A variety of speakers shared their messages of friendship, cooperation and peace at the Ponoka for Peace Rally held Sept. 16 at Centennial Park.
The event was organized by Chevi Rabbit, Katherine Swampy, Marilyn Tobaccojuice and Charlene Roan-Shirt.
“The whole reason for Ponoka for Peace is because our town has been in the media for racism and for different things that don’t really reflect who we are as a community,” said Rabbit.
Rabbit was born and raised in Ponoka and is an activist and community advocate.
“I’ve known Ponoka to be very friendly, very welcoming and I feel very sad that our community has been in the news for racism, so I wanted people to know that we’re sending a message of inclusion and peace … yes, there are some bad apples out there, every community has them, but we’re here to promote the good apples, the people who want to unite, the people who want to create a prosperous community and move forward in a sense of reconciliation.
“At the end of the day, we’re the ones who have to live here … that’s why Ponoka for Peace is here, to show, to highlight the best of Ponoka.”
Before the speakers began, Dan Klymiuk, master shaman, performed a prayer and smudging, to which all attendees were invited to take part in. Smudging is done to cleanse the spirit and shed negativity.
Lacombe-Ponoka MLA Ron Orr spoke at the rally, saying this was an opportunity to tell the real story about Ponoka.
“This is an opportunity to share that and to take the time to be here today and stand up for what’s right, for what’s peaceful, what’s a real representation of who we are as Ponoka people, quite frankly, from all nations, and from all cultures and all backgrounds.
“This is an opportunity to actually tell our own story,” said Orr.
“We’re here to put aside anger and build bridges of peace, to build bridges of respect, to build bridges of friendship.”
Orr then gave an update about some of the Government of Alberta initiatives to improve multiculturalism across Alberta, such as investing in the Alberta Indigenous Opportunities Corporation and creating the Multiculturalism Indigenous and Inclusion Grant Program and the Alberta Anti-Racism Advisory Council and the Human Rights Commission.
Orr made a point of saying he wrote his own words.
“We can all get angry and yell at things but in the end we have to become allies who actively seek out improved supports and services in relationships through grassroots multiculturalism — that’s what’s happening here today.
“I call upon all people, especially those who may feel oppressed or victimized … I call on you to be forgiving and to generate a magnanimous spirit. I call on you to lead by great-hearted generosity and not default to retaliation, but to take the high road and be reconcilers and creators of peace, and that’s what I see happening here today.”
Orr went on to say that we call come from our own place, and that often, discrimination comes from the unknown, or not knowing one’s neighbours.
“The best way to overcome that is to get to know each other and I just believe we need to overcome fear with courage and with love. You can change your world — do it with courage and love even if other people are still fearful and defensive.”
“Today we were brought together so we could unify,” said Swampy, Samson Cree Nation councillor.
“Today, this is not a protest, this is a rally,” she said, adding that a protest signifies a fight, either for a cause or to belong.
“We don’t want to fight. We’re tired of fighting, we’re done fighting.”
A peace rally brings both sides together to find common ground, to work for tolerance and acceptance, she says.
Swampy explained that in Indigenous way of thinking, rather than fighting, conflicts are resolved through coming together to heal relationships, and sometimes that requires praying to the Creator for guidance.
“You ask the Creator: give me the strength, the ability and the knowledge to know how to fix this situation,” she said.
“When you have good intentions, it’s going to work out … when you pray about it, you’re always given the answer that you’re seeking.”
“The latest events have really hit my heart because I didn’t understand what was happening and why people are so angry … so I was really moved when Chevi decided to do this because it’s a good thing and Ponoka needs it,” said Suzanne Life-Yeomans, Indigenous women advocate with ties to Maskwacis.
Life-Yeomans also sits on a board with the Town of Ponoka.
Roan-Shirt, an anti-bullying advocate from Ermineskin Cree Nation, says she’s worried with the mental health of the young people in the community, considering events that have happened this year.
“How are they feeling about the conflict happening around them? Are they going to re-enact violence?” she said.
“Our children, are they being taught to stand up to bullies, or are they being taught to be part of a mob?”
She went on to express that it’s not okay to yell, bad mouth others, or interrupt people who have never had a voice before.
Roan-Shirt spoke about the Jesuit missionaries in the 1600s being the first settlers to encounter Cree people (named so by the Jesuits).
The Jesuits described the Cree as being ‘Christ-like’ — hospitable, sharing, kind, empathetic, disciplined in morals and slow to anger.
“We showed incredible kindness to the earlier Europeans and settlers,” she said, speaking about helping to fight wars because they believed in their treaties and wanted to support their allies, even when it meant losing their status.
“So I’m calling on that favour from Ponoka and many communities across Canada: to return this favour to this generation of First Nations youth, immigrants from across the globe, and different cultures residing in this town, and many others, to be Christ-like … how? Through individual change,” said Roan-Shirt.
“Everybody has the power to do something a little bit different after today.”
Tanya Heyden-Kaye of Ponoka spoke about holding peace in her heart.
“My heart is a little heavy and I know that there are people who are out here who’s hearts are very heavy … and I have to say that those are the people who always have to take the high road on the way to peace,” said Heyden-Kaye.
She then asked people in Ponoka to listen and believe when they hear the experiences of Black, Indigenous and LGBTQ2s+people.
“Their experiences will probably be different than yours. Listen anyway, believe them anyway,” she said.
“If your brothers and sisters are telling you that they’re hurting, take them into your heart. Help them, love them, believe them. That is the first step to peace — love.”
Jacqueline Buffalo, a Montana Cree Nation community advocate and Indigenous influencer, says she was speaking to use her platform to acknowledge that recent events happened, and they’re happening more often.
“That’s not saying there’s bad blood or bad animosity between the communities … a lot of it is a misunderstanding, a lot of it is nobody really knowing what exactly happens and how it came about and a lot of the times people assume everything,” said Buffalo.
Buffalo says the way to create change so everyone can live together in peace is to share knowledge of each other’s cultures.
“I see everyone here willing to make that change and it’s going to have a ripple effect.”
Cheryl-Jamie Baptiste, founder of Red Deer Against Racism, was then invited to the stage. She was accompanied by members of Black and Indigenous Alliance Alberta, who stood behind her while she spoke.
Baptiste’s home reserve is Samson Cree Nation. She grew up in white communities, facing racism and exclusion and feeling unsafe.
During her school years, she says she was invited to more funerals than birthday parties because, “Indigenous people are dying at rates that are 12 times higher than the average Canadian.”
Baptiste says she organizes protests because she believes they are necessary.
“In short-term protests can work, to a degree, and they can switch authorities into changing their behaviours,” she said.
“Much of the power of protest is in their long-term affects.”
She added that the organizers of such protests are “more than peaceful” and people with good intentions and good hearts can create change.
The rally concluded with a group of dancers performing, including a jingle dress dancer, which signifies healing.
In an online post after the rally, Rabbit said, “No community is perfect but today we proved that many in our community are taking steps on working together so that we all can thrive together.”