By Greg Macdougall
OTTAWA – Niigaan: In Conversation, a project in Ottawa that brings Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples together for dialogue and discussion, recently received $1600 through a “crowd-sourced” community funding initiative called Soup Ottawa.
Niigaan is an Anishinaabemowin word that the organizers chose to represent the themes of “at the front,” “leading” or “looking towards the future.”
According to Niigaan volunteer/supporter Andrea Landry, an Anishinaabe-kwe from Pays Plat First Nation, Niigaan is distinct from many other political spaces that centre on confrontation and butting heads. She describes Niigaan as “safe and open honest discussions on Indigenous / non-Indigenous relationships in Canada,” adding, “It’s a matter of creating change by shifting our dialogues and having more open minds in these discussions.”
The project began earlier this year, with a community event in March that brought together a couple hundred people. Landry was one of the speakers there, in one-on-one conversation with Craig Benjamin of Amnesty International Canada. They talked about Indigenous issues in an international context, including how non-Indigenous peoples are learning through the United Nations systems the importance of helping push the Indigenous agenda. They also discussed “the concept of land ownership, and how a lot of our people are saying we need to take back our land, yet the Canadian government is saying ‘We want to own your land.’ And basically the concept of we can’t own land, because once we own something, we’re enslaving it … [how] we need to get out of that concept of the colonial mindset, of ownership in itself,” explains Landry.
There were other speakers focused on other topic dialogues, including Leanne Betasamosake Simpson of Alderville First Nation discussing aspects of colonial history with Victoria Freeman, author of “Distant Relations: How My Ancestors Colonized North America.”
Since that first event, Niigaan has held quarterly public symposiums, the latest being an “Odawa Community Talk Show” on September 15 with seven guest speakers including Ian Campeau (Dee Jay NDN) of Nipissing First Nation. Over the summer they also held a series of workshops on treaty relations in partnership with KAIROS Canada, and organized the local event that was part of the national “Honour the Apology” campaign. The next Niigaan symposium is set for December.
They submitted a proposal to Soup Ottawa and were chosen to present their project on August 27 alongside other community initiatives vying for the winner-takes-all funding. Around 160 people each contributed $10, dined on donated soup and listened to the various pitches. They then each cast a vote towards the project they felt most worthy of support; Niigaan received the most votes, taking home all the money raised.
Melody McKiver, an Anishnaabe whose family is from Lac Seul First Nation, is one of four core Niigaan organizers and co-presented the project to the Soup Ottawa audience.
She comments, “It’s really affirming for us to see that the community wants to back the work we’ve done to date and to see it continue.”