Wîcihitowin conference virtually welcomed the world
- NC Raine | October 15, 2020
In a year of uncertainty, an annual conference centered on progressive and innovative ideas may be needed more than ever. So, it's no surprise then that the 2020 Wȋcihitowin Indigenous Engagement Conference was its biggest to date.
“The voices of the elders, the voices of the residential school survivors, have really pushed us to be innovative and look at different ways to get messages out, especially in difficult times like this,” said Neal Kewistep, co-founder of Wȋcihitowin, and executive-in-residence at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy of the conference held October 7 and 8.
“One of the opportunities this year is that everyone's eyes are on a new tomorrow. Everyone is anxious to rejoin the world together, to find some ideas and plant some seeds,” said Kewistep.
Despite being held virtually for the first time in its six-year history, the conference booked its 1000 participants capacity within the first week of registration, even before announcing its speakers. Attendees came from all but two of the provinces and territories in Canada, as well as countries in four continents, including the United States, Brazil, Norway, Germany, and Switzerland.
“I think this shows how interconnected we all are. Maybe we realize how dependent we are on each other and the importance of where we plant our feet and call our homes,” said Kewistep.
The theme of this year's conference was Through the Fire, as fire is believed to be the giver of new life where balance of Mother Earth is restored. As COVID-19 has spread through communities like wildfire, it is in the Natural Order of recovery where rejuvenation and replenishment come after destruction.
“It's seeing humans on a bigger ecosystem and how we're inter-related. We are dependent on the rest of the ecosystem for survival and health, and we're not in charge of it, we're not bigger than that, we're part of it,” said Dr. Marilyn Poitras, Director of the Native Law Centre at the University of Saskatchewan, who spoke on Natural Law, sharing stories that were told to her by elders in Saskatchewan reflecting on our relationship with the natural world.
“When you see that nature works in a certain way then you understand how humans fit into that structure, and then we can look at what are the laws around that structure,” said Poitras.
The question is, Poitras said, is how we start bringing Indigenous legal traditions into discussions with relationship building through processes built through reconciliation. It's why conferences like Wȋcihitowin are so important, she said.
“Wȋcihitowin gives us the opportunity to have conversations about what our values are, to help us really assess what our priorities are or what they should be.”
Similarly, Dr. Niigaanwewidam Sinclair, associate professor in Native Studies at the University of Manitoba, spoke on Indigenous responses to the pandemic and how Indigenous people are innately prepared to handle crisis
“There's no one better prepared for a pandemic than our communities,” said Sinclair. “Our creation stories, they're all about pandemics and sickness and how we overcome those. We turn to the earth, we turn to water and the plants and animals, and most importantly, to each other.”
Sinclair said that stronger communities and families, and communal support is the key to withstanding the pandemic, but conversely, fractured communities, like what we have seen in cities and many non-Indigenous communities, has led to violence and destruction.
“What is it that Indigenous people are constantly trying to teach non-Indigenous people? We're all family and we all belong here, and therefore we have to think about not just ourselves but the non-humans, the earth, the water,” he said. “If non-Indigenous people spent one iota of time listening to what Indigenous people are saying and doing in our everyday lives, we'd be a lot better equipped to handle this pandemic.”