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How Ernestine showed me the road to reconciliation
Tuesday, 30 June 2015 - 10:45am
How Ernestine showed me the road to reconciliation Preston Manning, Globe and Mail, June 30, 2015
Her name was Ernestine Gibot, the daughter of a Metis trapper and a Chipewyan mother, and she became the best aboriginal friend I ever had. Her experience is highly relevant to implementing the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
At age five, Ernestine was taken from her family to attend the Catholic residential school in Fort Chipewyan. She completed Grades 1 to 4, learning French and English. When her formal education was over, she returned home to discover she had completely forgotten how to live in the bush and hardly recognized her family and friends.
At age 16, Ernestine married a Cree trapper named Francois Gibot, a man twice her age who had been married before and had five children. For the next 33 years, until 1974, she lived with her husband, primarily in the bush, surviving by hunting and trapping. Ernestine described this period as her "time of suffering“ living most of the time in tents and winter shacks, with 19 pregnancies, 14 live births, three early deaths, poverty, drinking, physical abuse, sickness, and hopelessness.
In 1974, Ernestine's health collapsed. She was taken from Fort Chip to a hospital in Edmonton. Before leaving, she was able to get her children into foster homes where she felt they would be safe. At the age of 49, with little formal education, no money, no friends at hand, no experience of city living or employment, and a drinking problem - Ernestine decided to start a new life in a strange city.
I first met her when my consulting firm was hired to do the socioeconomic impact assessment for an oil project in north-eastern Alberta, a region inhabited by seven aboriginal bands, one of which was Chipewyan. We needed someone to advise us on the values and ways of the Chipewyans and a mutual friend suggested I talk to Ernestine.
By this time she had been struggling for seven years to find a full-time job without success and was very discouraged. I told her that sometimes when people off-reserve are unemployed we get little cards printed up with the word 'consultant' on them. We then hand out these cards to as many people as possible and eventually someone may offer us work.
Ernestine was very doubtful about this approach but agreed to try. My firm printed up some "Ernestine's Counselling Services" business cards for her and served as her first reference and client. Ernestine then started handing out her cards at a hospital in Edmonton that specialized in treating aboriginal patients. When some of the staff realized that Ernestine spoke English, French, Cree, Chipewyan, and a little Slavey, they began to use her as an interpreter. She kept handing out her cards to whoever visited the hospital until finally one of these contacts offered her a full-time paid position as a teacher's aide in an Edmonton inner-city school.
I wanted to better understand why it had taken seven years of wandering through the bureaucratic maze of agencies ostensibly designed to help Ernestine before she had finally achieved meaningful employment. So we undertook to retrace her steps, identifying such agencies and destinations as the Charles Camsell Hospital, Poundmakerâ€™s Lodge (an alcoholism treatment centre), provincial and city welfare offices, Indian Affairs offices, Hilltop House (a residence for first nations women), the courthouse, the city jail, several Catholic churches, the Edmonton Housing Authority, the Native Friendship Centre, the Alberta Native Communications Society, the Native Counselling Service, and the Alberta Vocational College.
This complex bureaucratic network of "helping systems" for aboriginal people sometimes delivered certain services effectively - health care and occasional financial support, accommodation, and training. But more often than not it failed to provide guidance at critical times, or to offer encouragement, incentive, and the means of securing self-sustaining employment.
The people who actually helped Ernestine during this period were usually individuals she would not have met had she not been "in the system." But - and this is most relevant to implementing the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission - in order to truly help Ernestine, these individuals most often had to "step outside the box" of their prescribed professional and bureaucratic roles in order to help her, sometimes in violation of the system's rules.
This was the case, for example, with her doctor and her priest, who told her, we shouldn't really be saying this, but you must leave the north and leave your husband or you'll be dead within a year. It was also the case with two social workers who treated Ernestine as a friend rather than a client, meeting with her, against regulations, 'after hours.' And this was the case with the employment counsellor who referred Ernestine to me, even when our firm was not on the agency's approved list of potential employers. (After all, what management consulting firm would possibly hire a mid-fifties aboriginal woman with a Grade 4 education?)
Virtually all of the systems, programs, and legal frameworks created and maintained by governments ostensibly to help and serve aboriginal people have been established primarily by non-aboriginals - from the treaty system and the Indian Act down to the elected band council and governance system.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission defines the reconciliation goal as the establishment and maintenance of respectful relations between aboriginals and non aboriginals. To achieve it will require virtually everyone involved - civil servants, lawyers and judges, politicians and aboriginal leaders, reporters and editors, aboriginals and non-aboriginals alike - to step outside our past attitudes, roles, and positions and do things differently than we have done before.