John Fischer, co-chair of the Indigenous Gathering Place Society of Calgary. Photo: Jeremy Klaszus

Sprawlcast: The need for an Indigenous gathering place in Calgary

It’s highly important to see ourselves in the urban landscape.’

Sprawlcast is a collaboration between CJSW 90.9 FM and The Sprawl. It's a show for curious Calgarians who want more than the daily news grind. An edited transcript of this episode is below.

JEREMY KLASZUS (HOST): With an election underway, there’s a lot of talk about the future of our city, and what that city looks like. A lot of what we talk about is what gets built where—whether we’re talking about inner-city densification or new communities on the city’s outskirts. And we also give attention to different gathering places in the city. I’m thinking of places like the new Flames arena. Or the expansion of Arts Commons. At one of city council’s last committee meetings earlier this month, councillors discussed a new space for outdoor festivals.

These gathering spaces can shape our civic identity—just think of the Saddledome on the city skyline.

But there’s another need for a gathering place in this city, and I’m talking about a place specifically for Indigenous folks to come together. That’s of course what this place used to be before white settlement: Mohkinstsis, a gathering place for the Niitsitapi, or the "Real People," who settlers called the Blackfoot.

But for Indigenous peoples living in Calgary today, the urban experience is often one of exclusion. It’s living in a city that was not built for you. This is something that the Bear Clan Patrol encounters in its work. The Bear Clan is an Indigenous-led community-watch group that patrols the city assisting vulnerable folks. And when Yvonne Henderson of the Bear Clan spoke at a tipi-raising at Fort Calgary earlier this year, on July 1, she emphasized that WE BELONG HERE in this place. We meaning Niitsitapi. And I asked her about this afterward.

Yvonne Henderson of the Bear Clan Patrol speaking on July 1, 2021. Photo: Albert Woo

KLASZUS: In your comments you mentioned: This is our space. We belong here. When you look around, where we stand—the city around us—is there that sense of belonging for Indigenous people in Calgary right now?

YVONNE HENDERSON: Are you kidding? Are you joking? Being an Indigenous person in Mohkinstsis—every day you go into a store, you get followed. You get followed by their loss prevention services. You get profiled. You get looked past. You get stopped by the cops for being a little bit too dark.

KLASZUS: Yvonne mentioned this repeatedly: the reality of being looked past. And she talked about the importance of being seen and acknowledged in the city in a good way.

HENDERSON: Acknowledge us. Acknowledge us when you see us passing. Acknowledge us when you see us. Acknowledge us, because we're still here. We've been here even though you haven't been... even though you walk past us, you haven't been able to see us. We're still here. We see you. We see the racism, we survived the racism, every single day. And people don't realize that. Being Niitsitapi in your own territory is hard when you're displaced. And we're coming up. We're not staying displaced. We're coming up.

Being Niitsitapi in your own territory is hard when you’re displaced. And we’re coming up. We’re not staying displaced.

Yvonne Henderson,

Bear Clan Patrol Calgary

KLASZUS: The Indigenous Gathering Place website makes the point that there are more than 500 places in Calgary devoted to culture and spirituality, but not one is specifically intended for Indigenous peoples to gather.

This need is identified in the White Goose Flying report. The White Goose Flying report was put together in 2016 by an Indigenous urban affairs committee in Calgary in response to the calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The report is named for Jack White Goose Flying, a 17-year-old from the Piikani Nation who died of tuberculosis in 1899 at St. Dunstan’s Anglican School, a residential school in Calgary.

One of the recommendations in the White Goose Flying report is that the city work collaboratively to find land and infrastructure for Indigenous ceremonial and cultural activities.

John Fischer is the co-chair of the Indigenous Gathering Place Society. He is Cree from Cowessess First Nation, and he’s also the director of the Iniskim Centre at Mount Royal University. I spoke with John to find out more about the Indigenous Gathering Place—what’s behind it, and why it’s needed.

John Fischer, co-chair of the Indigenous Gathering Place Society of Calgary. Photo: Jeremy Klaszus

JEREMY KLASZUS: Thanks for joining me here today, John.

JOHN FISCHER: You're welcome, and looking forward to our conversation.

KLASZUS: How did this idea come about of creating a new Indigenous gathering place here in Calgary, or Mohkinstsis?

FISCHER: It's always been a wish to have that happen, and there have been many attempts to have a gathering place built. The Elders have been telling us, as we've been going through this process, that they are glad that it's finally getting traction—but they are concerned that it is not happening fast enough for them to see in their lifetimes. And we've already lost some Elders in recent months.

The current iteration started after a workshop that was done by Chief Bobby Joseph around reconciliation. There were a number of community members there, and at the completion of that the question was put forward: What does the community need? And the answer came out, in short, that we need a place to tell our stories, to tell our songs, and to be together.

And so a group of us got together the fall afterwards, and when we began to work with Elders, specifically Reg and Rose Crowshoe, that's when we begin to get traction and a greater understanding of what we would want in terms of an Indigenous gathering place, and some specifics around the programming for the Indigenous Gathering Place.

We need a place to tell our stories, to tell our songs, and to be together.

John Fischer,

Indigenous Gathering Place Society

KLASZUS: And when we talk about an Indigenous gathering place, I mean, it's not new at all in a way, right? That's what this place was for many, many years. So is it kind of putting something back that was already there?

FISCHER: Most definitely. And it is definitely putting into play something that's missing in our city environment. And so one of the things that the Elders have said to us—in particular, Clarence Wolfleg told us that the Indigenous Gathering Place needs to be on a hill. And what he meant by that, and he explained this, is he doesn't mean that it needs to be in high elevation. It needs to be someplace where people can see it from afar. And so it's not only a civic installation: It is beyond that. Provincially and nationally, people know about it as a gathering place.

Mohkinstsis was the site of gatherings, of course—specifically Blackfoot gatherings—in traditional times. And Elders have told us that it would be a good thing to have this place at Mohkinstsis because of the ceremonial importance of it. One of the things that we are doing, and want and need, is to have a ceremonial site, and a site that profiles ceremony within its walls and outside of its lodgings. Ceremony is highly important, in particular because we have included ceremonial Elders in the design and construction. And Clarence has told us that there is a site in the downtown where ceremonies were held by Weasel Tail. And so it's a natural place for an Indigenous gathering place to be.

KLASZUS: So ideally, it’s somewhere kind of in the centre of the city, as opposed to in the outlying areas?

FISCHER: It's meant to be a place where people can gather, where Indigenous people can gather. And in Calgary, the places that have ceremonial significance, such as Nose Hill or Dunbow Road, are not accessible by everyone by foot or by transit. And so we need that place to have that kind of accessibility. And we did a site acquisition study, and the downtown core along the confluence is the place that most people can get to. So with the transportation grid in Calgary, for Indigenous people in our urban area, that's the site that makes the most sense.

In Calgary, the places that have ceremonial significance, such as Nose Hill or Dunbow Road, are not accessible by everyone by foot or by transit.

John Fischer,

Indigenous Gathering Place Society

KLASZUS: You mentioned the ceremonial aspects of it, and that makes me wonder about the spiritual side of it for Indigenous folks in Calgary. In my neighborhood, just down the hill in Bridgeland, there are churches pretty much every other block, it seems like. And so there's these places all over the city, but it's kind of hard to believe, in a way, that there is no Indigenous gathering place in a city of 1.4 million people.

FISCHER: Mm-hmm. And there are different kinds of gathering places within the city of Calgary, but not a place where people know and can gather and participate, for example, in ceremonies. And so there are sites in hospitals and in universities. There are places, such as in residential programs, for youth, etcetera. But just generally speaking, where can we go? And so that is a very important piece of our cultural life that is blank in the city of Calgary. And so that's a very important motivating factor.

KLASZUS: We're in a municipal election campaign right now, and in a lot of ways, we're always talking about different gathering spaces in the city. I think of the new arena, the event centre; or Arts Commons being redone; or the new library. It seems like we are thinking as a city and putting a lot of effort towards these gathering spaces. And with this one, I wonder if that's happening as well: Is there that same hunger to create this on a civic level?

FISCHER: There is a growing understanding of what an Indigenous gathering place will mean. Unlike other cities, Calgary, through the Indigenous Gathering Place Society, the Elders, and those of us who've been involved in this process for the past several years, we have built this from a community level—unlike Edmonton, which has a government initiative that has put a million dollars into the Indigenous gathering place in Edmonton. That's civic led, and they're looking for more Indigenous partners to come in and influence that. Lethbridge, it's my understanding, the same. It's the City of Lethbridge that has initiated that.

So stepping aside from all of that, we are connected in some ways to the people of Lethbridge and Edmonton, but this initiative is the one that has been by us. And so we are looking for partnerships with the City of Calgary and with the provincial government—and, eventually, the federal government—around this particular site.

It's really important that we are connected to our city, and so we have created a formalized relationship with the City of Calgary. We have done so in two ways. The first way is a memorandum of understanding saying that we will move forward to explore and find and build an Indigenous gathering place. The second thing was that we did this through ceremony. So, led by Elders Reg Crowshoe and Rose Crowshoe, we held a ceremony to form that relationship.

And so the Indigenous Gathering Place Society is dedicated in working in two ways: first, the Western way—MoU's, business plans, etc.—and then in our way, through ceremony, through smudge, through relationship building. And so everything that we do is meant to do that. We are talking about that way of working—as following Western and traditional, and working in that space between the two—metaphorically as an ethical space. And what we really want to do is build an ethical place: a place that has both those elements to it. Not one over the other; both being equal. But that site would be an ethical space where Western ways and Indigenous ways are honoured in the same way, in the same levels.

KLASZUS: It sounds like that kind of space would function as a bridge between those two worlds you're talking about.

FISCHER: You know, through treaties, we have always talked about a Western way and the traditional ways, and they have lives and pathways all on their own. But there is that space where we live together and work together and play together, and that space is what—and that relationship within that space—is highly, highly important, and so we would strive for that too.

And in our business plan as it exists currently, we would want to see that space being used by all. So if you can picture the Elder circle being there, or if you could picture the Senate of [the University of] Calgary being there for education around Indigenous issues, or perhaps the specific government meeting with Treaty 7 nations there. There's an opportunity for people to come to Calgary and be part of an Indigenous gathering place. So there's an element for tourism there; there's an element for people to rent the facilities to celebrate marriages, to celebrate the passing of loved ones, and to celebrate calendar events through ceremony.

It cannot be taken over by others, and what we’re looking for is helpers.

John Fischer,

Indigenous Gathering Place Society

KLASZUS: So what are the challenges that you've encountered in getting this going and getting it off the ground?

FISCHER: I think we could say that part of the challenge is understanding how important it is for our people to lead this initiative. It's really important that this is ours and that it's understood that there is that ceremonial element that's really important to this work. And so it cannot be taken over by others, and what we're looking for is helpers.

And so that's why we entered the relationship with the City of Calgary in the way that we did. We spent much time talking about what ceremony means, what a relationship means to us, how important it is to underscore what we're doing with the principles of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, because we're looking at a governance model that is traditional in the way that it works. And so that's a relationship that many people do not understand, even though they've been part of this land for hundreds of years.

KLASZUS: What do you think it'll do for Indigenous peoples’ sense of belonging in Calgary?

FISCHER: Well, we already have a community here that's vibrant and strong, and I think about the protests that we have been participating in, and the spirit walks, etc., and the gatherings that we've had around missing and murdered Indigenous women. And where we gather, we gather at city hall, we march on Reconciliation Bridge, and then there's no place to hold a feast or to gather where it's warm in the winter.

I think an Indigenous gathering place would be a site for those kinds of gatherings, and should be. City hall—it doesn't fit the needs, as far as I can tell. If we're going to bring in something that's important in terms of Indigenous people, like the Witness Blanket or Christi Belcourt's art display, there's a place that is more of a natural fit. And so we could join other partners that do that kind of work, like the Glenbow Museum and Fort Calgary, the Calgary Public Library, and place it where people have a heart and a soul.

We need to have someplace where we can see ourselves in the urban landscape.

John Fischer,

Indigenous Gathering Place Society

KLASZUS: You described this place on a hill that people could see from afar. And once that's built, what do you think it will mean to Indigenous folks—thinking of young Indigenous people in Calgary—to even see that, to know that that's there and that's part of the fabric of the city?

FISCHER: It's highly important to see ourselves in the urban landscape. We are part of the urban landscape, and the only time we see ourselves, at least in the past, has been during Stampede. And then that's temporary and it's taken down. And so we need to have someplace where we can see ourselves in the urban landscape, appreciating that murals are happening, but there isn't a building that has that kind of profile.

I think of a building with the design of, say, the Calgary Public Library—that is a magnet for gathering. That's an example that I would put forward to mimic in some ways. There's no outside space there. There's no place for ceremony throughout the building. If people want to smudge there, there are fans in a couple of places that are brought in.

So I think this vision is shared by many. We have multiple ways of looking at what can be done there. That programming piece, we need to renew, because once we actually have that piece of land, then we'll be working to make it reality through an architectural drawing and through a capital campaign.

KLASZUS: You mentioned how there are these different spaces within institutions—within the new library, or within universities. But those are kind of tucked away. And when you talk about the fabric of the city and Indigenous people seeing themselves represented in the fabric of the city, I guess those initiatives, while good in themselves, don't quite get you there, right?

FISCHER: Yeah. They contribute to the fabric of the city, but it's patchwork. Not everybody can access these places as a member of the public. They're designed for the clients, the students, the residents, etc. Very few have the ability to be rented out, accessed, by the general public. And so when we think about recreation and the ability to rent out gymnasiums, that's a difficult prospect as well too. We do know that there is a need, and we do believe that we have the support of Calgarians to build this and to have a city that recognizes the land that we're on and the people there.

We’re anxiously awaiting the [municipal election] outcome to connect with councillors.

John Fischer,

Indigenous Gathering Place Society

KLASZUS: And how close would you say you are to finding a spot for it?

FISCHER: I would say that we're getting very, very close, and that is a responsibility that we are taking on as an Indigenous Gathering Place Society. We have some specific ideas, but when it comes to land, and land in the city, we need to depend on that relationship that we have with the City of Calgary. And so in the next year, year and a half, that's going to be our goal. And so what we did as a society during the pandemic was focus completely on the land piece. We can't go any further without that, and we've come close a number of different times in our mind, but now we need to have that settled. And at the same time, we also need to realize that we will need to build the funds for that as well too, so a capital campaign is where we're also looking.

KLASZUS: Is there anything that you'd add that I haven't asked that you think is important to convey or emphasize?

FISCHER: I think that we've managed to cover it off. If people are interested, to go to the Indigenous Gathering Place website. And we also have what I feel is a wonderful Facebook page that is operated by Randy Turning Robe, and we are gaining more lively followers as the weeks progress. And so there are a couple of ways to attach to us and connect to us in that way.

KLASZUS: And are in this municipal election campaign—is there anything that candidates or city councillors, once they're elected, can do to support the work that you're leading?

FISCHER: Most definitely. They can definitely support the administration in this work. As we know, the council is going to experience a changeover, and so that election, of course, is very important. We're currently still working and meeting with the people who work for the City of Calgary, but we're anxiously awaiting the outcome to connect with councillors. We had visited each of the councillors three years ago now to let them know about our initiative, but we will need to be doing that work once again as people are elected and settling into their roles.

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