Learning from the Rama First Nation Elder’s Council

Learning from the Rama First Nation Elder’s Council
If you had asked me at the beginning of 2015 if I would be on the hunt for rental housing close to Rama First Nation over the summer, I would have thought you were crazy.

After my first year of law school, I was planning to stay close to home and work somewhere in Toronto. Before my first year at Osgoode Hall Law School, I participated in the Program of Legal Studies for Native People. During my time in the program, I was introduced to justice Frank Iacobucci’s report, “First Nations Representation on Ontario Juries.” Although I read the report, I didn’t fully understand the implications and the importance of its recommendations.

During my first year at Osgoode, everyone was buzzing because Kimberly Murray was named the first-ever assistant deputy attorney general of the Aboriginal Justice Division, a new branch within the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General.

I thought it was amazing that someone from the Kanesatake Mohawk Nation, who was also an Osgoode graduate, would become the leader of the Aboriginal Justice Division. Little did I know that my involvement in the PLSNP and Murray’s appointment would have such a big impact on my life.

Near the end of my first year, I applied to an internship through Osgoode, MAG, and the Debwewin Committee. One morning, I received a congratulatory phone call that I had landed the Debwewin internship! I was beyond ecstatic that I had received a position that would allow me to work in a First Nations community.

During the conversation, my excitement quickly turned to surprise as I was given the choice between working with the Chippewas of Rama First Nations or at a clinic in Thunder Bay. I chose to work within Rama First Nation to learn more about First Nations governance.

As I hung up, I frantically began searching for apartments and rooms that I could stay in over the summer. I quickly came to realize that there isn’t much housing available near Rama that would fit within a student budget. Over the weekend, I came to terms with the possibility of commuting there from Toronto (a round trip of about 275 kilometres and three hours) until I found a place to live.

As a Haudenosaunee from Six Nations, being involved in my culture has been an integral part of my life. I have been fortunate to work with First Nations communities and organizations in Hamilton, Kitchener, Waterloo, Manitoulin Island, and Toronto. Being placed within Rama First Nation for my first summer job in law school was a perfect way to begin my legal career.

On June 1, I made the commute to the Rama First Nation band office. In the first few weeks, I found myself working on diverse tasks that covered environment, property, constitutional, and policy-related issues. Although it would be tough to pick my favourite project, there was one that was the most meaningful to me throughout the internship.

During my first week, I was invited to the Elder’s Council. Prior to my internship, I had never attended an Elder’s Council nor was I aware of what was discussed at such meetings.

During the first meeting, I was able to hear and feel the passion and dedication the elders had toward working through matters in the community. A very powerful moment for me was when the First Nations manager reminded the elders that this was their council and that they could create and structure the terms to ensure that it functioned the way they envisioned it.

One elder mentioned that she appreciated the Elder’s Council because it gave the elders a chance to be seen, heard, believed, and loved. I was very moved by the support and autonomy the elders had to create a safe space for discussion about community matters.

Once the first meeting was over, I couldn’t wait until the next one. Although the second meeting was similar to the first, the summer students working at the Rama band office were invited to attend. When we came into the meeting, there were no instructions about where to sit or who to sit beside. It was interesting to see everyone’s seat choices unfold.

The youth ended up sitting parallel to the majority of the elders. Some of the elders commented on the seating arrangements and how special it was to have these two groups together. One of the elders commented on the importance of having the youth present at these meetings to learn from the discussions so that the community can grow together.

Although I was looking forward to the August Elder’s Council meeting, it was a bittersweet moment, as I knew my summer in Rama was coming to an end. I had grown to appreciate all of the community members that I had met and worked with throughout the summer. I never thought I would have grown close and formed friendships with so many people in a short period of time. My summer internship at Rama First Nation will always have a special place in my heart.

In the end, I never found a place to stay over the summer. On the last day of my internship, Jeffrey Hewitt, the band’s general counsel, and I were chatting about the experience and the commute. He informed me he had done the same commute for roughly two years. We both agreed that when something is meaningful to you, you find yourself focusing on the ends rather than the means.

Although it was tough commuting every day and putting so many kilometres on my car, every kilometre was worth it because I wouldn’t trade anything for the experience I had working with such an inspiring and progressive community as Rama First Nation.

Brittany Hazell was awarded a Debwewin Student Internship, which was supported by the Debwewin Implementation Committee and co-funded by the aboriginal justice division of the Ministry of Attorney General and Osgoode Hall Law School. The internship placement was generously hosted and supervised by the Chippewas of Rama First Nation.

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