Dal students Harley Johnson and Hasan Sinan joined about 250 other youth leaders from across Canada last month in Winnipeg to learn, collaborate and work towards improving relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.
The fifth annual National Youth Reconciliation Conference brought attendees from all provinces and territories together to explore the idea of "Youth Leading the Good Life" and opened meaningful dialogue on reconciliation and decolonization in Canada.
As Respect Reps at Dal, Harley and Hasan are already focused on creating an inclusive community for the student body at the university by providing peer education support and facilitating workshops around topics of diversity and safe spaces around campus.
But this conference, hosted by the Canadian Roots Exchange, provided a new window for them into what reconciliation means.
“[This experience] broadened our idea of reconciliation,” says Harley, a third-year International Development Studies and Sociology double major from Iona, Cape Breton.
“Reconciliation, by definition, is restoring friendly relationships, which sounds very simple. But for this particular situation in Canada, it’s not simple. It’s very complex.”
For Hasan, a non-Indigenous person, the experience showed him just how important his role as an ally is in providing support for Indigenous peoples and the reconciliation process.
"I think [reconciliation] starts with solidarity and that’s understanding the history and not ignoring the atrocities and all that’s happened in the past,” says Hasan, a fourth-year Psychology and Spanish double major.
Participants at the event, which took place on Treaty 1 Territory and the Homeland of the Métis, participated in a daily opening ceremony, took part in interactive youth-led workshops and panels, visited community sites such as the Louis Riel Museum and the Canadian Museum of Human Rights.
They also sat down for keynote speeches delivered by inspiring Manitobans, including a keynote session of the first night focused on intergenerational knowledge that included 12-year-old presenter and clean water activist, Autumn Peltier.
“One of the biggest things I took away from the conference is that our society puts a lot of emphasis on government," says Harley. "People are waiting for the government to do things and for government to change . . . [but] we don’t have to sit around and wait for that. Reconciliation can start on an individual level, in our communities, in our schools and in our friend groups.”
Opportunities to learn
How individuals contribute to the reconciliation process in Canada varies, but both Harley and Hasan agree that a great way to start being involved is to understand what happened in the past by participating in a Blanket Exercise.
Used as an interactive learning experience, the traditional exercise brings awareness to Canadian history from an Indigenous perspective, guiding participants through depictions of the effects of colonization through time through the sharing of stories.
“For me, after being in Canada for three years, I started learning about this issue through this exercise," says Hasan, a half-Lebanese and half-Jordanian from Kuwait. "I can’t think of a better way to start getting involved, especially if you don’t have much background about the issue."
He encourages others to take part in a Blanket Exercise, noting they are facilitated around Halifax and on campus fairly regularly.
Both Harley and Hasan left knowing that regardless of age and education level, anyone can advocate for causes they believe in and make a difference — especially with the help of others.
“It wouldn’t have been possible for us to go [to the National Youth Reconciliation Conference] if it wasn’t for Dal’s Human Rights and Equity Services office, as well as the Career and Leadership Development centre, so thank you to them,” says Hasan.
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