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Stone in the road

Miawpukek First Nation, Memorial collaboration encourages 'real listening'

By Andreae Callanan

About a year ago, Memorial University hosted a knowledge-sharing event titled Two-Eared Listening for Deeper Understanding.

For Chief Mi’sel Joe of the Miawpukek First Nation, the three-day gathering was “a paving stone for the roadmap ahead . . . building towards the restorative justice that we need to be doing.”

The gathering was an opportunity for attendees to listen without distraction to the life stories and experiences of Indigenous elders and leaders, and to reflect on what they were hearing.

dr. dorothy vaandering smiles at the camera. She is a white woman with straight, chin-length grey hair and glasses. She is wearing a colourful turtleneck sweater.
Dr. Dorothy Vaandering
Photo: Submitted

For Dr. Dorothy Vaandering, a professor in the Faculty of Education and a collaborator on the conference, working with Chief Mi’sel Joe has been “transformative, and very humbling in a lot of ways.”

Looking to where the knowledge is

The majority of the approximately 175 people who attended the 2021 gathering were non-Indigenous.

“That was intentional,” Dr. Vaandering said. “The intention was for non-Indigenous people to actually begin to listen.”

Restorative justice has been a research focus for Dr. Vaandering for years.

Learning about the Indigenous roots of the concept has deepened her understanding of what restorative justice can really look like.

The learning process hasn’t always been comfortable.

Several years ago, she invited Chief Joe to be part of a panel for Restorative Justice Week.

She remembers him speaking in the way that “only Chief Joe can.”

“He says ‘We’ve been involved with restorative justice for, let me see, 500 years or more. So, if you want to know about restorative justice, just ask’. I remember just that feeling of, oh my goodness. We really think we’re onto something different and new. But restorative justice has been part of Indigenous frameworks for a very long time. And I thought, one of these days I’m going to go talk to Chief Joe and ask him.”

Listening to understand

The collaboration that emerged between Miawpukek First Nation and Memorial University is born of this interaction, with Chief Joe leading and Memorial representatives listening and learning along the way.

Dr. Vaandering and her collaborators were able to secure a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Connection Grant to support last year’s gathering.

A committee with members including Dr. Rosemary Ricciardelli, Dr. Joelle Rodway, Dr. Sylvia Moore, Dr. Sulaimon Giwa and Lisa Charlong-Norris worked closely with Chief Joe throughout the planning process, meeting monthly for two-and-a-half years and then weekly in the lead-up to the gathering.

“It’s not just with your ears and your brain, but how do you hear it in your heart?” — Chief Mi’sel Joe

It was in those meetings that Chief Joe mentored the members to a much deeper understanding of restorative justice as rooted in Indigenous justice, says Dr. Vaandering.

The phrase “two-eared listening” comes from Chief Joe’s Mi’kmaw worldview: we have two ears and one mouth, and so we should listen twice as much as we speak.

For Chief Joe, two-eared listening means taking the time to really sit with stories of injustice shared by Indigenous people.

“I don’t think we have a full understanding and appreciation yet for what injustice is all about,” he said. “Before we can go into full restorative justice, we have to understand the injustice that comes with that first.”

Dr. Vaandering credits Chief Joe with explaining that it’s not enough to listen passively; she quotes him as saying: “You can’t start talking about justice until you hear the stories of injustice. But then the question is, how do you hear those stories? It’s not just with your ears and your brain, but how do you hear it in your heart?”

A visual recording of a session at the 2021 Two Eared Listening Gathering. At the centre of the image, two hands encircle a heart; inside the heart are two ears.
A visual representation of one of the discussions at the 2021 Two-Eared Listening Gathering.
Photo: Submitted

Age-old approaches, modern problems

Real listening involves giving time to the listening process: both Chief Joe and Dr. Vaandering recognize that this is not an easy thing to do while also trying to work with the constraints of institutional scheduling.

Despite the 2021 gathering’s best intentions, Chief Joe says that the facilitators never gave the elders enough time to really tell their stories.

“We got caught up in doing the event in a certain time. It wasn’t until we walked away that [we realized] the elders never got enough time to really do justice to telling their story.”

For Chief Joe, that’s reason enough to think about someday doing a repeat.

Both Dr. vaandering and Chief Joe recognize that the move toward restorative justice is a long-term project. Change is going to take time, Chief Joe says, but he thinks they’re taking the steps to get to the place where we need to be, with education and understanding.

“Colonialism has been around for 500 years, and how do you begin to peel back down the onion from that?” he said.

Continuing the conversation

Three upcoming events will pick up where the 2021 gathering left off.

On Wednesday, May 31, Chief Joe will be joined by Mi’kmaw Elder Albert Marshall of Eskasoni for a public conversation.

The event is titled The Elders Speak: Two-Eyed Seeing and Two-Eared Listening.

Elder Marshall is known for coining the phrase “two-eyed seeing” to describe our need to see and interact with the world through both Indigenous and western ways of knowing and being.

An All My Relations Gathering, featuring a reading of Elder Marshall’s new children’s book, Walking Together, is scheduled for the afternoon of Thursday, June 1.

That evening, there will be a viewing of director Chris Aylward’s documentary, The Beothuk Story, followed by an elder circle response and dialogue.

All events are open to the public and will take place in St. John’s and online; venue and schedule details are available online.

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