"We must recognize that there was a North American holocaust of native people. We ask ourselves, where do we go now? We must build bridges, bridges to cover the gaps among all nations."
Doreen Spence, a northern Alberta Cree woman, is a member of the University of Calgary Senate. She is active in many organizations, including the Alberta Civil Liberties Association, the Committee Against Racism and the Rotary Club, United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations, and she was the president of the Plains Indian Cultural Survival School Society. She has served as secretary of the Dignity Foundation, an Alberta-based human-rights organization, and teaches for the Wild Rose Holistic College and the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business.
Doreen advocates for the rights and dignity of indigenous people, whose condition is dire. Commenting on the nature of the crisis in her community, Doreen noted that, "We are the least educated, least employed and lowest paid in the realm of the material hierarchy. We watch as our babies die at a rate three times higher than any others.
"We pray for the safety of our teenagers who kill themselves six times more often than those of other cultural groups. Sixty-five percent of our sons will go to jail before they turn 20 years of age. We know that there is up to a 90 percent chance that our children, if they survive at all, will not succeed in the white man's school system."
When Doreen started her work, indigenous people in Canada were not allowed to vote and lived under conditions much like apartheid. As a mother, she joined the local Parents Teachers Association and sat on committees to ensure her child and her heritage would be understood and appreciated in the classroom.
As a nurse, she learned that health institutions were still randomly sterilizing young Aboriginal girls and women. She brought this issue to the attention to government authorities, using the Canadian Charter Act that protects religious or spiritual practices to end such sterilizations.
Currently, Doreen serves as the founder and executive director of the Canadian Indigenous Women's Resource Institute (CIWRI). The Institute raises awareness and educates non-native people regarding issues facing minorities, specifically aboriginal people, and stresses how this knowledge can benefit society as a whole.
CIWRI develops and presents workshops, seminars and educational forums specifically targeting Indigenous women and relevant issues, including healing circles and spiritual counseling. It provides and promotes mental, physical, spiritual and emotional healing through native spirituality.
The community as a whole has benefited from seeing CIWRI function successfully within the NGO framework while using traditional teachings and embracing people of all races and ethnicities. CIWRI is an example that cultural understanding, collaboration and keeping traditions alive in a supportive network is possible.
The organization is open to all members of the community and both its membership and its board comprises 50 percent Aboriginals and 50 percent non-Aboriginals.
Doreen believes that healing the world's Indigenous Nations requires resolving the pain of the past and the inequalities of the present to build a strong and peaceful future for those children yet unborn. "When we discuss conflict resolution, we must keep in mind that it is the women and children who have been impacted most profoundly by the destruction of our Indigenous ways. The best way to understand the concerns of Indigenous women is to let us speak for ourselves."
Some of the services that Doreen and CIWRI provides for Indigenous women include: reintroducing them to their culture and traditions through healing and counseling from a cultural perspective, supporting them in their interactions with large social and government institutions (including courts, health care organizations, attorneys and the welfare system) and providing cultural education workshops in the broader community.
Doreen has provided input and brought cultural awareness to such international organizations as the United Nations and the Permanent Forum for Indigenous Peoples. She understands that reaching out to constituencies around the world is a key to the success of her cause.
"We must recognize that there was a North-American holocaust of Native people," Doreen said. "We ask ourselves, 'Where do we go now?' We must build bridges, bridges to cover the gaps among all nations."
As part of building bridges, Doreen often incorporates in her presentations dances and rituals to convey the essence of her culture. For example, at one event she began with a prayer, rendered in a high-pitched voice that spoke directly to those who make decisions in education to indigenous peoples. At another event, she encouraged participants to eat dried chokecherries, dance a round dance, make and wear parfleche, engage in the smudge ceremony, drum-dance, throat sing, and perform a Greenlandic mask dance. Also, Doreen practices the Indigenous traditional ways of education by story telling, legends, song, dance and even jokes, games and other shared activities.
Doreen is the recipient of human awards including Chief David Crowchild Award, Alberta Human Rights Award, international award from the Council on Adoptable Children in New York, and the 2000 Woman of Vision Award. She was inducted into the Thunder Bay Elders Circle in 1993.
Like many effective activists, Doreen works tirelessly to advocate for the rights of those she serves. She communicates her vision through the usual means–passionate speeches, face-to-face negotiations, grassroots community building, among other vehicles. But unlike other activists, Doreen shares with her audiences a unique set of cultural activities that underscore the fight to which she has dedicated her life–uplifting and empowering indigenous people, especially women. It is not uncommon for Doreen to incorporate in her presentations songs, dances, chants, traditional knowledge, medicinal healing, and storytelling by indigenous women themselves. And she encourages her audience to leave their seats and participate. One participant, initially unfamiliar with the culture, was amazed by its impact on her during an event led by Doreen: "I joined in, ate dried chokecherries, danced the round dance, made and wore my own parfleche (pouch), participated in the smudge (medicinal healing) ceremony, drum-danced as the Inuit do, throat sang, and performed a Greenlandic mask dance."
Doreen says: "My soul has been touched by women's stories of racism, exclusion, prostitution, and death. I have laughed with the comics, cried with the truth tellers, and I hope to continue my journey, joining with native women and building our future together."
The plight of the indigenous people for whom Doreen advocates is dire. According to Doreen, they are the least educated, least employed, and lowest paid in the workforce. Babies die at a rate three times higher than others and teenagers kill themselves six times more often.
Canadian Indigenous Women's Resource Institute (Ciwri)
Plains Indian Cultural Survival School Society
Alberta Civil Liberties Association
Northern America | Canada