture, and holding Haudenosaunee values and ethics close. It’s always foreground in everything that Stevie does, and I think that’s true exemplary leadership for our young people and Stevie’s a great example of it.”

To be a leader, it means modelling a good mind. It means taking the initiative in your community to better your community and yourself.– Stevie Jonathan

Jonathan grew up in Six Nations where she has returned to work after studying in London, Ont. She’s now working for Six Nations Polytechnic as an academic development officer intern. It’s a natural transition coming from the  school’s Haudenosaunee ambassador program, which focuses on being strong in cultural identity and taking a leadership role within the community. 

In the two years of working at Six Nations Polytechnic, a couple of her highlights include her involvement with the World Indigenous Peoples Conference on Education last year, where she managed the coordination of over 1,000 presentations and assisted with registering over 3,000 delegates from around the globe. 

Currently, she’s part of the school’s continuing education artisan series. It focuses on different Haudenosaunee art elements and she teaches raised beadwork. Art and education, Jonathan says, are two things close to her. 

A good ambassador

“I believe that I’m a good ambassador to my community because I’m really driven. I really like to focus on bettering our community through education and the arts,” said Jonathan.

Jonathan says she first took an interest in community involvement at the age of 10 after winning $1,000 in an essay competition where she got to donate the winnings to a charity of her choice.  

After that, she says she realized she wanted to be a leader in her community and focus on not only the betterment of the youth, but also in general.

“To be a leader, it means modelling a good mind. It means taking the initiative in your community to better your community and yourself,” said Jonathan. 

Over the years her acts of involvement and generosity have snowballed — which is probably why, when asked how people would describe her, Jonathan says, “hardworking and friendly.” 

Two-spirit slam poet describes the term as Windsor group relaunches

Melanie Garant has performed her two-spirit slam at the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia.

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Melanie Garant has a tattoo on her arm that does a lot of the talking for her.

“It’s the pride colours, the rainbow colours and the Yin-Yang. So it shows the two forms of spirit for me – the masculine and feminine spirit within one body,” said Garant, a Mohawk living in Windsor who is two-spirited.

But it’s not like she got the tattoo because she was worried about having to describe what it means to be two-spirited.

Garant is a poet who has written and preformed at events across Windsor in large and intimate gatherings. 

“It’s just getting the word out there, educating people,” said Garant, who has one poem that describes the history of two-spirit people.

What is two-spirit?

“Depends who you ask sometimes,” she answers when asked how she define Indigenous the term. 

“Usually it means that you encompass a male and female sprit within the body, that’s one of the tighter meanings of two-spirit.”

Garant wasn’t always able to express herself openly about her identity. 

“I knew I was not heterosexual from a very young age but I was basically forced to keep it within me and really hiding that part of me,” she said.

When she moved to Ottawa, she became independent and became more open. 

“(It’s) kind of the time to explore who I am really and that’s when I got that tattoo — the pride Yin-Yang — and I thought well now people are going to be asking me questions about that tattoo.”

Garant said she came out to her friends and family when she returned home to Windsor. She laughs as she remembers some of her friends not being surprised.

“My family was like ‘oh, really?’ I don’t think it was really real to them until I had my a girlfriend and they were like ‘Oh, ok. She is two-spirit.'”

Two-spirit group re-launched

When she came back to Windsor in 2006 she looked for a two-spirit group but the closest she could find was a women’s group run by the Can-Am Friendship Circle. 

“I was able to disclose my sexuality and my identity and people were cool with me there but it may not have turned out that way,” said Garant. 

Garant proudly shows the tattoo on her arm that represents her two-spirit identity. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

Garant is one of more than a dozen who attend a recently re-launched Two Spirit Group of Windsor.

The group, led by Conni Ma’iingan, has been around for about five years but recently was offered permanent space at Pride Windsor and now hopes to offer weekly meetings. 

“It gives us a sense of belonging, for me anyway. This is somewhere that I belong, at this moment,” said Garant.

Windsor Pride centre is in a new location where it “deserves to be seen.”

The meetings include a circle where people are invited to share with the group as an Eagle feather is passed around. 

“That’s pretty powerful when you hold that feather. You may not know what you’re going to say when get that feather in your hand.”

Garant said that one of the bigger benefits of the group is that it’s not limited to Indigenous peoples. 

“My partner is non-native and she goes to the group with me and I’m glad that she’s welcome there.”

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