For the 10th year in a row, Val-d’Or residents came out in droves for annual Gabriel Commanda walk which marks the ending of the city’s week for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
According to the Val-d’Or Friendship Centre’s Executive Director, Edith Cloutier, not only was this year’s march special because it marked a decade of civil activism in the community but also because this year marks the 35th anniversary of the Centre and the 75th anniversary of Val-d’Or.
Because 2010 marked so many important events, Cloutier and her colleagues felt that it was important to highlight all of them throughout the week and use the opportunity to connect with the whole community on a deeper level.
In honour of this being an anniversary year, a special symposium was held at the L’Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue in conjunction with DIALOG Network/ Odena Alliance, Val-d’Or Ville en santé and the Regroupement des centres d’amitié autochtones du Québec on March 18.
“For the symposium, we had a variety of different themed workshops by various teams. But what we were hoping to do with the seminar was to create an opportunity to have a thorough discussion on racism, the impact that it has and how we can develop strategies to have more Aboriginal people in Val-d’Or occupying more jobs and more common ground in terms of projects,” said Cloutier.
The symposium was not only successful in bringing together a myriad of individuals from the university and the community, but it also set the stage for Val-d’Or to become part of a special club. Cloutier is hoping that through the discussions that were brought about by the symposium that they might just join UNESCO’s Canadian Coalition of Municipalities against Racism and Discrimination (CMARD)
According to Cloutier, the purpose of CMARD is to have cities and municipalities become part of this coalition and with that resolution to become a formal member, they also take action to reduce racial discrimination for anyone of any nationality.
Like any year, this year’s campaign involved a massive media promotion headed up by the 2010 spokesperson, rap artist and frontman of Loco Locass, Biz (Sébastien Fréchette).
“He is very supportive of Aboriginal issues and he added a special element to the campaign because he did all of the radio and TV spots. It was great because he is well known in Quebec and the youth recognized him,” said Cloutier.
Biz was not the only face seen or voice heard by those in Val-d’Or as Cloutier and her colleagues from the Friendship Centres also took to the airwaves and met with other social groups in the community.
To kick off the week, she and her colleagues went on a local French-language radio station, with a listening audience that doesn’t normally attend the anti-racism week activities, to play a game of true or false when it came to facts about Aboriginals in Quebec.
Some of the questions were about whether all Aboriginals are exempt from taxes or lead privileged lives on the reserves where they don’t have to pay for housing or hydro because these are notions that some individuals actually believe.
Reaching out as much as they could, Cloutier and her colleagues also went to meetings hosted by local groups, such as the Kiwanis, the Rotary Club and the Optimist Club. The idea was to present themselves and the initiatives they undertake annually and allow the locals to ask them questions about it while having an open exchange about culture.
Cloutier explained that they did this because while there is a great deal of economic development between the Crees and Algonquins in the area and those in Val-d’Or where there is wealth exchanged, it should not end there.
“There are other aspects to this life here that are not about economic development, such as the social aspect and the reality of coexistence in Val-d’Or. Do we really have our own place as citizens in this city and are we really being taken into account?” asked Cloutier.
While many come through the city for education or economic purposes, those who often stay are the ones who suffer the most and whose plight is most often ignored.
What is seen by those in the Friendship Centre is a reality of poverty, homelessness, and many who cannot find adequate social housing despite the fact that they have the least of anyone in Val-d’Or. Succumbing to poverty, there are also those who are now in the justice system.
Rounding off a week of anti-discrimination activities, 1300-1500 people took to the streets on March 19 to march in the memory of Gabriel Commanda.
According to Cloutier, Commanda was an Anishnabe from Kitigan-Kibi whose camp once stood where the city of Val-d’Or now stands in the early 1900s. He became known in the area because he would graciously welcome prospectors up to the area to show them the potential in the area for gold mining development. Commanda’s trail to his camp eventually became 3rd Avenue, Val-d’Or’s main drag.
It is in the spirit of his bridge-building between Aboriginals and non-Natives that the walk is named for him.
As a result of 10 years of anti-racism awareness within the community, local school boards have mandated that schoolchildren be taught about Commanda and his message of welcoming others. One school now even has an entire day devoted to Native culture awareness.
Cloutier takes great pride in this.
These 60 students marching in this year’s walk also added a different cultural element to the event, carrying flags from the 60 different nations that have come together to form Val-d’Or since its inception to celebrate everyone’s diversity.
Many others youths carried handmade placards with more personal anti-racism messages.
“The youth come to this march in large numbers and when we see them with their placards, it means they had class time to prepare them and discuss the impact of racism. Those youth are the adults of tomorrow and some of them have been coming to this march for five or six years now, since they were young children. They are growing up with a consciousness to be more open and this is something that will contribute to making the Val-d’Or of tomorrow, a Val-d’Or that is open to differences,” said Cloutier.
The success of the week for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is not the only one Cloutier has under her belt. One week later she was on a plane to Regina to accept an Aboriginal Achievement Award for her contribution to public service.
She was one of 14 talented, hardworking and dedicated Indigenous Canadians who have made their mark in history for their contributions to society.
According to Cloutier, the whole experience has not quite sunk in yet because, though wonderful, the event itself was also quite overwhelming.
“I was with so many great people that weekend. Kenneth Deer was there with his family and then there was William Commanda. It was quite the event! The National Aboriginal Achievement Awards Foundation people are great people who made us feel special throughout the event,” said Cloutier.
Cloutier was also taken aback by the sheer magnitude of the event because it is a TV awards show that featured big-name Aboriginal celebrities such as Buffy Sainte-Marie, Crystal Shawanda, Elisapie Isaac, Lorne Cardinal, Michael Greyeyes and Leemai Lafontaine.
Making her mark on the Awards show, Cloutier said she decided to deliver her speech in French, as she was not even sure if any francophone Aboriginals from Quebec had ever won the award and because she is proud of that heritage.
Speaking in French at the ceremony had quite the impact according to Cloutier as she said that afterwards she was approached by many other francophones in attendance who were impressed with her delivery. She had wanted to create awareness for them as the Foundation tends to be more western Canada and anglophone oriented.
“What I shared with the people from the NAAF was that I now know as a recipient that we become ambassadors of the Foundation and its work and in promoting the success stories that we see around us. This is what I bring home to Quebec because there are people who have been recipients before, like Kenneth Deer, Skawenniio Barnes, Billy Diamond and I think Matthew Coon Come.
“The other part of the Aboriginal world in Quebec which has French as a second language, I don’t think there have been any recipients so I see this as being an opportunity to promote the recognition of Aboriginal people in Quebec who do excellent work,” said Cloutier.
Still spinning from her experience in becoming a National Aboriginal Achievement Award recipient, Cloutier is hoping that many more will follow in her footsteps.
The National Aboriginal Achievement Awards air on Global TV on May 1. For more info: www.naaf.ca