Civil Society

What Does It Mean to Be Gwich’in? Reconciliation Through Self-Reflection

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On October 7, 2021, Jordan Peterson and Bonnie Leask will be at Metropolis Canada’s 4th Annual Forum “Multiculturalism @50: Diversity, Inclusion And Eliminating Racism” leading a Roundtable on Multiculturalism. As part of the Roundtable, participants will be asked to reflect on their own personal histories and cultural identities as a means to better understand their roots and their relationship to mobilizing reconciliation in Canada.

Below, Jordan reflects on his own experience growing into his Gwich’in identity and shares how others can also explore their cultural identity.

This year, in my hometown of Aklavik, which sits high above the Arctic Circle, Canada Day was observed differently. Given the heartbreaking discoveries of thousands of mass graves at former Residential School sites, the day was spent in reflection, rather than celebration.

While progress towards reconciliation is frustratingly slow for young Indigenous leaders like myself, I am heartened that my fellow Canadians are increasingly engaging with reconciliation and the role we can all play in pushing for systemic change. But, while flags at half-mast and cancelled fireworks were a powerful symbol on Canada Day, one day filled with acts of solidarity is not enough to challenge the systems of violence that led us to where we are now.

So, how do we move past symbolic action and towards activating the cultural shifts needed to enable reconciliation? To make changes to systems of governance and inspire action at the highest levels, we must change systems of thinking and challenge how we relate to our own selves, the people around us, and the world as a whole.

If you were to ask me, “Jordan, how do we enable cultural shifts around reconciliation in Canada?”, I would say the first step is to harness the power of self-reflection. I would look inward and ask myself: “What does it mean to be proud to be Gwich’in?” and see how this line of deep self-reflection helps me connect to both my people and other communities around me.

Exploring Cultural Identity as a Means to Reconciliation

Whether you’re Gwich’in, English, or Iranian, exploring your reality and family history is a critical first step towards reconciliation in Canada.

Almost all Indigenous peoples in Canada have to embark on the journey of self-reflection. But every person in Canada can join in by exploring and understanding what it means to be living in Canada, and dig deeper into their experiences and the multitude of lived experiences that exist. One outcome of this work is that non-Indigenous people may gain a deeper understanding of the onerous paths that Indigenous peoples must take, and the collective efforts Nations must put forward, to revive identities stolen from us through Residential Schools, government policies, and legislation. There would be a greater appreciation of the sheer courage Indigenous peoples demonstrate to reclaim their stolen identities, languages, and ceremonies—which, in Canada, was illegal to do until the late 1950s.

In my view, reconciliation starts with each of us understanding our traditions, homelands, and even our biases. It starts with each of us understanding how our diverse ways of living, knowing, and working brings our own communities together, and builds bridges and nurtures deeper wells of empathy amongst different communities.

Too many times, Indigenous peoples are asked to simply “get over” the pain and loss they’ve experienced at the hands of this country—but if others can truly understand what it means to put together the pieces of the past to build yourself and your people back up again, then they will understand why “just getting over it” isn’t an option.

My Journey to Reclaim My Cultural Identity

I’ve always struggled with my cultural identity because I am both Gwich’in and Inuvialuit, with family lineage tied to Scotland and Sweden. This European lineage, and the racism of the Indian Act discriminated against and seeked to remove our peoples’ identity, which meant that my mother and many others were defined as “Métis” or “non-status.” Fortunately the Gwich’in in the Northwest Territories took an inclusive approach to Nation re-building and regardless of “Indian” status or non-status, its people are seen as Gwich’in, no questions asked.

I was taught about my identity through the tough teachings of my Grandfather James Mcdonald out on the land who instilled in us the responsibility that we have as individuals to our people of the Gwich’in Nation. These lessons only began to resonate with me later on in life when re-building relationships with my Nation and Elders in our communities. It started on December 2, 2013, when I returned home from Alberta to my Gwich’in homelands to work for my Nation and its youth as an Intergovernmental Officer Trainee. During my first week, I participated in cultural training with Elders Sarah and Freddy Jerome, who in the first minute of my first day asked me: What does it mean to be proud to be Gwich’in? I had no answer. I had never been asked before, yet alone challenged to think critically about my cultural identity. Over the last 8 years, my answer to this question has changed tremendously. Today, I can say with clarity and confidence: I am Indigenous, I am Inuvialuit, I am Scottish, I am Swedish, and most importantly I am proud to be Gwich’in! Now, I challenge you to ask yourself: Who am I?

Ways to Explore Your Cultural Identity

Exploring your cultural identity is a long-term process that can often be filled with more questions than answers. While no short reflection can sum up the deep internal work one must do, I want to leave you with some exercises you can do to begin your journey or supplement your current reflections.

  • Understand the bonds that connect us: Start mapping out your family tree to build out your understanding of your lineage, and open up opportunities for further inquiry.
  • Listen to your Elders: Intergenerational collaboration is a powerful tool to support individual learning and growth, and community action. If you’re able, connect with Elders in your family and/or community, and hear their stories and experiences to enrich your own perspectives.
  • Explore your roots alongside your community: Set up reflection sessions with other family members, friends, or even suggest a cultural day at work where each team member takes a day to explore their culture and then facilitate paper bag lunch discussions for all to learn.

Ultimately, we all have a responsibility to know our roots so that we can learn from those who came before us and avoid the injustices of the past. It is helpful to remember that while this journey is deeply personal, we’re all connected. This learning does not have to be done alone—lean on those around you and make space to hear from others who are on their own journeys, too.

And from there, we can start making real change.

Dedicated to Sarah Jerome, Eileen Koe, Kristine Mcleod, Alexis McLeod and all the matriarchs of the past and those yet to come.

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