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The Witness

Two weeks ago during our monthly Community Call, our membership engaged in a sensitive discussion about Canada Day, wherein we explored how each individual felt about it. There was a wide range of perspectives shared: from cautious hopefulness to quiet reluctance. The conversation was vulnerable and at times very raw, with a constant intention of respect and honouring held by all who participated.

Following the call, I got to thinking about my friend George Harris Jr. of Stz'uminus First Nation. George has spoken to me many times about the cultural importance of witnessing. He expressed that witnessing is an important responsibility for every person who attends events - it is critically important for individuals to be present and intentional - it is not a passive act. I started to consider that during our circle, we were all participating as witnesses.

“For my people, being called to witness is an honour and a responsibility. As an Oral People, witnesses were and continue to be integral people who are responsible for holding a record of events, and relaying information about those events whenever necessary. Traditionally, witnesses are called upon to observe work in the longhouse: ceremony, namings, and memorials.

The first time I remember being called to witness, I was a young boy of seven or eight. My Westholme Grandma was a powerful cultural worker and would be called great distances to support our people. I remember my grandma telling me one day that she needed to travel to the US to do work, and I said, “I’ll go with you, Grandma!” I remember getting in the car and travelling for a long time. When we got to our destination, I spent some time playing with the other children, until my Grandma came and told me that it was time for me to be a witness. I remember understanding at that age how important it was that I pay attention; to remember the events as they happen, so that if I was ever called to provide the information, I could speak with accuracy."

George's words reminded me of the first time I was invited to Mentor Daniel Elliott's (Stz'uminus) studio to see the collection he was working on, "Winds of Change". My breath caught in my throat when I saw the piece, "Conciliation". In this work, the left side is painted in watercolor, the right in oil. All of the people present on the right side are excitedly straining to capture the scene unfolding before them - cell phones in hand, hungrily recording the event as it unfolded. The people in the centre of the piece, softly holding hands and watching - are fully present in that moment. Dan explained to me that these people are the only Westerners he painted in watercolour, representing their participation as gentle witnesses, truly immersed and present in the event.

These teachings cause me to consider how I participate in many settings - cultural, social, or formal learning. In days gone by, I was often present in a passive way – observing, perhaps taking a few notes, and possibly succumbing to distractions that intercepted me. I am grateful to my Indigenous mentors for helping me understand the responsibility I carry when I am invited to share in these opportunities and will do my very best to be a supportive witness.

There are many ways to listen

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