Walk for Common Ground, a walk to raise awareness of treaties between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples, came through Central Alberta on June 6th.
The walk is 15-day walk from Edmonton to Calgary and is comprised of 30 core walkers from the Union of Health Care Professionals (HSAA), faith-community members, school division leaders, Dr. Pat Makokis and members of First Nations communities across Treaty 6 and 7 territory — along with day walkers who joined the group for miles, hours or days at a time.
At each stop, the group stops in communities and engages in a short treaty teaching session, followed by a Talking Circle in order to, “Engage indigenous and non-indigenous citizens in reflection and dialogue about the myths, facts and obligations of treaty relationships and create a safe space to explore better future possibilities.”
“Today in Canada you hear the phrase ‘We are all treaty people’,” Tanya Fontaine-Porozni, non-indigenous member of the Parkland School Division(PSD) – St. Paul, said. “We are trying to bring awareness to what that really means.
“A lot of people are uncertain and maybe don’t care, so it is very important that we understand that treaties are not just for indigenous peoples. They are for all people.”
Fontaine-Porozni said that as a non-indigenous person, it is important for her to shine light on injustices endured by indigenous peoples in Canada.
“It is a human rights issue with what is happening in indigenous communities and the stresses the federal government is imposing on them, she said.
These injustices are both past and present in Canada and Fontaine-Porozni said that indigenous peoples have been, “Ignored, put off and dismissed for 150 years or more.”
“There are people in this country that do not have clean drinking water; that don’t have proper housing; there are discrepancies in terms of funding for education — there are children on reserves with 40 to 60 per cent funding for their educational needs, so unless you know people in those situations it can be easy for people in Canada to say, ‘We don’t know those people and that is not happening to us’,” said.
“It is happening to us because as a society we all suffer when we don’t look after all of our citizens”
The support along the walk has been incredible, according to Fontaine Porozni.
“We are engaging people along the way and we have had evening sessions with a circle process,” she said. “We have watched film and discussed why we all care about this issue. We see that there are things that make us human and bring us together as people.”
The walk and the engagement process are ultimately about using love and kindness to invoke change.
“We don’t have any hatred, we are coming together and that is why this walk is called Walk for Common Ground,” she said. “We are here and we need to build relationships, we need to care about each other and non-indigenous people need to start taking action.”
Ultimately, the focus on treaties — at the very least — is important because it reminds people that North American was not barren and empty before European settlement.
“This land was not empty. This land, before Europeans came, was inhabited by many indigenous groups. If nothing else, we should be able to be grateful and respectful,” Fontaine-Porozni said.
TJ Skalski — indigenous PSD member and member of the Treaty 7 Blood Tribe — said part of the walk is also introducing the term ‘settler ally’ to those who have not yet heard the term.
“There is the idea that we are not asking non-indigenous to do it for us, but rather walk with us,” she said. “We want them to share the pain, share the story and be part of the healing, part of the journey. It is about coming together in solidarity and unity.”
Creating solidarity also includes educating children on treaties — something PSD members are incorporating into their practice.
“If we can begin these teachings and continue to access our knowledge-keepers in a good way, if we begin to bridge the divide, then we are well on our way to change our story here in Canada,” Skalski said.
Felicia Ochs, non-indigenous PSD member from Stony Plain, is a new Canadian and said this walk has helped her learn about Albertans in a positive way.
“This is the coolest way to see Alberta and the spirit of Albertans who want to do this work better for their children,” she said. “We are thanking our school division for making this walk about our children and our children’s children.
“We really believe this country is on the right track.”
Skalski said that walking with people like Ochs is a way to show how relationships between indigenous and non-indigenous can work.
“I think it is really important that Felicia and I are walking together as settler ally and indigenous person from Treaty 7, the Blood Tribe,” she said. “We are modelling that we are in this together and we will walk in pain and suffering, yet with lightness and hope.”
Ochs added she wanted to thank the HSAA for supporting this initiative.
“If Canadians are looking for ways to be allies, this is an example of an action that was done by a group that has nothing to do with indigenous people specifically — they are unionists and have taken this on as their social justice cause,” she said.
Skalski added, “We want to honour creator, honour our elders and honour the ceremony we got to experience(in Maskwacis). That lifted us up to help us carry on today, which is one of our longest legs — 30 km. We are grateful.”