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Mary Simon sets stage for shift prioritizing Indigenous ways: Yukon leaders

Indigenous leaders are making space to bridge differences
Kluane Adamek sits in her Whitehorse office on Mar. 17. Adamek has suggested the appointment of Mary Simon could signify a country-wide shift. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News file)

Mary Simon’s recent appointment as Canada’s first Inuk Governor-General accompanies a shift bringing Indigenous leadership and values closer to the country’s forefront.

“It’s a change of narrative that brings Indigenous people from the sidelines, into being everywhere,” said Kluane Adamek, regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations, on July 14.

“It feels like there’s a really big shift that’s happening.”

Monday’s ceremony to install Simon into her new office was a profound departure from ceremonies past. It marks the beginning of a new era with the acknowledgement that there has been human presence on Canada’s land for millennia, that there are more than two founding languages in Canada, and that the meaning of Indigenous names is significant.

The evolution dovetails with the Yukon’s generational shift of young Indigenous leaders taking their place in a burgeoning atmosphere of recognition and respect for Indigenous ways and knowledge.

Jocelyn Joe-Strack, the recently appointed research chair for Indigenous knowledge at Yukon University, said she has seen the change.

“I have noticed within my colleagues and my peers, a bit of an identity crisis is occurring,” Joe-Strack said.

“New settlers are having to reconcile their ancestry and their role within our community, and their responsibility to reconciliation … It is a challenging journey, and I commend those that are taking that on, in a meaningful way, and wrestling through the confusion and the uncertainty, because it’s not an easy journey to expand your worldview.”

The shift occurs as the country reckons with its past and the horror of residential schools, as well as the sweeping realization of the punishing effect of heat domes, fires and floods. Canadian society is contemplating its history of genocide, and its future with climate change.

“In order to have a healthy future we must re-set our thinking to understand that nature contains and creates our climate, our climate allows society to be possible, and within our society is our economy,” Simon said during her installation address.

She also spoke to the importance of bridging differences and learning to trust: “Reconciliation is getting to know one another.”

Adamek echoed this sentiment, noting there is possibility for change, “When we can separate our thoughts from the political, the personal, and just see human beings for a minute and acknowledge that what happened is so, so not okay.”

Joe-Strack framed it similarly.

“Much of where we have been is a consequence of objectification and dehumanization, not just for people, but for the natural world around us,” she said.

She continued that it is part of the division of Western thinking — to objectify and quantify life.

“This, in turn, results in viewing the land as for our disposal, rather than for us to care for as kin,” she said.

A recognition and a reckoning is taking place.

The new Governor- General committed to continuing to promote community and Indigenous-driven conservation and climate actions that are making a real difference, and to promote those ideas nationally and around the world.

These climate actions are part of a long-standing movement in the territory, from the efforts of Vuntut Gwitchen youth in the eighties to protect the porcupine caribou herd, to community-based research projects across Yukon, to comprehensive studies and actions to create shared understandings now respected as an Indigenous way of seeing.

As Joe-Strack explained, “Knowledge keepers, and traditional knowledge holders are not about the ‘depositingof their knowledge, they’re about shared learning experiences and exploring the possibilities of our knowledge. And that takes time. And it takes respect. And it takes having multiple people within a space.”

This is the bridging of differences at a collective level that so many are beginning to experience.

Adamek repeated a story told by Shawn Atleo, former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

“When Prime Minister Harper was giving the apology to First Nations people, (Atleo) was with his grandmother. His grandmother tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘Grandson, they are starting to see us now.’”

Contact Lawrie Crawford at