By Dan Rankin
From July 12 to 14 in Niagara Falls, the 37th Annual Assembly of First Nations took place, with major events including Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould discussing the future of the federal Indian Act, and Assembly Chief Perry Bellegarde signing a “memorandum of understanding” with the RCMP, which aims to improve native relations with the police force.
DCVI graduate Kiana Sheldon, who completed her diploma in First Nations Studies at Fanshawe College two years ago, was in Niagara Falls for the Assembly, and sat in on opening speeches by several chiefs, including Bellegarde, as well as some from communities in Saskatchewan and British Columbia.
“We also heard from speakers such as Health Minister Jane Philpott, and the mayor of Niagara Falls, Jim Diodati,” Sheldon told the Independent. “A group of youths also spoke who had walked to Niagara in order to raise awareness for the struggles they were facing on their land, particularity the high suicide rates. The group, from Attawapiskat, had walked over 900 km.”
The general assembly’s first day also included the announcement by Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day that First Nations communities in Ontario would benefit from the sale of Hydro One shares.
“As of 9:00 am this morning, the province of Ontario has entered into an agreement in principle with all 133 First Nations communities to sell 15 million shares of Hydro One for our collective benefit,” he said in his opening remarks.
Sheldon, who has aboriginal heritage herself, said she had the chance to attend some of the assembly because her sister and brother-in-law both work in First Nations communities.
“My sister, Alex Syrette, is the Communications Coordinator for the Batchewana First Nation of Ojibway Administration Office, and my brother in-law, Andy Rickard, is the Central Regional Coordinator for the Aboriginal Sport and Wellness Council of Ontario, as well as being a Councillor for the Garden River community,” she said. “I was interested to see what sort of speakers, events, and topics would be there, so I decided to join them. I was able to attend and register as a student, allowing me access to watch all speakers.”
Sheldon said she knew it would be a big event, but she was still surprised at the amount of people at the Assembly. “It was awesome to see how many people are interested in gathering to discuss issues pertinent to us,” she said. “If our people come together to decide on things as a whole, we can better understand how to approach issues with an agreeable solution.”
The thing that struck her most about what she saw was the amount of positivity displayed, even though a lot of the topics being discussed were anything but positive. “They touched on topics such as suicide rates, residential school survivors, and poor living conditions, to name a few,” she said. “The man who spoke for the group of youths that walked to Niagara even broke down in tears on stage. Some of these topics were downright uncomfortable to hear. However, there still remained an atmosphere of positivity and hope. Our speakers were hopeful that we would be seeing a brighter future for First Nations people, as well as the relationship between First Nations and the government, and the rest of Canada.”
Sheldon was able to complete Fanshawe’s two-year First Nations Studies program in three semesters. She said the course helped open her eyes to a number of issues that she is now passionate about. “It was interesting to learn about culture and spirituality in an academic environment,” she said. “Many of our classes covered topics that included historical events and impacts, political issues, geographical understanding, and so on.”
She is currently enrolled at Fanshawe once more, in the middle of a Graphic Design program.
“Although my current studies do not relate directly to the F.N.S. program, I find many ways in my life to practice the knowledge I’ve gathered from it,” she said. “I try to incorporate my culture and spirituality into my art, and I’m conscientious of the ongoing issues, movements, and triumphs of my people. I am currently looking for ways to combine my different educations.”
Sheldon plans on attending the Assembly again next year, “and hopefully on and on,” she said.