Making space for activism

Murray Sinclair

On May 28th, the Tommy Douglas Institute celebrates its sixth year with a focus on a topic important to all community members: Community, Education, Change: Indigenous Ways of Knowing - KIHKINOOHAMAAKEWIN.

Organizers are especially pleased to announce that this year’s keynote speaker will be Senator Murray Sinclair, the leader of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada. Sinclair led the charge to "redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of Canadian reconciliation" when he issued the TRC 94 Calls to Action in June 2015.

Named for Canada’s renowned champion of universal health care, the one-day Tommy Douglas Institute provides an annual opportunity for the community to come together and focus on an advocacy issue. Following the structure of past Institutes, the day also incorporates performances, artistic pieces, breakout sessions and an open-forum discussion.

Participant focused

Resh Budhu, coordinator for the Community Worker program and lead organizer for the Institute, says the day is about sharing information from all sources. “It's very much about also privileging the voices of all of our participants, as well as the guest speakers.” The event typically attracts everyone from faculty and students from various colleges and universities, to community members, agencies and activists.

Students are heavily involved in the organizing as well, introducing speakers, managing breakout sessions, and staffing tables. “Everything that needs to be done, our students do it. They have become a real feature of the Institute because they're fabulous at everything they do, and they really take ownership of it,” says Budhu.

An advocacy tradition continues

The idea to create an Institute originated from the Community Worker program faculty, a two-year diploma that since 1975 has trained students to work with individuals and communities across a range of issues from poverty to housing to discrimination. When they started the Institute in 2013, faculty members wanted to create a space for open dialogue on social justice issues that are foundational to the program. Over the past few years of the institute, themes have included rethinking pedagogy, social citizenship, and the idea of Canada. Last year’s focus was on environmental activism.

This year’s Institute maintains the activist focus in many panels. For instance, a panel called The Path Toward Reconciliation in Education and Community Work will discuss what is meant by reconciliation. Panel members include Johnathon Hamilton-Diabo, director of Indigenous Initiatives at the University of Toronto and Mark Solomon, director of Student Life for Seneca College, who will speak about the TRC implications for students. Other panelists Bill Lee, faculty at Anishnawbe Health Toronto, author of “Pragmatics of Community Organizing” and Dr. Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, former Vice Provost (Aboriginal Initiatives) at Lakehead University, will represent the community side, discussing topics like how to integrate indigenous world views and practices into community agencies.

Budhu looks forward to welcoming everyone to a space where the community can pause, reflect and discuss issues that challenge them in their everyday advocacy work. “It is about creating a space of advocacy on these very important issues within these incredibly changing times,” she says.