Belonging, Community and Indigenous Philanthropy

This article is the ninth in a series on Indigenous Communities and Philanthropy.

SUMMARY: The following is an edited version, approved by the author, of a keynote address delivered at the All My Relations Gathering in Winnipeg on November 18, 2015.

RÉSUMÉ: On trouvera ci-dessous une version adaptée, approuvée par l’auteur, d’une conference prononcée à Winnipeg, le 18 novembre 2015, lors de l’événement All My Relations Gathering.

Today we find ourselves at the crossroads of the Anishinaabe, Metis, Cree, Dakota, and Oji-Cree Nations in Treaty One territory, and on the traditional lands of the Anishinaabe peoples and the homeland of the Metis Nation.

I am Teme–Augama Anishnabai, (Deep Water Person) and belong to the Loon Clan. Our territory is in the central part of Ontario. It is my home, and while I don’t reside there full-time, I still have a home that I go to as often as I can get there. I also have Indian status, which entitles me to be a member of the Temagami First Nation under the Indian Act of Canada. I think that is an important distinction to make, Teme-Augama Anishnabai is how we identify ourselves today and historically, it is who I am, what I am part of, and we have a past prior to Canada as a country.

Indian status is relatively new (1876) and comes from the Canadian legislative statute The Indian Act. Members of the Temagami First Nation include some but not all of the Teme-augama Anishnabai. Their definition of membership is different than how we think of citizenship.

Canada’s community foundations and Indigenous philanthropy

I have been a volunteer within the philanthropic community for most of my adult life. It was my work in this area that led me to become one of the co-founders of the Temagami Community Foundation and, in turn, work with Community Foundations of Canada (CFC).

I’m here in my role as the Board Chair of CFC. It’s great to be in Winnipeg – a city that holds such an important place in our country’s growth and history.

This community has been a meeting place for thousands of years – a “fork” of the Assiniboine and the Red Rivers of the North and a crossroads of canoe routes first travelled by the Indigenous peoples.

Winnipeg is also memorable because it is home to Canada’s first community foundation, established in 1921. The Winnipeg Foundation is now part of a network of 191 community foundations that serve Canadian communities from coast to coast to coast.

Together, CFC constitutes one of the largest supporters of charities across Canada – 85% of Canadian communities now have access to a community foundation. These foundations bring people and resources to the table in the name of building better places to live, work and play.

Community foundations are unique because we see, and work with, the whole community. We invest in the whole community. We grant to the whole community. We build relationships with the whole community. It’s this holistic approach that gives us a unique perspective from which to tackle priorities and leverage opportunities for impact.

One area where we’re focusing our collective energy is our relationship with Indigenous communities and in supporting Indigenous philanthropy.

This summer, following a successful national conference in Calgary where our movement explored ideas about reconciliation, pluralism, and belonging, we participated in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s closing events, including the presentation of a Declaration of Action prepared by Canada’s philanthropic community and signed by more than 35 organizations.

We know we are still at the starting gate in terms of finding our way to contribute to a different present and future for Indigenous peoples in Canada. And we know we have a contribution to make – a financial contribution, sure, but more importantly a contribution of leadership – of listening, friendship, knowledge creation, and relationship building. A role in “reviving reciprocity” is perhaps an elegant way to put it.

As an organization CFC has done a lot of consultation and thinking over the last six months and we’ve landed on a few approaches that will inform how we will participate in reconciliation. We will:

  • be a model for reconciliation by growing Indigenous participation in our movement;
  • develop sustainable funding and grant-making opportunities to support Indigenous initiatives in collaboration with community foundations; and
  • take a relationship-focused approach to partnership development.

We’re seeing this reciprocity and leadership from community foundations in places like Winnipeg, Vancouver, Victoria, Haida Gwaii, Clayoquot Sound, and Grey Bruce. But we still have a long way to go in building healthy, trusting relationships between Indigenous peoples and all Canadians, fuelled by an honest acknowledgement of the past and a true and hopeful narrative of the future, driven by Indigenous voices.

Belonging and connection to community

When we look at the challenges facing our communities and our country right now, from our inclusion of refugees, to opportunities for greater reconciliation, to our increasingly diverse cities, one thing appears to be at the heart of our connection to and inclusion of one another – our sense of belonging.

As part of Community Foundations of Canada’s national Vital Signs program, which measures the vitality of our communities, we recently released a national report that explores how connected people feel to their communities and how much they feel they belong to the country.

Through our research, we discovered that one-third of Canadians feel a weak sense of community belonging due in part to the persistence of discrimination and social isolation. Yet we know just how important belonging is to our overall health and well-being.

When we look at how we can strengthen belonging to each other and our communities, it’s really a two-way street. Communities need to send signals of acceptance and inclusion, and individuals need to cultivate connection with other people and engagement in the community. This interdependence is an important aspect of what it means to belong.

Canada’s history, both past and present, has not always made it easy. As Roberta Jamieson, CEO of Indspire and the first Indigenous woman in Canada to earn a law degree, remarked in our report, “There is a paradox of belonging for First Peoples. On one hand, from birth we have a deep sense of belonging to a people, to a community, to a particular place. On the other hand, we receive subtle reminders of ‘non-belonging’ every day.”

Interdependence and the Circle of Life

Interdependence is mutual dependence between things. The philosophy around the Circle of Life or the Medicine Wheel embodies such interdependence; its stories speak to a mutual dependence between the earth, the water, the plants, the animals, and humans.

The Medicine Wheel, The Circle of Life, has been used by generations of Indigenous people for well-being and healing. It embodies the Four Directions, as well as Father Sky, Mother Earth, and Spirit Tree — all of which symbolize dimensions of health and the cycles of life.

Movement in the Medicine Wheel and in Native American ceremonies is circular, and typically in a clockwise, or “sun-wise” direction. This helps to align with the forces of Nature, such as gravity and the rising and setting of the Sun. Generally speaking, in a philosophical sense, the Wheel, or the Circle, is about movement and change.

Different Indigenous peoples have different teachings and stories to share and interpret the Medicine Wheel. Each of the Four Directions (East, South, West, and North) is typically represented by a distinctive color, such as black, red, yellow, and white, which is said to represent the human races.

The directions can also represent:

  • stages of life: birth, youth, adult (or elder), death;
  • seasons of the year: spring, summer, winter, fall; and
  • aspects of life: spiritual, emotional, intellectual, physical.

Most of you have seen a Medicine Wheel in a hoop form and decorated in many different ways. In this form, it is often used as a teaching tool and to tell stories through the teachings. The Circle of Life activates people through education, inspiration, and connection to live in a way that honors the diversity and interdependence of all life.

When we are speaking about Indigenous philanthropy and we think about it in the true meaning of the word “Love of Humankind,” I think it is fair to say it is very much embodied in the teachings of The Circle of Life or Medicine Wheel.

While in the Western world, a linear culture or philosophy seems to be the primary way of teaching and learning and is therefore (rightly or wrongly) the most common method used and the most widely recognized method of creating qualifications, education, and success. This is the style that is most familiar, and most people probably grew up with this learning style. Progress is measured by how many steps you have completed along the path and the completion of each step. There is constant pressure to always be moving forward. Each step along the line of development is discreet and well defined, and there are key things to be learned before progressing to the next level.

People are valued based on how many steps they have taken along their chosen path, and being an expert in one field is more commonly recognized and valued than being mid-way along several lines of development. A “jack of all trades and master of none” is less valued than an “expert.”

A book that provides great insight into the conflict of these two cultures is Dancing with a Ghost (1992), by Rupert Ross.

Ross uses his experience as assistant Crown prosecutor in northern Ontario Indigenous communities to demonstrate that decisions of Indigenous people are often rooted in a different way of viewing reality than that of the Western culture. Western cultures have a tradition of seeing their way as best, the most civilized and, to that end, may find the behaviour of Indigenous persons baffling simply because it is based on a set of underlying rules that differ fundamentally from their own. By acting as a guide for Western people to gain a greater understanding of Indigenous worldviews, Ross offers a valuable resource and a timely reminder that any call for justice for Indigenous peoples must begin with understanding Indigenous perspectives.

When I was growing up, our socio-economic well-being depended on such interdependence. For instance, each family had an area of land that was considered their territory and they needed to make a living off that land year after year and for generations. They would trap, hunt, and harvest a certain area one year, and then leave it to regenerate, moving onto another area within their territory the next and following years. You took what you needed, but you always made sure you left enough for recovery, insuring the land and its inhabitants continued to survive, providing life and sustenance for future generations.

I often use this as a metaphor when I am explaining how philanthropic organizations work in an Indigenous setting. The capital funds, the endowment funds, can be thought of as your family hunting territory, and the interest from this capital can be compared to the harvest. The interest is used to create opportunities that nourish and enrich life in the present, leaving the capital intact for future generations.

Reconciliation and Indigenous communities

With the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, we have laid open in front of Canadian society the story of residential schools and the devastating consequences they have had on Indigenous communities. While we are beginning to understand and accept what has happened in Indigenous communities, we, together, Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canada,  have much more work ahead of us to begin to develop what it is to bring together  a true sense of belonging as a nation.

Yet today we see and witness the resilience of the Indigenous peoples within this country and the hope that we can come together in a new relationship.

In my community, this summer, I met with 14 of our youth aged 16 to 25, and we had a dialogue about reconciliation, where we are now and where we want to be in the future.

We talked about their high school experiences. Listening to them, I realized that not much had changed in the almost 50 years since I left my community to go to high school. These young people did not feel like they belonged. They felt prejudice and racism not only among the student body but also among teachers and staff.

In a classroom, if the topic was on Indigenous history or issues, the Indigenous students felt that all the teachers and classmates looked at them for the answers. This made them uncomfortable.

Sometimes derogatory comments were aimed at Indigenous students; at the same time, it was acknowledged that Indigenous students made similar kinds of comments aimed at non-Indigenous students.

We talked about what would help them in this transition. These young people felt that learning their own history would help. They didn’t completely understand the differences between treaties and the Indian Act, or treaty Indians and status Indians, or why are we called status when we are First Nations. The students felt they needed to become more informed in this area and that if they knew more about their own history and the history of our relationship with Canada, they would be better prepared and more self-confident.

We then talked about reconciliation, what it might look like, and the timeframe. They were not optimistic about how fast change would happen and felt it would take some time.

While some of the discussion left me feeling as if we in our community had not done a particularly good job of giving young people what they needed, I was very impressed with their openness and genuine love for their community. I left that meeting with a real sense of hope for the future. These are the same kids who buried a time capsule in 2010, to be opened in 2030. I know they will be there for that, I hope I am too. We need to have these conversations with our youth. They are our future.

Stories of community belonging and Indigenous-led philanthropy

There are many examples of what a deeper sense of belonging, to a people, to a community, to a particular place, can look like.

Take, for example, the idea of the community freezer in Nunavik, so often highlighted by author John Ralston Saul. He writes: “I just think of this, in comparison to our food banks. You go into Nunavik’s communities and you find a large walk-in freezer. So, when the Caribou are running, the community goes out and gets enough for the season. They are properly butchered and put in there properly organized by cuts. There is a section for the elders. And when the char run, they put them in there. And if someone goes out hunting and gets a caribou and they only need half for their family, well, they throw the other half into the community freezer. And there is nobody there when you give the meat or the fish to say, ‘Thank you’. That was so generous. There’s no tax receipt.” No bureaucracy, no paper.

Using Southern rational theory, there ought to be a run on these community freezers, because people are selfish and need to be structured into responsibility. But there have been no runs because people are citizens. They take when they need to and give when they can. It is a non-linear idea of belonging.

The Temagami Community Foundation came to be in 2001 when a group of us decided that we wanted to build an organization that would be inclusive of the First Nation community, our full- time residents within the town, and our seasonal residents who spend their vacations with us. We would support projects where we had common interests and that benefited the community. To date, the foundation has provided around $175,000 in grants. I think our most significant grant is to the Art Camp that we started 12 years ago on Bear Island. The volunteers and kids come from all three sectors of the community. We started with 35 participants aged 6 to 12 and now have 50 kids and a waiting list. The Art Camp provides an opportunity for the volunteers and kids who have Temagami in common but ordinarily not have much opportunity to interact, to get to know one another

In our network of community foundations, there are great examples of what Indigenous-led philanthropy can look like.

For example, the Eenou-Eeyou Community Foundation was originally established in 2000 as the Aanischaaukamikw Foundation and was responsible for conducting the Sharing the Ways fundraising campaign, which raised $25.6 million to fund the construction of the Cree Cultural Institute in northern Quebec. The Foundation is also responsible for managing additional funds collected in the Campaign ($1 million-plus). Now that the construction is completed, they are transitioning to the Eenou-Eeyou Community Foundation with the vision of supporting community more broadly throughout the area, creating a platform for giving to social and other needs in the community and for raising philanthropic dollars, funds for the community, from community members and corporate partners.

The Foundation has active partnerships with the Cree Nation Government, Cree School Board, Cree Board of Health, and other regional and local bodies. It has recently been in touch with Community Foundations of Canada for assistance as it moves toward a community foundation framework and joins our network.

Or take the Listuguj Mi’gmaq First Nation, a Mi’gmag community located on the Gaspé Coast of Quebec, right across the water from Campbellton, New Brunswick. They are the second largest of 29 Mi’gmaw communities located in Atlantic Canada. Roughly 60% of 3,300 members live in the community, while the rest live off-reserve. The idea to create a community foundation took shape after an historic vote in the community – signing an agreement with the Government of Canada regarding loss of use of reserve lands. The community approved the vote and the majority voted in favour of per capita distribution of the settlement funds.

Some community members felt it wasn’t right that all settlement funds be distributed to present members of the First Nation. They felt that, somehow. some should be preserved for future generations. And so the community began to explore the possibility of creating a vehicle independent of the Band government to which individuals could donate part of their settlement, if they wished. This could then be invested and the proceeds used to benefit the community over the long term.

With support from a small group of volunteers, the Listuguj Aboqonmadultinech Community Foundation (LACF) was registered under the Canada Not-For-Profit Corporations Act and is currently seeking charitable status. LACF has received some donations from community members to date, and interest in and support continues to grow. Listuguj is the first First Nation community to create its own community foundation, and their board of directors is eager to learn the various ways in which the organization can be used to do good for the community.

A declaration of action

As Roberta Jamieson, president and CEO of Indspire, reminds us, there remain subtle reminders of what “non-belonging” can look like for Indigenous peoples.

In January 2014, for example, the Canadian Revenue Agency changed its rules for qualified donee status and required First Nations to apply for registration. First Nations and Indigenous organizations registering as qualified donees through the Canada Revenue Agency can facilitate greater engagement between funders and Canada’s Indigenous communities. But the process for application is quite cumbersome.

To date, there are now approximately 195 registered First Nations and Indigenous organizations that have qualified donee status. We know there are other applications in process, but we have no idea how many.

Through a collaboration of philanthropic organizations, including Inspirit Foundation, The Circle on Philanthropy and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada, Community Foundations of Canada, Philanthropic Foundations Canada, and The Counselling Foundation of Canada, we are working with the Canadian Revenue Agency to improve the process for application and are reaching out to First Nation communities to encourage them to apply to become qualified donees.

Indigenous and non-Indigenous leaders alike have an opportunity to play a significant role in supporting our communities and fostering a greater sense of belonging. We should be thoughtful and humble in our contributions, building on the strengths of our relationships and taking the direction of others who are more informed or better positioned to lead.

At a cross-cultural dialogue last year, Marie Wilson, Commissioner with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. remarked that the philanthropic community’s commitment to social justice will be critical to making reconciliation happen. She went on to say that the philanthropic community needs to “be good” and not just “do good.”

This statement has never been more appropriate. I challenge each of you to think about the many ways you can “be good” as well as “do good” in your communities, and leave you with a short story that’s a favourite of mine.

A wise woman who was traveling in the mountains found a precious stone in a stream. The next day she met another traveler who was hungry, and the wise woman opened her bag to share her food. The hungry traveler saw the precious stone and asked the woman to give it to him. She did so without hesitation. The traveler left, rejoicing in his good fortune. He knew the stone was worth enough to give him security for a lifetime. But a few days later he came back to return the stone to the wise woman.

“I’ve been thinking,” he said, “I know how valuable the stone is, but I give it back in the hope that you can give me something even more precious. Give me what you have within you that enabled you to give me the stone.”

Meegwetch!

Take Action

Community Foundations of Canada, together with many others, is a signatory to the Philanthropic Community’s Declaration of Action. Coinciding with the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Declaration is a call to action inviting others to join in moving forward in an atmosphere of understanding, dignity and respect towards the shared goal of reconciliation.

Add your organization to the growing list of signatories.

Victoria Grant is chair of the boards of The Circle on Philanthropy and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada and Community Foundations of Canada.