Reflecting on the Indigenous experience in Canada

In May 2021, Canadians took notice when the story of the remains of 215 children in unmarked graves on the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School made the news. Flags were lowered, voices were raised. To non-Indigenous Canadians, the grave sites in Kamloops and elsewhere have been called “discoveries”. To Indigenous peoples, though, these sites have always been known, shared through the generations by “whispering truth.”

Jennefer Nepinak: “Aniin Bozhoo (Hello)! Animikayaziik Dishinikas (my traditional name is Flying Thunderbird Woman). Makwa Dodem (I am of the Bear Clan). Miinegoziibi Doongi (I am a citizen of Pine Creek First Nation).”

From coast-to-coast, Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians alike have been wondering what this moment in time will mean for the process of reconciliation and the future of Canada. Jennefer Nepinak, SciMar’s Winnipeg-based Community Engagement Consultant, hopes that it marks a turning point in Canadian history.

“I would hope that given our current dialogue nationally, particularly as it relates to residential schools, that we are in a new era of dialogue, because it has to change,” says Nepinak, a lawyer who serves as Associate Vice-President of Indigenous Engagement at the University of Winnipeg. “We cannot go back. We know what we know and things need to change. The status quo is unacceptable, and we need to work with our communities, and identify better ways of moving forward in all aspects of our lives.”

As part of the dialogue, Nepinak wants Canadians to understand that the challenges faced by Indigenous communities today—including the very high rates of type 2 diabetes—all have deep roots in the history of colonization and the residential school system.

“There are so many layers to this conversation,” says Nepinak, a citizen of Pine Creek First Nation (Treaty #4) in Manitoba. “There have been many pieces of legislation, policies, and programs that have impeded our communities in so many ways, including type 2 diabetes. We talk about socio-economic factors related to housing, access to resources, access to health care, access to the justice system, food security, and more. As far as I’m concerned, again, it goes across the board in terms of living a holistic, healthy life. There are issues in every sector that factor into this diabetes epidemic in our communities. It’s all connected.”

Additionally, she notes, the intergenerational trauma that has resulted from the residential school system has made a holistic sense of wellness difficult to pursue and achieve.

Nepinak knows this first-hand. Her own mother, who battled alcoholism, was murdered in a hotel room when young Jennefer was just seven.

“My mother was a residential school attendee who did not survive,” says Nepinak. “I carry all those wounds; I carry all that grief. And then I transfer that to my kids as I go forward, and they’ll transfer to theirs unless we do the work to heal, which I’m working very hard to do.”

Nepinak is optimistic that SciMar’s Wellness Transformation Network (WTN) community outreach initiative will play a meaningful role in the healing process, with focused attention on type 2 diabetes as one part of a holistic approach to well-being.

“I don’t think there’s a full understanding of the severity of the diabetes issue within our communities. And it is a very, very severe issue in our communities,” she says. “There is sometimes a lack of understanding and education about the impact type 2 diabetes can have. There’s a whole lot of work that needs to be done to educate people across the board.”

Nepinak is especially excited that WTN programs and lifestyle interventions will be co-created with Indigenous communities. In fact, she says, success isn’t really possible any other way.

“With SciMar and the WTN we are lifting up our communities in a way that provides them with an opportunity to lead the charge. First Nations communities have to be heard, to have our perspectives considered and shared and implemented. We need to be sitting next to you in the driver’s seat or in the driver’s seat. This is the best approach to working with Indigenous communities. The top-down approach just doesn’t work,” says Nepinak. “One of the elders I work with often reminds people that we want to be part of the solutions, that we want to be there, while you’re making the recipe. Don’t come to us with a cooked meal and force feed us! We want to be there with you to chop the vegetables, to put it all together, and to cook it with love and kindness. To me, that’s always been a really good analogy to explain what it is we’re looking for in terms of meaningful relationships. The Wellness Transformation Network is a tremendous opportunity for SciMar to connect with the communities in that way.”

As the dialogue about the impacts of colonization and residential schools continues, the WTN is poised to be a strong partner in the healing process.

 

The WTN will launch with a series of lifestyle interventions late in the winter of 2021/2022. A number of First Nations, community groups, and businesses will participate. Learn more.