Volunteering with the Metis Society in Saskatchewan in the late 1960s, Jerry White often went into town to book rooms for local chapters to meet, as most venues would not rent to the Indigenous Peoples. It taught him lessons he never forgot.
“I took for granted this was a wonderful country,” he said. “But as I learned things like that, I saw there is still a lot of stuff we needed to fix.”
This week, the Sociology professor emeritus joins Candace Brunette-Debassige, Special Advisor to the Provost (Indigenous Initiatives), in receiving an Atlohsa Peace Award for contributions in the spirit of truth and reconciliation in the areas of media, arts, education and advocacy. Each award represents one of the Seven Grandfather Teachings: bravery, honesty, humility, love, respect, truth and wisdom.
Located in London, Atlohsa Family Health Services is a non-profit organization that provides community members with Indigenous-led programming and services that offer holistic healing, education, shelter and support.
Even at a young age, White always felt a “sense of responsibility.” At 20, he “woke up” and realized he wasn’t caring about what was going on around him.
“When it comes to the truth, it isn’t something you find, it’s understanding how things work,” said White of his time at the Metis Society in Regina. “The truth is understanding what happened in the past, how it’s impacted the present and what are we going to do about it.”
For White, it’s about the people who have taken the time to help him understand. White recalls Lyle Longclaws, from the Four Nations Confederacy, who taught him about the Sun Dance and how, as a kid, Longclaws stood atop a hill watching for the dust from cars of people coming out to stop them from dancing.
“How do you learn? You learn from people. All those people I have met created this award for me,” said White, who has also lived in China during the Cultural Revolution, worked in Poland with the Workers’ Defence Committee and spent time in Siberia with the Russian Association of Indigenous People of the North.
“I tried to understand how the world works. I have been blessed to work at this institution; it gave me incredible freedom to pursue these.”
London Community Foundation’s Vanessa Dolishny said White has demonstrated leadership and unwavering commitment to improving the lives of Indigenous Peoples in numerous ways.
“It isn’t often that we come across people so humble and committed to addressing injustices in society,” she said. “He embodies the spirit of truth and reconciliation in all he does. His formative role in changing the landscape through his educational and research contributions to improve the well-being of Indigenous Peoples locally, nationally and internationally is remarkable.”
In retirement, White remains editor and chief of the International Indigenous Policy Journal and remains Founder and Director of the Aboriginal Policy Research Consortium, linking Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers and policy-makers.
Brunette-Debassige is encouraged by the fact dialogue continues around changing the relationship between settler Canada and Indigenous Peoples.
“It inspires us to take action and stay the course on this truly monumental and long-term journey we are all on together, as Canadians,” she said. “This is not a checklist; this is about altering the fundamental ways we as people and institutions relate, live and work with Indigenous communities.”
As Western’s Special Advisor to the Provost (Indigenous Initiatives), Brunette-Debassige, an Omushkego Cree from Fort Albany First Nation, played a leadership role in the development of Western’s Indigenous Strategic Plan. She is responsible for advancing initiatives resulting from the Strategic Plan with the help of Indigenous scholars, staff, students, and external Indigenous community members.
“This type of organizational change work is undoubtedly a collective effort by many who agree to give their precious time in sustained and determined way. Even when doubt creeps in and we lose our steam they stay with the course,” said Brunette-Debassige of what she sees as an historical moment. “But the plan is not the work. The vision is not even close to being realized. It is simply a vision, a road map, and we have only just begun to walk that journey together. We have a lot more walking to do.”
Prior to joining Western, Brunette-Debassige was the Aboriginal Education Advisor for the Thames Valley District School Board and served in several roles related to the recruitment and support of Indigenous students at the University of Toronto, where she also earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in Aboriginal and Equity Studies and Adult Education.
When it comes to increasing our Indigenous presence, access, outreach and engagement across campus, Brunette-Debassige feels the university is gaining momentum. However, it remains heavy on those Indigenous Peoples here, because there are so few.
With that in mind, Western is in the process of hiring new Indigenous faculty members in Education, Indigenous Studies and Medicine, along with creating a new Indigenous Learning Space and a new structure and leadership position to help with the work ahead.
Western Diversity & Accessibility Coordinator Lesley Oliver, who nominated Brunette-Debassige, said Brunette-Debassige has “steadfastly advocated for the awareness of Indigenous issues in the recruitment, policy-making and research facets at Western.”
“Candace is a very wise, caring and intelligent women who motivated and inspires others to become more involved in seeking the truth and moving forward towards reconciliation,” she said. “She is very respectful in her commitment to ensuring that Indigenous students, staff and faculty are included and valued in the Western community.”
Brunette-Debassige added there are many challenges doing Indigenous decolonial change work in universities. It requires understanding of our differences, facing our colonial truths and the ways in which our educational system are Eurocentric, Anglocentric and embedded in unequal power relations.
“We need to be honest and responsive with how our system often disenfranchises and marginalizes Indigenous Peoples and ways of knowing. This is hard,” she said. “Relationships take time, generosity, humility and embodied engagement. Sometimes we have to let go our expectations of the relationship. Relationships can’t be forced or put into a timeline.
“We need to listen, learn, unlearn and trust the relationship is worth it. We need to continue creating relational spaces that help heal the distance between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. We need to regenerate the space in-between us.”
The Atlohsa Peace Awards will be presented Thursday at RBC Place. Last year’s awards raised $45,000 for Atlohsa’s Zhaawanong Shelter, which provides safety for women and children at risk of violence, abuse and homelessness.
Funds raised at this year’s event will go to Atlohsa Family Healing Services’ essential needs, programs and services, including the Zhaawanong Shelter.