Four communities with questions and minds open to discovery showed the power of listening to and learning from each other last week. (Courtesy Lisa Byer De Wever)
Two days before Canada 150 celebrations and accompanying protests dotted the country, Kahnawake was host to a much different celebration, one of sharing and learning.
“Origins” was a gathering of 48 youth and leaders from the Muslim Community Centre, Dorsei Emit Jewish Centre, the Montreal United Church and A:se Tahonatehiaróntie youth group from Kahnawake, who met in the community last Thursday, June 29 to share and learn about each other.
“That’s why we timed it this way,” said Kahnawake United Church minister Lisa Byer-de Wever, who wanted to open a dialogue about the realities facing Kahnawake and other communities in the region.
The groups met at the Kanienkehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Center to share stories, break down stereotypes and ask each other questions.
“It was so amazing, and they’re so excited to do it again,” said Wever. “It’s so hard to believe that still in 2017, those stereotypes are still being taught, and when I say stereotypes I mean a variety of cultures.”
Being hosts, Kahnawake’s youth were able to answer questions others had about the community, some of which was based on stereotypical thoughts and assumptions.
“It was really interesting because they asked a lot of questions that I thought I wouldn’t get,” said 15-year-old Karennahen:te Mara Horn. “They still thought we lived in ribbon clothes and didn’t leave town. They said that because that’s what they learn in their history class.”
Horn said the youth from the other communities were shy and perhaps embarrassed thinking that they may have asked an offending question, but she reassured them and all four groups were able to learn about each other.
The local group’s leaders were blown away by the youths poise and maturity when discussing such hot topics as taxation, cultural diets or wearing the hijab.
“To see them explaining their culture with respect – the questions were asked respectfully and out of curiosity – for me to see them answer questions that I had to answer at their age, it was incredible to watch them all take a turn, talk about their culture,” said A:se Tahonatehiaróntie leader Adrienne Zachary. “They were really knowledgeable and proud, and I was really proud.”
Wever was inspired at how the youth respond to the issues raised.
“What’s really amazing is that the kids are challenging the information they’re getting,” she said, recounting a 13-year-old Muslim boy, who came to the community and shared a story of how he challenged a teacher, who suggested a stereotypical idea of Onkwehón:we life.
Both the tone of the question and response excited the minister.
“Both the questions offered and the responses given were compassionate, were truthful and honest and challenging and respectful,” said Wever.
The experience was overwhelmingly positive, according to the youth from Kahnawake who participated.
“I got to learn about them and they got to learn about my culture,” said Horn “They got a better understanding and not just what they learned in history class.”
What was gained for Horn?
“Creating a better connection with the people and cultures, so you don’t think they’re this way, but they’re actually that way,” said Horn. “You actually know them.”
“We were super proud of them,” said leader Karina Peterson. “They were coming in and you could tell that they were super proud of themselves. They were like, ‘we just told the creation story to this many people.’ It was awesome to see them.”
Peterson and Zachary hopes when Kahnawake visits the Muslim community in August, the reverse of last week’s experience will happen.
“When they came here they got to ask the questions that they had been thinking about,” said Zachary. “I’m hoping what they get from the other groups is the same thing: to really understand their culture. Ask questions that are very stereotypical of the other group’s cultures.”
The exchanges will continue until the youth have visited all four centres, after which they will begin to work on social justice issues.
“So they’ll be teaching each other and building this incredible multicultural bride of peace,” said Wever.
A highlight for all involved was Kawehnoke Diabo delivering the Ohén:ton Karihwatéhkwen entirely in Kanien’kéha.
“That was a powerful thing to see,” said Zachary “Everybody was so engaged. They didn’t understand what he was saying and we had to translate it at the end, but they were really focused, intrigued and interested. It was a beautiful thing to see.”
By the end of the day, the result of building a relationship was clear.
“It really was a gift to all of them,” said Wever. “They weren’t different cultures, they were kids connecting.”
Connection was the goal.
“How do we get our kids to not only talk to each other, but share their experiences and teach each other and build those relationships that go beyond the typical wall; we’re in our silo, you’re in your silo, you’re there, we’re here. Blah. That’s BS,” said Wever.