OTTAWA—"What’s your earliest memory of an Indigenous person?” Rita Alma remembers asking participants at one of the first meet-ups, in early summer. At each meeting, participants sit around a large table in a community space in downtown Ottawa, take turns reading the session’s material, and break intermittently to think, reflect, and ask questions. But this isn’t a typical book club. In the place of a novel, this group meets to read and discuss the federal government’s final report on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, released in June.
Neither Alma nor the other facilitators are Indigenous — the group is for non-Indigenous people to read the 1,200 page report and discuss its 231 calls for justice. Alma says she hopes to “open up a space where we can better prepare ourselves for taking the leadership from Indigenous people and Indigenous communities — and that means that we’re going to have to do our own work.
This means pushing participants to confront their biases. For example, asking people to remember their first interaction with an Indigenous person is meant “to get people to think about an early experience, which in many ways has set the blueprint for how they show up or don’t show up around Indigenous issues,” Alma says.
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“[A part of the group’s] intention is to get people to be able to face what is going on without recoiling or wanting to look away or wanting to absolve themselves from a solution.”
The idea for the group dates back to June, when board members at Kind Space — an LGBTQ+ organization in downtown Ottawa which hosts the reading group — discussed the importance of action from non-Indigenous members with an Indigenous colleague. Carling Miller, the executive director of Kind Space, says the group matches the organization’s values. “This reading group fits in well [within our mandate] because the report is about missing and murdered Indigenous women girls and 2SLGBTQ folks,” she says, “and we're an organization that really strongly believes and tries to live out the realities of our intersecting identities.”
Miller says the initiative responds directly to the report, which asks all Canadians to “develop knowledge and read the final report. Listen to the truths shared and acknowledge the burden of these human and Indigenous rights violations, and how they impact Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people today.”
The group meets every two weeks and is open to all. The first reading circle had 40 attendees. Since then, the numbers have varied from week to week. “I know that the second or third ones we had about 10 or 15 people. Now were at about 5 to 10 people every time and interestingly there are always new people that come,” says Alma.
“Everybody is really happy that there is at least a space somewhere, a group of people somewhere, that haven't forgotten and that are actively working on it and trying to understand and get a sense of what [Indigenous people] live every day,” says Miller. “The report came out and it was a big thing. People made a big deal about the word genocide, and then it’s kind of been swept under the rug again.”
On one November Monday at Kind Space, a member reads a testimonial from Anni P., one of the more than 2,380 participants in the national inquiry: “It’s all about building relationships. And, so, we heal in our Indigenous community, and then the non-Indigenous community is learning the truth, and then how do we come together? How can we come together in a healthy and safe way to start to build relationships, to start to heal all those lies that all sides have been told about each other? We need to heal all of that.”
For many, the discussion is as important as the reading. “There’s no point in reading this report if we can’t hold space for what it brings up in people. Being able to really integrate the learnings and deal with difficult emotions or whatever else is coming up is crucial to being able to step up as allies and people who want to change what’s going on,” says Alma.
The group is just under halfway through reading the first volume of the report, and Miller estimates it will take them at least another year to finish the project in its entirety.
The group’s leaders also offer training for others who want to start similar reading groups and plan to do so again in the future. Dates for reading circles and details on facilitation training can be found on the Kind Space website.
“What we’re trying to do is get people to come out and learn and to make that the tangible thing that they get to do because I think that most people feel pretty distraught or discouraged or powerless to change what’s going on,” says Alma. “So we’re just getting them all together and taking people out of isolation and to collective learning, which we hope will lead to collective action.”
This is one of a series of stories about Indigenous issues brought to you in partnership with Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication.
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