Montreal–An indigenous woman activist from the Philippines and a prominent Mohawk woman activist from Kanehsatake, Que., on April 24 drew parallels between the experiences of their own people and found some common threads that unite them.
“Our land is as rich as yours — in gold, water and resources,” said Vernie Yocogan-Diano, an Igorot from northern Philippines and convenor of the Innabuyog Indigenous Women’s Collective, which is a partner organization of the Canadian ecumenical justice group, Kairos. “It was what attracted the Spaniards and later, the Americans. But they were frustrated by our resisting ancestors, who they labeled savages.” The Spaniards tried to conquer them with the cross (religion) and the Americans, with education, but they failed, she explained.
Ellen Gabriel, who shot to national prominence when she became chief negotiator and spokesperson for her community during the 1990 “Oka crisis,” noted that indigenous people in Canada and the Philippines share the indomitable sprit of resilience in the face of struggles and hardships.
Yocogan-Diano and Gabriel were part of an all-woman panel at “Women of Courage:Gendering Reconciliation,” a session co-sponsored by Kairos and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada at the Quebec National Event, held at Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth Hotel here.
Jennifer Henry, Kairos executive director, said in co-sponsoring the event, Kairos — which includes church-backed groups and churches such as the Anglican Church of Canada — wanted to express its support for Canada’s aboriginal women.
“As settler women, we’ve failed to be your sisters in struggle…we’ve failed to love your children as our own,” said Henry in her remarks. “We’re here to support you in humility, to meet your courage with action…It’s about how we’re going to remake this country together so we will be worthy of your sisterhood.”
In her remarks, Yocogan-Diano paid tribute to former students of Indian residential schools for “having the courage to fight for your dignity and pushing your government to apologize.”
Like Canada’s aboriginal people, her own community is endowed with viable indigenous knowledge and practices that include “nurturing land and resources, working for the common good, sharing and forbidding greed,” said Yocogan-Diano. Women in her community hold high status and are involved in agricultural production, and national resource management, she added.
But such traditional way of life and livelihood is being threatened by ongoing mining operations, said Yocogan-Diano. “The Philippine government continues to regard our resources as an economic base,” said Yocogan-Diano. She noted that foreign mining companies, including Canadian, exploit 60 per cent of ancestral land in the Philippines, but indigenous communities remain the poorest of the poor. “All of our rivers are outlined for hydroelectric projects and there are logging concessions, too,” she said.
Resistance by indigenous communities have been met with militarization, which includes harassment, intimidation and worse, killings, she added. “The government protects the rights of investors more than that of indigenous people.”
Upon hearing Yocogan-Diano’s account, Gabriel noted, “It’s always been about a land grab.”
Both Gabriel and Yocogan-Diano spoke about defining reconciliation as one that should be based on “justice, respect and the right to self-determination.”
Gabriel said, “Reconciliation has got to be about the difficult part — our land and our resources…access to our lands as self-determining people. Nothing else will do.”
At an open forum, an immigrant stood up to apologize for not knowing and not caring to know about First Nations issues and asked, “How can I be an ally?”
Gabriel encouraged her to help push for the Indian Residential Schools curriculum in schools, to join aboriginal-led protests, to push for “Indian control of Indian education,” to push for national plan of action that addresses violence against native women, among others.
In her remarks, Gabriel encouraged participants at the event to take a headset and listen to the various native languages in order to appreciate what was taken away from some students at Indian residential schools who were forbidden from speaking their language.
“I heard my language on a headset for the first time and it was nice,” said Gabriel, choking back tears.