Monday, August 22, 2016

Kat from Heritage Saskatchewan Shares her Treaty Story

“Living Heritage” is the banner tagline on the Heritage Saskatchewan website. “Our values, beliefs and ways of life shape our sense of identity, belonging and place, connecting past, present and future.”

Heritage Saskatchewan Education Coordinator, Katherine Gilks, is an articulate, young professional. I meet Kat at the Historical Thinking Summer Institute in Vancouver, July 2016. She is a passionate Saskatchewanian with an interest in all-things-history about our province. She promotes Heritage Fairs regionally and provincially. I hope to participate in a Heritage Fair with my students this year, and Kat is an enthusiastic coach.

Together with four other women at the HTSI, we develop a professional development workshop with a working title, “Crossing Boundaries: Our Shared Treaty Stories”. I ask Kat if I can interview her, and I am thankful to share her journey towards becoming an ally.

Sheena: What is your Treaty story? What is your Ally story?

Kat: My ancestors came to what is now Canada (specifically what is now the province of New Brunswick) between 1783 and 1840. At this time (and during the time since 1635 when some of my family came to what is now New York), First Nations peoples were seen as less advanced and unsophisticated, but their autonomy as nations was recognised. The Peace and Friendship Treaties were signed that referred to sharing the land and resources as communities existed alongside each other. There were differing opinions on what this “sharing” entitled. Many groups of immigrants set up small communities along rivers and gradually the First Nations communities were reduced to smaller and smaller territories. That said, the Peace and Friendship Treaties are still in effect and the terms therein are significantly different than those of the later numbered treaties in Western Canada. While they were racist and paternalistic, they also were more respectful of First Nations rights to the land and presumed that First Nations people would assimilate naturally, rather than be forced to do so.

My family lived for many years on the traditional lands of the Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet), Mi’kmaq, Wabanaki, and Passamaquoddy peoples. I was born in Regina, Saskatchewan, in the traditional territories of the Cree and Saulteaux peoples, in a city where everything but the cemetery is named Wascana (despite it being an anglicizing of the Cree word for “bones”).

For much of my family’s history, we did not have much interaction with First Nations peoples. This was primarily due to the tendency to stick to one’s local community, and since First Nations communities were separate from the English, Irish, French, etc. communities that my ancestors lived in, they largely viewed them as remote, “other”, exotic peoples who largely existed in the past tense. (Albeit in the early days, they were scared of them because they were strangers in the wilderness while the First Nations were familiar with the territory.) Like most European-Canadians, I think, they didn’t pay any attention unless First Nations treaty rights clashed with their livelihood. From my recollection, this did not happen very often.

Thus I grew up unfamiliar with First Nations except for what I learned in school and from the media. I can recall that I thought that First Nations peoples existed in their respective cultures and then Europeans arrived and everyone built log cabins and sod huts. Growing up in a very multicultural era, I simply thought that First Nations peoples still had their culture just the same as Ukrainians, Chinese, Indians, Germans, etc.

I learned about residential schools from a museum exhibit when I was nine years old. Gradually, I came to understand the complicated and horrible history that occurred. Nonetheless, it was still very removed from me.

My experience has been a mix of frustration, ignorance, and wanting change. The frustration has been primarily with those who still think that history has nothing to do with themselves or that loss of privilege is oppression. I am still very much at the awkward stage of ally-ship, because I have not had much personal interaction with First Nations people, nor has my family historically, and because I know that there are so many different stories. There is no one shared experience.

I need to be able to learn and listen more.

Sheena: What brought you to the Historical Thinking Summer Institute 2016 in Vancouver?

Kat: I was interested in learning about how history, heritage, and historical thinking are taught in schools, as education is not my background, so as to better be able to apply historical thinking to Heritage Saskatchewan’s programming. Attending this Institute was “going to the source” about what historical thinking is and how to apply it.

Sheena: What drew you to our project group?

Kat: Prior to forming the groups, we had all already talked about our various backgrounds and what we wanted to get out of the Institute, as well as our various individual situations. We had a lot of common interests, especially as my focus is broader than just one level of education. It was also good to work with a combination of people from Saskatchewan (my area of focus) and other parts of Canada about the same issues.

Sheena: If we were presenting our project at a conference, what would the blurb in the agenda say?

I quite like how Melanie put it and I like Karen’s title for the workshop.

First Steps on Your Treaty Walk: Beginning the Journey of Discovery on the Road to Indigenous Ally-ship.

A workshop to unsettle, recognize privilege, and help begin the process of decolonization among educators. Where we will work to know our history and move forward together as allies to create an education system that is founded in Indigenous knowledge and perspective, is inclusive and accepting of all peoples, and moves us on a path of reconciliation.

Sheena: As we discuss our various interests, what is your "ah ha" moment?

Kat: “Go forth and be awkward” and how we are all treaty peoples and have our own treaty stories. One of the many hurdles that I face in my work is that people want to separate themselves from historical events (such as saying that they had no part in residential schools) and resistance to a loss of privilege. Education in this is crucial not just for children – although the school is where change starts – but for the 25-55 age group who are the parents of today’s children and the grandparents of tomorrow.

Sheena: What is your key take away from our project and the Historical Thinking Summer Institute?

That we are all part of a continually changing story, and that historical thinking is something accessible to all as long as we have the courage to teach it.

Sheena: Is there anything else you'd like to tell me?

Thank you very much for this interview. I enjoyed meeting you and look forward to working with you more in the future! This is an excellent blog.

When we are first sitting together in our group, we begin our "Jam Session", intended for idea generation, by each thinking of a song – on the spot – that is symbolic of the topics we want to explore. I think of Bob Dylan’s “The Times, They are a Changing”. Kat isn’t so quick with a specific song, but when we push her, she says that it would be something from the “nebulous genre of indie-folk”.

Kat continues, “What draws me to that genre of music is first, its ability to put one at ease at the same time as on edge, usually by mixing a relaxing or fun tune with poignant lyrics; second, its tendency to have meaningful lyrics that are thought-provoking; and third, its general down-to-earth-ness.

“Sounds like a good music-scape for our project,” I tell her.

“Go forth and be awkward,” I add.

Pictures from fence line along Treaty Four grounds
Fort Qu'Appelle, Saskatchewan, "Land of Living Skies"

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