Supporting community through Indigenous Ways of Knowing and Being - United Way Alberta Capital Region

Supporting community through Indigenous Ways of Knowing and Being

September 9, 2022

Kohkom Kathy Hamelin teaches Terra Centre families how to harvest sage responsibly. Photo supplied by Terra Centre.
Kohkom Kathy Hamelin teaches Terra Centre families how to harvest sage responsibly. Photo supplied by Terra Centre.

Reconciliation is critical to the work of addressing poverty. Because of systemic racism, Indigenous people are more likely to experience poverty and violence, and many experience intergenerational trauma because of colonialism, residential schools, and the Sixties Scoop.

In the Edmonton area, many non-profits and community organizations, including United Way of the Alberta Capital Region and its frontline partner agencies, recognize the importance of applying Indigenous Wisdom, Culture, and traditional ways of Knowing and Being in the work they do.

Here we explore three United Way supported initiatives aiming to create a safe environment to help Indigenous participants to heal, thrive, and strengthen their ties to their culture and traditions.

211 Alberta offers Indigenous supports directory

Navigating the support system and knowing who to call for help can be frustrating. But for those who face systemic racism, it can be hard to know where to turn to find compassionate and judgement-free guidance. Especially considering that historically, many local non-profits lack Indigenous perspective and representation on staff, despite the fact that the Edmonton area has the highest urban Indigenous population in Alberta.

In recognition of this, 211 Alberta — a free, confidential information and referral service where trained specialists help callers find resources they need — is bringing that Indigenous way of Knowing and Being into their work.

Lisa Richards, nehiyaw iskwew, leads Indigenous Relations at 211 Alberta. She works with communities and organizations across the province to make sure that Indigenous-specific resources in the database are timely and relevant.

“211 staff have a willingness to learn, to be open-minded, and to lift that veil of history that was taught in mainstream education systems,” Lisa says.

“Moving past cognitive dissonance helps to understand the true history of these lands.”

Lisa sees her role at 211 Alberta as an embodiment of sakihitowin: love and kindness for oneself, family, and community.

“The old people say there’s no such thing as coincidences — we’re put exactly where we’re meant to be of the highest good and of the highest purpose.”

Terra Centre builds connection to culture for young parents

Through a range of comprehensive services, Terra Centre supports young parents reach their goals while navigating their parenting journey. To better support their Indigenous participants, Terra integrates Indigenous teaching and culture throughout their programming, explains Executive Director Karen Mottershead.

“For the young people who were connected to their culture, we saw it was a pathway for healing for many of them. It was beautiful to see how their community supported them on their pathway to parenthood and high school completion and the good things in life they wanted for their children,” Karen says.

“It was obvious to us that we really needed to be more intentional around creating those opportunities for Indigenous youth at Terra Centre. We were really committed to ensuring that we were able to do this in a way that was meaningful, and sustainable.”

Terra Centre has recently hired a dedicated staff member who oversees cultural programming and works with a larger cross-organizational team of Knowledge Holders. Under the guidance of Kohkom Kathy Hamelin, Terra’s Kohkom (grandmother) in residence, this team ensures Indigenous Wisdom is integrated across the organization, from programming to staff development opportunities. The families that access supports through Terra Centre are also part of this collaborative process, and programming will often change or adapt based on their needs and interests.

Terra participants picking medicine plants. Photo supplied by Terra Centre.

Terra participants picking medicine plants. Photo supplied by Terra Centre.

Some activities include informal visits and stories over Bannock and soup with Kohkom Kathy, medicine picking, and drumming at the childcare centre with the little ones. When parents get together for beading – an activity that went virtual during the pandemic – stories and wisdom, culture and connection are always present. Smudges are commonplace at Terra Centre’s service sites, and the organization also hosts sweat lodge ceremonies several times a year.

“This has really raised the level of awareness for our staff to be that ally that can help our young people access the services they need. Discrimination and barriers are still so prominent in so many places and we need to break those down.”

Not only does this work help parents connect to their culture, but it also helps staff recognize the systemic barriers, stigma, and racism that Indigenous parents face. To that end, staff are better equipped to advocate for the participants and their families while supporting them to navigate the system.

United Way internal work focusing on Indigenous collaboration and celebration

For United Way of the Alberta Capital Region, reconciliation requires more than recognizing the land we stand on. We have a responsibility to uphold the spirit and intent of the original treaties and build relationships, trust, and understanding.

“As settlers who benefit from an unjust system, we have the power to change things,” says Rob Yager, President and CEO of United Way of the Alberta Capital Region.

“By working together in collaboration with Indigenous community leaders and learning more about Indigenous Ways of Knowing and Being, we can create a more equitable system.”

United Way is creating a community engagement and impact strategy that will guide our work to reduce the inequitable burden of poverty within local Indigenous communities.

Internally, the organization’s Leading Inclusively Team (comprised of staff volunteers) prioritizes activities that highlight Indigenous culture and reconciliation. These opportunities encourage United Way staff to further develop their understanding of diverse Indigenous cultural practices, current issues impacting Indigenous peoples, and how to integrate principles of reconciliation into their daily lives and their work with community members.