Embracing Mi’kmaw concept of reciprocal learning on National Indigenous Peoples Day | Education | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST
Designed by Kassidy and Kaylyn Bernard of Patuo'kn Illustration and Design for Treaty Education.

Embracing Mi’kmaw concept of reciprocal learning on National Indigenous Peoples Day

Treaty Education team is all about “Maw Kina'masultinej,” meaning “Let's learn together”

National Indigenous Peoples Day, as it’s known today, is celebrated annually on June 21 in Canada. In 1996, Governor General of Canada, Roméo LeBlanc, issued a proclamation declaring the recognition of this day, then known as National Aboriginal Day.

However, there’s a third name for June 21: “Freedom Day.” LeBlanc was coining a day of observation and celebration “because Indigenous Peoples across Canada already celebrate this day,” says Nik Phillips, who works as a policy analyst for the Treaty Education initiative in Nova Scotia’s Office of L’nu Affairs.

Phillips comes from Mi'kma'ki and has family roots in the Millbrook First Nation community. He says June 21 “is a very ceremonial day for us, both from a historical standpoint, but also from a contemporary standpoint we see this day as what we call ‘Freedom Day’: the day the academic year in residential schools would end.”

Today is observed and celebrated as the time Mi’kmaw children were dismissed from the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School as well as the 12 Indian Day Schools placed in Mi’kmaw communities across the province. These were schools that Mi’kmaq, Wolastoqiyik and other Indigenous children were forced to attend on the premise of assimilation, which in practice acted as a destruction of culture and language for students and their communities.
These schools were created by the Canadian government and run by the Catholic Church. The Shubenacadie Residential School ran from 1929 to 1967. The last Indian Day School in the province closed in February 1997.

Freedom Day, marking the last day of school, is celebrated yearly at the former Shubenacadie school site which is now Mi'kmaq Memorial Site in Shubenacadie whose Mi'kmaw place name is Sipekne'katik.

In 2007, the Indian Residential Schools Settlement, the largest class action in Canada's history, was created to compensate school survivors for harms suffered while at these schools, as well as harm to their families and communities they were taken from. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was established as part of this agreement. The TRC mandate can be accessed here. In 2019, the Canadian Federal Court approved a national class action settlement to compensate survivors for harms suffered while attending federally established and controlled Indian Day Schools.

As part of the work of truth and reconciliation, the Treaty Education initiative creates educational opportunities and resources to learn about the Mi'kmaq and how their inherent Treaty rights make us all treaty people. Treaty Education work surrounds four questions: 
  • Who are the Mi'kmaq historically and today?
  • What are the Treaties and why are they important?
  • What happened to the Treaty relationship?
  • What are we doing to reconcile our shared history to ensure justice and equity?

Treaty Education works with their Mi'kmaw partners, like the Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey, and other government departments, like the Public Service Commission, the Department of Communities, Culture, Tourism and Heritage and the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, to share resources and host discussions on these treaty questions in three key areas: public schools, Nova Scotia public service and public awareness.

They are a small team of two full-time staff. Phillips works alongside Celeste Sulliman, who is the director of the Treaty Education initiative. The dynamic duo of “the L’nu and the ally,” as they call themselves, work reciprocally with partners within the public sector so that the Peace and Friendship Treaties that govern Mi'kma'ki Nova Scotia are a shared understanding and commitment by all.

We're trying to build capacity through engagement and through the creation of our information series because we are trying to have all of our public service partners embed treaty education and understanding into the work that they do,says Sulliman, “so that whether you're dealing with somebody at Access Nova Scotia, or with somebody at the Department of Justice, or in Fisheries, you'll have somebody who has capacity and some understanding.

We're the spark, that's what we are. But we think of ourselves as important to the fire.
The Treaty Education team host workshops for public service workers and share their information series across government departments.

Their first package in the series was created to explain their own office name change, from the Office of Aboriginal Affairs to the Office of L'nu Affairs. Sulliman says that some of their government colleagues couldn't pronounce "L'nu," didn't know what it meant or why the name had changed.
L'nu is the Mi'kmaw word for themselves, meaning "the people."

The team's second series introduced Mi'kmaw language and phrases that people could learn and use in their workdays. Their third was on the purpose and intent of land acknowledgements and their fourth series, which is in progress right now, is on Mi'kmaw place names. Sulliman says this will serve many purposes: of helping people in government to know the correct Mi'kmaw place names, for starters, of helping with pronunciations and, importantly, of helping people understand that Mi'kmaw is a verb-based or action-based language, and that place names have meanings. View a map of Mi'kma'ki place names, meanings and pronunciations here.

"Usually, government creates policy," says Sulliman. "What we do, though, is create education pieces and guidelines because this work has to do with community, culture and spirit. We don't want to be creating policy about that but rather we want to create education pieces and open people's minds."
Another part of their work is to coordinate presenters for government and the general public, by connecting those groups with presenters in community "who will carry knowledge that we don't have," says Sulliman.

The duo also deliver workshops together. They can tailor these workshops to individual departments, as they have for the Department of Justice and the Department of Natural Resources and Renewables.

Most recently, Phillips finished leading an eight-hour Treaty Education course with 25 public service employees called “Understanding the Treaty Relationship.” Phillips and Sulliman have led it together before. It’s delivered “at breakneck speed,” says Sulliman, “because we try to answer the four treaty questions in one day.”

Sometimes Phillips will deliver the workshop with another L’nu or ally, says Sulliman, “but we always try to have an L’nu and an allied voice at the table, because when we say ‘We're all treaty people,’ that means you're a treaty person and I'm a treaty person.”

Phillips says they’ve been able to give this workshop to over 1,000 public service employees within the last three years, and that they’re currently working with their Treaty Education partners to build a “larger platform to get more people into the learning space, because right now we’re offering it two or three times a year and still have waitlists.”

Phillips says exploring the four treaty questions in this workshop, “requires space and time to essentially do an entire history course of 13,000 years in seven and a half hours.” What Phillips says is the beautiful thing about their approach to teaching is how they embed Indigenous storytelling and ways of knowing and being throughout the information that is shared.

“What we really encourage people to do is come from a position of inquiry, not certainty,” says Sulliman. “If you come to treaty education with a curious mind, with an open heart, with authenticity, then that reconciliation journey is going to be so much richer.” However, says Sulliman, “if you come with fixed positions, you're inauthentic and you're just checking boxes, it's not going to work for the relationship–because this is relationship work.”

There’s a Mi’kmaw word that informs this approach and their work as a whole, which is the concept of “Etuaptmumk,” or two-eyed seeing, which is the gift of multiple perspectives: the strengths of Indigenous knowledges and ways of knowing and the strengths of Western knowledges and ways of knowing, and learning to use both sights together.

Which is why Phillips and Sulliman jokingly refer to themselves as as a duo, "the L'nu and the ally."

“We're constantly learning from each other," says Sulliman. I have to be open to [Phillips], he has to be open to me and sometimes we have difficult conversations with one another, but it adds to the richness of the work that we do–we have to realize the position that we come from and all that we take with us.”

Last summer, for the North American Indigenous Games–or NAIG–which were celebrated across Mi’kma’ki Nova Scotia, the duo along with their Treaty Education partners published a booklet they call the “We Are All Treaty People Booklet."

This was both created in response to NAIG, says Phillips, so that the 5,000 visiting Indigenous athletes could learn about Mi’kma’ki, but it was also created for everyone else in Mi'kma'ki.

Phillips says they’ve worked hard to ensure that copies of this are in the airports, visitor information centres and public spaces. “We’ve printed 50,000 hard copies of the English version so far.” In preparation for Mi’kmaw History Month this October, Treaty Education is printing another round in English as well as working with Gaelic Affairs to print in Gaelic, and working with French Services Branch to print in French, “so that we are creating accessibility and openness to allow people to really dive in in this information,” says Phillips.

Treaty Education, through publications, workshops, and working with education partners is about “creating a space for people to be courageous in their thoughts,” says Phillips. “We call them courageous conversations because people have to be courageous not to come and learn, but to come and un-learn and challenge what they think they know–that's really the way that we approach this work.”

This is why Phillips suggests the importance of the Mi’kmaw concept “Maw Kina'masultinej” which means “let's learn together,” when beginning this work. This concept helps everyone, no matter what knowledge level they're at, to approach truth and reconciliation from a place of openness and sharing, of learning and considering what it means to all be treaty people.

Phillips asks that everyone think about what that phrase means to them and ask themselves how they’re showing up as a treaty person wherever they are. “That’s the foundation of how we walk into a space: by asking ‘How do we reconcile our shared history and what is it that [I] need to know?”

For people in Nova Scotia, the answer begins with learning about Mi’kma’ki and the Mi’kmaq. While National Indigenous Peoples Day is a celebration and acknowledgement of the indigeneity of people across this place, “here in Mi'kma'ki, we celebrate and acknowledge the Mi'kmaq,” says Phillips. “These are the people that we're celebrating and recognizing.”

Want to participate in some learning today?

The first way people in Nova Scotia can involve themselves in the spirit of both National Indigenous Peoples Day and Freedom Day is by joining family members and community supporters in honoring the Shubenacadie Residential School survivors during their annual Freedom March on Friday morning.

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Sipekne'katik website

Beginning at 10am with an opening prayer, supporters will march one kilometre from the memorial site to the town’s River Park. At the site, the grassroots group Mawikuti’k - Growing Together is hosting a full schedule of activities that will run from 10am until 3pm and are open to everyone.

For those who may be closer to Phillips’ home community of Millbrook this Friday, the Millbrook Heritage Centre is hosting its annual National Indigenous Peoples Day Mawio’mi inside a full schedule of celebration events, including a performance by Morgan Toney.

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Millbrook First Nation

“That event is also open to everybody,” says Phillips, “and the vast majority of local schools within the Town of Truro and surrounding areas are bussed in and the day is celebrated together.”

There are also ways to celebrate wherever you are. For example, “by listening to Mi'kmaw music and Mi'kmaw voices and stories and knowing that the Mi'kmawey Debert Cultural Centre has a beautiful website with a wealth of information from elders,” says Phillips.

Sulliman suggests other ways to continue self-directed learning, such as reading the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action; visiting a Mi’kmaw community, of there are 13 across Mi’kmaki;

Embracing Mi’kmaw concept of reciprocal learning on National Indigenous Peoples Day (5)
Office of L'nu Affairs

by learning a Mi’kmaw word, phrase or place name; or by exploring Mi’kmaw arts and culture. “For example,” says Sulliman, “Alan Syliboy has the most breathtaking art studio in Millbrook just off the highway,” which is open to the public seven days a week.

Sulliman says the Treaty Education team and the Office of L’nu Affairs celebrated early on Wednesday, June 19 by visiting the Nova Scotia Public Archives and visiting the Peace and Friendship Treaties, which are living documents marking and upholding the relationship between nations in Mi’kma’ki Nova Scotia. High resolution images of the treaties are also available for anyone to visit online

One of the pieces that Treaty Education is responsible for is public initiatives and learning, says Phillips, which means they work closely with colleagues at the Department of Community, Culture, Tourism and Heritage, “specifically with our museums, libraries, archives,” Sport Nova Scotia and Arts Nova Scotia. “By intersecting in all of those spaces, we offer the opportunity to have conversations with experts in their realm, to help build capacity in those places.

“And so we see the public libraries offering a brand new Indigenous coding system, which is challenging this colonial process of libraries and archives; we see library displays and presentations on an ongoing basis, outside of National Indigenous Peoples History Month; we see the Museum of the Maritime Atlantic and the work that they're doing in terms of teaching Mi’kmaw practices around water and the relationships of 'Netukulimk' [which encompasses a responsibility to your natural surroundings] and 'Weji-sqalia’tiek' which means 'from where we sprouted',” said Phillips.

“We’re seeing Mi’kmaw narratives now in places where we wouldn't necessarily have seen them in.”

Looking beyond Friday, Phillips suggests following the Powwow Trail that extends into communities across the summer and fall, with a tentative list below pulled from the Facebook page Powwow Listings - Atlantic Canada.

Mawio’mis are times of gathering and sharing for everybody,says Phillips. They're open events, and we encourage everybody to attend and experience their first Mawio’mi.”

click to enlarge Embracing Mi’kmaw concept of reciprocal learning on National Indigenous Peoples Day
Facebook / Powwow Listings - Atlantic Canada

Lauren Phillips, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Lauren Phillips is The Coast’s Education Reporter, a position created in September 2023 with support from the Local Journalism Initiative. Lauren studied journalism at the University of King’s College, and has written on education and sports at Dal News and Saint Mary's Athletics for over two years. She won gold...
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