The University of Saskatchewan’s main campus is situated on Treaty 6 Territory and the Homeland of the Métis.

Building Bridges to cultural acceptance

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Janelle Pewapsconias and Davida Bentham led the way for Building Bridges.
Janelle Pewapsconias and Davida Bentham led the way for Building Bridges.

Connecting students from all walks of life, two University of Saskatchewan students have planned a seven-week long cultural awareness campaign titled Building Bridges.

Building Bridges is a series of workshops that offer an open environment to learn about other Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures through various sessions and discussions.

At the head of this project are Davida Bentham and Jannelle Pewapsconias — two students devoted to cultural acceptance. They have researched similar programs and designed their own workshops to present as part of Building Bridges.

Titled “Understanding Indigenous Canada,” the next session will take place on Feb. 3 in the Aboriginal Students’ Centre. Bentham said this particular workshop is specific to the diverse range of Aboriginal Peoples in Canada and provides context for both Canadian and international students. Led by Dion Tootoosis, a previous cultural liaison at the ASC, this presentation will include information about Canadian Indigenous cultures, historic systems and ceremonial protocol.

The following sessions are structured as sharing circles where discussions will be centered around one theme — food and health, science and technology, or language.

The sharing circles are intended to offer a comfortable and safe space where students can engage in cross-cultural dialogue and share their different understandings on each topic. While different views will be expressed, the purpose of Building Bridges is to find common themes in everyone’s beliefs and connect students to their peers.

“It is really relaxed and informal,” Pewapsconias said. “Everyone gets to say as much or as little as they need.”

The sharing circles will start off with a small meal before moving on to the large group conversations.

Bentham said each of the sharing circles’ topics are significant in that not everyone experiences language, technology or food in the same way.

“I am looking forward to the sharing circle about science and technology,” Bentham said. “Often in Canadian society we assume everyone perceives the same benefits from technology but in reality — depending on one’s geographical location and culture — technology can be important or not important, advanced or not advanced.”

Aware of the strength of communication, Pewapsconias is most looking forward to the session on languages.

The sharing circle “is hosted during Aboriginal Achievement Week and encourages sharing on how we experience our language and demonstrate the diversity of languages in Canada,” she said.

Pewapsconias and Bentham’s goals are simple: have fun, begin to understand more about each other, become more culturally aware and partake in respectful discussions. The two students are aiming to increase student engagement with one another and enhance the importance of building cross-cultural relationships.

Bentham hopes that each participant will feel comfortable during the sharing circles, make new friends and then use the tools they have gained in their daily lives afterwards.

“We hope that our programming serves as a jumping point for further understandings of our global relationships and strengthens our cultural relationships between our Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples,” she said.

The Building Bridges series works to establish this important climate of acceptance in its participants. Often people have a certain bias associated with different groups of people, Bentham said, based on the background they might have. She said the Building Bridges sessions allow people from all walks of life to come together and learn about one another in an environment where asking questions and learning through other’s experiences is acceptable and encouraged.

Pewapsconias noted that Saskatoon’s population celebrates each other’s differences and individuality. Although the city’s communities demonstrate excellent leadership toward diversity, she said Saskatoon needs to go beyond and see the deeper parts of everyone’s worldviews and integral similarities.

“A common lesson we understand is that racism isn’t only in single acts, but also in systems, social norms and institutions,” Pewapsconias said. “We want to address underlying issues of oppression in the contemporary context of the urban Aboriginal experience.”

Photo: Jordan Dumba/Photo Editor

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