Helping newcomers experience Wahkohtowin - United Way Alberta Capital Region

Helping newcomers experience Wahkohtowin

June 21, 2021


“I was told to keep my eyes on the ground and not make eye contact.”

Friends already in Canada unintentionally passed on this misconception to newcomers about how to interact with Indigenous people. After learning this from Canadians, they shared this “advice” when trying to support others coming to the Edmonton region, not realizing the consequences.

When we sat down with Cheryl Whiskeyjack, the Executive Director of Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society, a partner in the C5 collaborative, we learned how staff at her organization are responding to these misconceptions. By putting the principle of Wahkohtowin into practice, they’re building bridges of friendship and understanding with newcomers.

Wahkohtowin (ᐊᐧᐦᑯᐦᑐᐃᐧᐣ) is a Cree word that speaks to the interconnected nature of relationships, communities, and natural systems. The work of C5 is a great example of this. C5 is a collaboration between five partners of United Way, including Bent Arrow. Together, they collaborate on initiatives and shape policy to achieve stronger outcomes for families and communities.


Building connection and community through culture
Through this collaborative work, C5 partners realized that newcomers to the Edmonton area — both Indigenous peoples from across Canada and people from across the globe — experienced similar challenges.

“We started building time to connect with newcomer communities and invited them to our cultural celebrations. We realized that we had a lot more in common than we thought,” Cheryl recalled.

From worldviews to customs and traditions, both groups saw their interconnectedness revealing itself, and those connections kept growing. C5 partners started inviting Bent Arrow staff to welcome refugees at the airport as they arrived in Canada for the first time.

“We brought the Treaty Six flag and colourful photos of Indigenous people dancing and drumming. We sang traditional songs and presented gifts,” shared Cheryl.

“You could hear the song echo throughout the airport, and people came over to listen. It was really powerful.”

From the day they landed, refugees connected with local Indigenous people and experienced Wahkohtowin.

Because of the new connections that are being made through these efforts and many others, Cheryl believes our community is on a positive path toward breaking down barriers.

“The Edmonton area has that community pioneer spirit. We collectively come together to try to tackle problems.”

Coming together in reconciliation and healing
She hopes we can use that same spirit as we learn about past tragedies such as the gravesites uncovered at the residential school in Kamloops. Cheryl believes we have the opportunity to respond by coming together to have conversations that build understanding and a better way forward.

An impact speaker with United Way, Cheryl shares the work that is happening to create that understanding. After years of working to build connection, she is feeling hopeful.

Lately, instead of hearing about how newcomers are scared to make eye contact with Indigenous people, she is hearing people say, “Now, when I see an Indigenous person, I smile and say hi.”