Fred Bellefeuille, Legal Counsel at the Union of Ontario Indians, explaining the 1974 Treaty of Fort Niagara Wampum Belt to the University of Ottawa Law Practice Program candidates. Photo courtesy of: Laura Barrios.

By Daniel Gatto

Last October, I was amongst the group of a dozen University of Ottawa Law Practice Program (Programme de Pratique du Droit) candidates who travelled to Sudbury to attend the 2016 Colloquium hosted by the Sudbury and District Law Association and host a free mobile legal information clinic in  downtown Sudbury. On our way to Sudbury, we had the privilege of stopping in for a visit at the office of the Union of Ontario Indians in North Bay.

This stop, though brief, proved to be one of the most informative and moving aspects of our trip. The visit was coordinated by Fred Bellefeuille, who serves as Legal Counsel for the Union of Ontario Indians, as well as several other dedicated staff members including Barb Naveau, Laura Barrios and Linda Newhook. During our visit, we learned about First Nations traditions, ancestral land, bands and councils. We also had the chance to see a reproduction of the 1764 Treaty of Fort Niagara Wampum Belt.

We were informed about the important advances in First Nations self-governance and in particular, the Anishinabek Education System (AES) which was approved in early December 2016. The AES sets an important precedent as a stand-alone, parallel model of self-government in the context of education.

Along with “Say Yes to AES” promotional items, we were also gifted with a story book entitled Little Butterfly Girl: An Indian Residential School Story. It is aesthetically presented as a children’s book as it has large colourful illustrations and a rather limited amount of text in large font. As for the title, it evokes both hope and tremendous despair. The reader must ask themselves: “Is this book a children’s book?”. It is, of course, a story about a young Indigenous girl who was taken from her parents without their consent and placed into a Residential School in which she was forced to supress her cultural and linguistic identity. Despite everything, she managed to find hope in the end.

After some thought, I now believe that Little Butterfly Girl is a story for people of all ages and for everyone to read – both adults and children alike. It is a story that is clear, accessible, and effective at creating some sense of understanding of what happened to children placed in Residential Schools. This book can serve as a tool to help people understand what happened to a parent, a grandparent, or other loved ones and the collective impact such an experience has had on First Nations communities.

Little Butterfly Girl is about hearing and listening to survivors and recognizing the fact that everyone – Indigenous and non-Indigenous people of all ages – can contribute to the journey towards reconciliation. A first step is for all Canadians to listen to and be aware of the stories of the survivors and their families.  My visit at the Union of Indians allowed me to do this. During my group’s visit, one of the presenters shared with us that a family member was a residential school survivor. That experience caused this family member to be emotionally detached from her children and had many inter-generational impacts on the family. The sharing of this experience helped me and all of my colleagues better understand the impact of residential schools on individuals, families, and communities.

Through the gifts that we received during our visit, our learning of the work of the Union of Ontario Indians continues. On behalf of all of the candidates in my program that were in attendance, I would like to express our gratitude to the Anishinabek Nation for its kindness and generosity when welcoming us at the offices of the Union of Ontario Indians and on its land.

Please consider our group as friends of your Nation. We hope that all Canadians can learn more about your Nation’s rich culture and help correct historical wrongs.

Daniel Gatto, HBA, JD, candidate in the Programme de pratique du droit at the University of Ottawa.