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Photo from the Odawa Native Friendship Centre's website.

Kizhaay Anishinaabe Niin: Ending violence against Indigenous women from the ground up

By Terry Steeves on January 25, 2017

The Odawa Native Friendship Centre, located at Ottawa’s City Centre, is a non-profit organization that provides a wealth of services to Ottawa’s aboriginal community such as programs for all age groups and needs, cultural events, and social/recreational activities.

Their most recent program being developed is called Kizhaay Anishinaabe Niin (“I am a kind man”), which is geared toward Indigenous men and males to end all forms of violence against Indigenous women. I attended an information session about the program on Monday night, where I planned to sit, listen, and take a few notes. What I had not counted on is how those next few hours would change my life, and the way I would view myself as a member of my community, as and as a Canadian citizen.

Feeling slightly out of place, I found a seat and observed a healthy 50/50 equal attendance of men and women, some who came alone, some with friends, and some who brought their entire families. There was a strong sense of community here, with many who knew and embraced each other.

The program’s coordinator, Jamie Dube, acted as emcee and spoke briefly about the night’s itinerary, which included a documentary screening of “Our Sisters In Spirit”, that focused mainly on the topic of missing and murdered Aboriginal women. Preliminary ceremonial drumming/song, prayer/blessing of the food would resume, and the aromas of tobacco, sage, sweetgrass, and cedar filled the air with their purifying properties.

Cultural coordinator Vince Kicknosway spoke of the need to preserve and re-instill the teachings of their grandfathers and grandmothers in a heritage that regards women as being the bringers of life, the heads of their families, and honoured as the most precious things on Earth.

The goal of “I am a kind man” is to empower men to help other men in the protection of women, to honour and respect everything in life, and to guide their children with these ideals:

“We need to know who we are and where we want to go as a people. We are born with the gift of senses that allow us to shape who we are as a person on a day to day basis. We want to teach our men how to be better men.”

I was moved by the humble, yet profound words from this man and others that showed strength, pride, and taking responsibility. The program supports healthy relationships and indigenous identities through one-to-one or group-based services, participant-based and public awareness activities, networking and partnership building.

The 2015 documentary “Our Sisters In Spirit”, put together by Nick Printup, explored the question of a national inquiry into Canada’s missing and murdered indigenous women, versus a community action approach. The statistics are alarming, not only the nearly 1,200 missing/murdered, but the fact that they are five times more likely to be killed than non-Indigenous women. Emotions ran high with interviews from parents who had lost their daughters, and politicians who agree that these are not individual cases… it is happening all across the nation. It is the government’s responsibility to delve deep into why this is happening, and what action(s) can be taken.

The film also explored the over 150,000 Aboriginal children forcibly taken from their families throughout the latter part of the 19th century up until the 70’s, in the government’s attempt to assimilate them into settler society. Generations of a culture were lost, and the mistake created the vast rift between our societies, which may take generations to repair.

Near the end of the seminar, there were a few draws, including a first prize of a tablet/keyboard combination. The numbers called out matched the ticket in my hand, and suddenly I went from a fly on the wall to all eyes upon me. I gingerly made my way up to claim my prize, which I felt somehow undeserving of, as the room erupted with applause. While making my way back to my seat, I felt compelled to say something. I swung around and let my feet carry me back to the front, where I asked permission to say a few words.

It was at that point I felt the impact of everything I’d experienced in those few short hours. I’d received an eye-opening look into the beautiful way of life of these Indigenous Canadians, and their steadfast efforts to preserve their heritage through teaching and lifting each other up.

I opened my heart to tell them the truth about why I was there… originally to write a piece on what I‘d thought would be a typical information session. But I never imagined the emotional effect it would have on me, or that I’d end up standing in front of 150 people giving a speech. In a trembling voice, I thanked the crowd for having made me feel welcome, and even though I wasn’t of Aboriginal descent, I felt connected as a human being, as a woman, a mother, and one who has also been a victim of domestic abuse. I was met with heartfelt smiles and hugs from those around me, followed by other men and women who got up to share their views and stories.

Author’s comments: It is fitting that the gift of this tablet has served to voice my support of programs like Kizhaay Anishinaabe Niin, because they do make a difference in improving our communities as a whole. As non-Indigenous Canadians, we have an obligation to bridge the gap of ignorance that has existed for far too long. It’s understanding how we let it happen, and how we can turn it around by destroying the stigmas, educating ourselves and our children about our First Nations peoples, and replacing those cultural barriers with respect, kindness, and compassion. The trickle down from our government’s efforts is not seeing results fast enough to repair this broken nation: we have to make it happen from the ground up.