Bridging the gap: Williams Lake leaders engage with First Nations community for better understanding

Esk’etemc traditional wellness co-ordinator Fred Johnson Sr. presents Williams Lake Mayor Walt Cobb with a talking stick at the Esk’et Arbor on Tuesday, July 7. (Monica Lamb-Yorski photo - Williams Lake Tribune)
Esk’etemc community member Lorie George (standing) shared her life story with Williams Lake city councillors and other guests. (Monica Lamb-Yorski photo - Williams Lake Tribune)
Esk’etemc tradtional wellness co-ordinator Fred Johnson explains the elements and symbolism of a talking stick and traditional healing during a circle held at the Esk’et arbor. (Monica Lamb-Yorski photo - Williams Lake Tribune)
Esk’etemc cultural and language co-ordinator Irene Johnson prepares to present city council members with commitment sticks and medicine pouches. (Monica Lamb-Yorski photo - Williams Lake Tribune)
Williams Lake Mayor Walt Cobb (left), listens while Esk’etemc Chief Fred Robbins (centre) and education co-ordinator Irene Johnson prepare to present him and the other councillors with gifts. (Monica Lamb-Yorski photo - Williams Lake Tribune)
Esk’etemc member Synthia Paul shares her story. (Monica Lamb-Yorski photo - Williams Lake Tribune)
Members of city council prepare to enter the sweat. (Monica Lamb-Yorski photo - Williams Lake Tribune)
The sweat lodge saw city councillors Sheila Boehm, Marnie Brenner, Ivan Bonnnell, Scott Nelson and CAO Milo MacDonald participated. (Scott Nelson photo)
A fire is prepared to heat rocks for the sweat, with change huts in the back ground. (Monica Lamb-Yorski photo - Williams Lake Tribune)
A second set of 15 rocks heat up to go into the second round of the sweat. (Monica Lamb-Yorski photo - Williams Lake Tribune)
After being in the sweat for the first round, Williams Lake CAO Milo MacDonald (left), Esk’etemc elder Fred Johnson and city councillor Scott Nelson cool off in the creek. (Monica Lamb-Yorski photo - Williams Lake Tribune)
Chief Administrative Officer Milo MacDonald cools off in the creek after his first round in the sweat. He said almost 25 years ago he attended a sweat at Esk’et before he showed up for his first day on the job as an RCMP officer, which he did up until he went to work for the City. (Monica Lamb-Yorski photo - Williams Lake Tribune)

It was about people, not politics.

Those were the words Esk’etemc cultural and language co-ordinator Irene Johnson chose as she welcomed members of Williams Lake city council, and some other guests, to the Esk’et powwow arbor Tuesday, July 7 for dialogue and a sweat ceremony.

“We are here to see how we can work together and all learn from each other,” said Irene as she looked around the circle, which also included about 25 people from her community.

“When we gather like this and share our stories we see each other as people. This is about how we can work together.”

Irene and her family are close with Williams Lake city councillor Marnie Brenner, who they adopted as a sister in 2015 when she was working as a nurse in Esk’et.

During a city council meeting in June, Brenner spoke about truth and reconciliation and residential schools. Upset by some of her comments, the Williams Lake First Nation, who had in recent months become increasingly at odds with City leaders, called for her resignation the next day.

Read more: City councillor apologizes after remarks spark call to resign by Williams Lake Indian Band

In response, Irene and her husband Fred Johnson reached out to Brenner, inviting her and anyone else who was interested to meet with them at the arbor.

After everyone took turns introducing themselves, Irene and four other women talked about their lives.

The women shared experiences about residential school, suffering sexual abuse, alcoholism, addictions, poverty, inter-generational trauma, healing, helping others and their accomplishments.

“Childhood trauma creates lots of fear and for many years I thought I was worthless,” Irene said, as she talked about being an alcoholic and victim of sexual abuse from an early age. “It took a lot to learn to love myself.”

Through her own healing Irene was able to help others, and shared a powerful story about arranging equine therapy for some young men in the community that has had a lasting positive impact.

Councillor and health director Joyce Johnson spoke about seeing the pain in her community, suicides within her own family, quitting drinking and seeing the need to make changes.

“I helped get a school and health department and lots of training – we really helped each other,” she said.

Esk’et worked with the RCMP, the Ministry of Children and Families and School District 27 to come up with something different, she added.

A grandma raising her three grandsons, Lori George said she went to residential school when she was five years old and was sexually abused almost immediately.

“I couldn’t speak my language at school and at home my grandma didn’t speak English,” she said.

As a young teen she lived on the streets of Williams Lake.

“I spent lots of years being a statistic, but I felt like I belonged. Those older guys on the street were kind and watched out for you.”

After trying to live in Vancouver she said she eventually ‘surrendered,’ sobered up and returned home.

At first she pursued becoming a firefighter, and then went to school and got her teaching certificate.

While George was talking, one of her young grandsons came up to ask her a question.

“He’s teaching me to trust men,” she said.

Esk’etemc managing director and councillor Patricia Chelsea grew up in the community and has worked there for 30 years, mostly in management.

“We’ve come a long way,” she said.

Listing the development of Alkali Resource Management, Letwilc Ren Semec Centre (recovery centre),and how Esk’et negotiated its own community forest, Chelsea said she is very proud of her community.

“With your understanding of our culture and our spirituality, I believe we could do so much together,” she said as she looked toward Mayor Walt Cobb.

Synthia Paul, a young mom with a 10-year-old daughter, said she hopes to pursue a career with the Vancouver Police Department. She has a criminology degree and presently works at a youth treatment centre in Vancouver.

In the past she has struggled with anxiety and depression, and coped with alcohol, but said she didn’t come to that realization until about 2017.

“I finally surrendered and am now allowing my journey to happen with the end goal being to break the cycle of inter-generational trauma,” she added.

Chief Fred Robbins said the community always looks to its matriarchs as leaders.

“It is our women who guide us,” he said.

Irene’s husband Fred Johnson, traditional wellness co-ordinator, explained Secwepemc spirituality and said without forgiveness people cannot heal.

“At one point we had 200 survivors from residential school in our community,” Fred said, and shared how he had to overcome using alcohol by finding strength through his culture.

Maintaining eye contact with Mayor Cobb the entire time, Fred talked about the meaning of each colour and component of the talking stick he was holding.

Then to everyone’s surprise, he presented the talking stick as a gift to Cobb.

After listening intently to the stories, the visitors received medicine pouches for protection and commitment sticks, which were initiated in the community to end violence against women.

The evening conclude with a sweat, which took place down by a creek.

Cobb couldn’t participate in the sweat because he had a heart attack last year, but said the evening solidified the need for more dialogue and showed him how much inter-generational trauma can impact people’s lives.

“I think it was an excellent opportunity to meet and learn about some of the things they had to deal with and their healing process,” he said a few days later. “Everyone I have talked to has said it was a great opportunity.”

Coun. Ryll described the visit as an invaluable experience.

“It was an educational exchange that solidified the need for more partnerships,” Ryll said.

Coun. Scott Nelson said it was an honour and privilege to spend time with people from Esk’etemc and hearing the stories was ‘extraordinarily powerful.’

Participating in the sweat was calming and helped cleanse negativity, Nelson added.

“They have a unique culture and being with them gives you a different perspective and understanding.”

Read more:Esk’etemc artist creates ‘calming’ paintings for CCCDC

Williams Lake chief administrative officer Milo MacDonald, who was an RCMP officer for 20 years, said it was like coming full circle to participate in a sweat again.

“Twenty-four years ago when I finished my training to be an RCMP officer, a friend learned I was going to work in Williams Lake and he told me I needed to do a sweat,” he recalled. “He organized for me to go to Alkali before I even worked my first shift.”

Brenner said the experience showed her the City can do better.

“Esk’et modelled an environment that is safe, open and where you can learn and I expect the City to move forward in the same way,” she said Friday. “People have been afraid to speak in fear of misstepping, but if we don’t deal with things we cannot move forward.”

It shouldn’t be about blaming and shaming, but more about creating a caring environment, she added.

Thinking back to the comments she made during the council meeting about residential school, she said she realizes how insensitive that was.

“It was not my intention to hurt anyone, but if I had a chance to reconsider my words I would, now that I look back. But because I did misstep, the invite came from Esk’et for us all and we can use the experience to spring forward in a way that is more understanding,” she said.

Chief Fred Robbins told the Tribune on Tuesday, July 14, although there are major issues in the way of progress, First Nations must maintain their integrity and beliefs and he hoped his community’s sharing of teachings and knowledge will have an impact on the way the City of Williams Lake works with First Nations.

Over the generations First Nations have done everything in their power to survive — through smallpox, residential schools, day schools, treason, genocide and more, he said.

“Here we are today looking for some truth and reconciliation, but governments define that as a marketable statement, to continue business as usual.”

During the meeting, the guests had a glimpse of what it is to be First Nations and to have held onto the culture and traditions, language and ceremony, he added.

“For city council to partake was well received, I felt, the council left with more of a understanding of the trials and difficulties First Nations have in dealing with modern society, and still hold onto the fundamental truth. We are not going anywhere, and we need to work together, to protect the rich history and culture.”

Read more: Robbins returns as chief of Esk’etemc First Nation

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