Workshops aimed at melting the racism iceberg

Michelle Staples listens to Ron George as they talk about the philosophies powering the ongoing series of workshops the pair is hosting in the community aimed at tackling racism. - Ashley Degraaf
Michelle Staples listens to Ron George as they talk about the philosophies powering the ongoing series of workshops the pair is hosting in the community aimed at tackling racism.
— image credit: Ashley Degraaf

The conversation started with a funny anecdote about what melts an ice-cube the fastest — a hair dryer, a hot oven, running water, or cold water.

It then developed into a great discussion about racism in Cowichan, then, oddly enough, circled back to the ice-cube conundrum.

“I was an ice-cube. I was cold,” stated Cowichan Tribes elder Ron George.

George spoke about changes he’s made to better his own lifestyle after many years of alcoholism and emotional torment he’s lived with as a residential school survivor. It’s a vicious cycle many First Nations folks have experienced as a result of the residential school system. And it’s one of many examples of where there’s an opportunity for healing.

But sometimes it’s not about what’s the fastest way to resolve an issue, added Social Planning Cowichan’s Michelle Staples, playing off the ice-cube metaphor.

For some, healing and change cultivate at a much slower rate and can take years to develop.

George and Staples are working together on a series of five opportunities staged by Social Planning Cowichan in workshop format available for Cowichanians to build cross cultural bridges within the community.

It’s another step and spin-off from the spirit and reconciliation created in Cowichan during the 2008 North American Indigenous Games. A momentum built up, but that somewhat fizzled since.

“With the games, really it had happened in one big push,” Staples said. “Sometimes people need a chance to integrate what they’ve learned into their life. Sometimes people need a rest, need some space and there’s a time and place where that change and those discussions need to start again.”

And that’s essentially what they’re doing, thanks to a $20,000 grant from Embrace B.C.

Workshops will be facilitated by Campbell River Metis Aboriginal Health worker Kathi Camilleri with support from Ron George, Robert George and Lucy Thomas of the Hiiye’yu Lelum Society (House of Friendship).

“The purpose of these workshops is not to point fingers or increase divisions in our community,” said Staples in a press release. “It is to continue the process of healing to strengthen our community.”

Sessions will tackle history, differences in governance structures and the roles of traditional and cultural values, as well as explore the effects of residential schools and Canada’s assimilation and how they still resonate in communities.

While George remembers days when First Nations folks were forced to ride in separate train cars and weren’t allowed to share the same space with non-Native folks in the theatre, he admitted racism in Cowichan is still alive.

Staples said what’s really startling is they’ve heard there are still stores where Cowichan Tribes members have felt unwelcome, or facilities where they don’t feel they’re treated fairly or comfortable visiting.

And that’s why these workshops, including another similar well-attended, well-received session in October, target local leaders, officials, organizations, companies, and business owners as well as their employees.

“It’s about discovering this invisible barrier. How do we work towards respecting and understanding each other?” said Staples.

One way is discussing and sharing how non-Native people feel going onto the reserve and vice-versa — how First Nations feel off-reserve.

“Sometimes feeling uncomfortable in a situation or setting can come off as being racist, in a negative way,” said Staples.

And for some folks, it’s about healing themselves before they can work on the community’s progress as a whole. That’s the case for George.

“I had my best Christmas ever this year,” he said of staying sober over the holidays. “I helped my wife wrap presents for the first time. I even helped make breakfast Christmas morning.”

George found that certain level of warmth to melt his “cold heart.”

For others, healing hurts caused by racial stigmas and barriers — present and past — might need a different level of heat.

Both organizers, George and Staples, are hoping more folks in the community will begin that process with these sessions.

Workshop dates are Jan. 31, Feb. 14, Feb. 28 (some conditions apply to this date) and March 1. The first workshop took place Jan. 17.

The March 1 session is a community workshop open to anyone.

And an event will also take place March 29 as a follow up to the workshops where participants will be invited to honour the work of the facilitator.

For registration information, call 250-709-7972.

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