On September 30th, orange shirts will be boldly displayed across the country in honour of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. This is a day which recognizes the tragic legacy of residential schools, the missing Indigenous children, the Indigenous families left behind and the survivors of these institutions. While Truth and Reconciliation is, in some respects, a day of mourning and sober reflection, it is also a day to honour the healing journeys of Indigenous peoples who have been impacted across generations. To commemorate the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, also known as Orange Shirt Day, people and groups across Canada have pulled together to organize events and gatherings which remember the past, and celebrate Indigenous culture in an effort to move forward.
In York Region, the newly-formed not-for-profit Indigenous Action Committee will be hosting an event at the King Heritage and Cultural Centre. Since May of this year, the amount that this small but mighty organization has managed to accomplish is nothing short of remarkable. Their motivation and drive to provide opportunities for people—both Indigenous and non-Indigenous—to experience and participate in Indigenous culture is the perfect example of what can be achieved with perseverance and outreach.
We at Central Counties Tourism would be remiss if we didn’t hold the Indigenous Action Committee up as an example of what a small collective of individuals can do when they work together with vision, focus and, above all, determination.
Amazing achievements for such a short time
Though the Indigenous Action Committee has only been in existence for less than one year, the seeds for the organization were planted a long time ago. It was when siblings Ashley and Matt Bergman found out that their father was a 60s Scoop adoptee, that they discovered they were a part of a community and culture they’d never had access to growing up. This revelation led to an exploration of their family’s past, and a desire to experience and understand their Indigenous heritage. “Ashley was already involved with the Indigenous community through her job as a therapist,” Matt explains, “and she was the catalyst for bringing myself more into the community. But in York Region where we are, there was practically nothing happening. So, we took it upon ourselves to start doing events and workshops.”
To ensure that they would be able to access grants and other funding opportunities, Matt and Ashley, who co-founded the Indigenous Action Committee with their father, Jay, set the organization up as a not-for-profit. “This all started in May of this year,” Matt states. “When we saw that there was going to be a future for this sort of thing, we became a corporation so that we could sustain what we are doing, and maneuver through the business world in a proper way.”
Ashley adds, “When we’re hiring members of our community to come out and jingle dress dance, for example, or to perform as a drum group, or when we’re hosting workshops, we need to have the finances to do that. Going in the not-for-profit direction was the best way we could make that possible.”
With their funding and finances in order, the Indigenous Action Committee quickly launched into planning and hosting the events and workshops they wanted to provide to the community. In the short time that they’ve been in operation, the amount they’ve been able to do is truly astounding. They have hosted a Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women event in May, an Indigenous Peoples event in June, an Indigenous pop-up music and artisan show in July, a World Indigenous Day event in August, and on September 30th they will host their event for the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. There has also been a ribbon skirt making workshop, a beading workshop, and a mental health workshop on emotional regulation and how to set children up for success. In fact, there is a second workshop for ribbon skirts on the horizon because the first one filled up in a mere 24 hours.
The event on September 30th for Truth and Reconciliation and Orange Shirt Day will take place at the King Heritage and Cultural Centre from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. This is a free event, is outdoors, is for all ages, and everyone is welcome. “We’re excited to be partnering with King Township and the King Cultural Heritage Centre in this way,” Ashley exclaims. “They approached us because they have been seeing the work that we’re doing. They appear to be very committed to Truth and Reconciliation, so we decided we would host it on the grounds there—if you’ve ever been to that property, it’s beautiful.”
This multi-media event will have drum performances, select speakers, dance performances in traditional regalia, crafts for the kids, and locally designed orange shirts for sale (the proceeds of which will be donated to the Indian Residential School Survivors Society and the Orange Shirt Society). The event will also offer traditional Indigenous food. “It’s going to be an incredible event,” Ashley says. “A meaningful event. It’s not a celebration that day. It is, of course, a day of mourning and remembering, but we want to be able to have an event that brings individuals from all different communities together to learn and share in truth and reconciliation.”
How they made it all happen
It is no surprise that, when asked how they managed to accomplish all of this in such a short period of time, Matt jokingly answers, “We don’t sleep.”
“We work very hard,” he says. “Ashley has her profession and I have mine. But we both have connections and relationships within the community that have helped us.”
“The response and show of support that we have had from organizations within and outside of the Indigenous community has been amazing,” Ashley adds. “That is the key component which has made this successful, when it comes to the partnerships and relationships we have. It’s that these haven’t been formed overnight just for the purpose of what we’re doing. These are relationships which have been forged over years. Decades, even.”
It is worth noting that the Indigenous Action Committee did not simply sit back and wait for opportunities to come to them. They worked tirelessly to turn their existing relationships into partnerships and support, which in turn led them to more opportunities for new partnerships and support.
Chuck Thibeault, Executive Director for Central Counties Tourism stresses this point when he says, “There is a reason it is called chasing your dreams, not waiting for your dreams. And that is because it takes a lot of work. I want to showcase Ashley and Matt’s efforts and successes to all stakeholders as an example of what is possible when you set your mind to it.”
To ensure their goals and dreams were achieved, Ashley and Matt Bergman left no stone unturned, and this is what led them to CCT. “They took time to learn about our priorities and goals and then focused on the projects they deliver and want to deliver that support those goals,” Chuck says. “We, in turn, were able to introduce them to other organizations that may be able to assist them in achieving their goals. And now, we have turned our attention towards building a sustainable model for their organization because what they have to offer will benefit communities not just through York, Durham and Headwaters, but across the province and beyond.”
As a result of their determination and outreach, some of the organizations that the Indigenous Action Committee has enjoyed supportive partnerships with (in addition to CCT, King Township and the King Heritage and Cultural Centre), include the Markham Arts Council, the York Region Arts Council, Indigenous Tourism Ontario, and the Barrie Area Native Advisory Circle.
The story of how the Indigenous Action Committee began
It is not hard to imagine that this kind of persistence stems from a deep commitment to a cause that one truly believes in. The Bergmans’ commitment to promoting their Indigenous heritage and culture, and to providing opportunities within York Region for support and participation, is something that was fueled by a lifelong question mark over their own heritage. In the 1950s, their father was adopted into a Jewish family, and the circumstances surrounding that adoption weren’t shared. Their Jewish culture is something that the siblings embrace and value, of course. However, growing up, there were questions which arose from how they looked and how they felt compared to members of their Jewish family and community.
“We didn’t know any background whatsoever, other than that on one side of our family we might be something other than Jewish,” Ashley states. “We were never told that we might be Native or we might be Indigenous. But when we finally confirmed what we had suspicions about, it wasn’t a surprise to us. We have a term called blood memory, and that’s the idea in our culture that you never forget. You have that blood memory that will always stay connected to your community, to your heritage.”
Through their extensive inquiries, Ashley and Matt learned that they have origins in Manitoba, a place which they have never been, but now have plans to visit in the near future. They also learned that their father’s adoption was part of the “60s Scoop,” a term which refers to practices and policies in the 1950s and 1960s that allowed and encouraged social workers and welfare authorities to legally force—or otherwise coerce with words like “incapable” and “unfit”—Indigenous women to give their children up for adoption into non-Indigenous families. This was happening simultaneously with the government’s official efforts to remove Indigenous children from their families and place them into residential schools. In Ashley and Matt’s case, their biological grandmother was an Indigenous teenager with no access to legal representation, or even information—a sadly common occurrence.
“That is how so many children ended up adopted into non-Indigenous homes and completely had their culture stolen from them,” Ashley states. “Our father never grew up connected to any Indigenous culture, nor was he ever told he was Indigenous. We always just got told that we have an ‘exotic look.’”
Interestingly, even though she did not know what her heritage was, Ashley always found herself drawn to the Indigenous culture since she was a little girl. In fact, upon learning of her cultural descent, it was she that spearheaded the initiative to find out all she could about her family’s past. “I was very conflicted with not knowing where we came from,” she explains. “I wondered how we could continue to live our lives not knowing who our ancestors are, where we culturally come from. I couldn’t live my life without finding out the answers to those questions. So, I made it my mission.”
Her mission to discover her own roots led to this greater mission of the Indigenous Action Committee, which is now creating positive change within York Region and beyond. So many of our organizations within York, Durham and Headwaters have similar missions, which stem from similar commitments and drives. The difference that Matt and Ashley Bergman have been able to achieve comes from turning that commitment into action, and from seeking out every possible opportunity available that aligns with their message and values.
We at Central Counties are not only proud to be a supportive partner of the Indigenous Action Committee, but are in awe of their singular determination. We cannot applaud them more for all that they’ve managed to accomplish, and have yet (we are sure) to accomplish in the future.
For all of our partners, businesses and stakeholders, we at Central Counties encourage you to do two things:
- Follow the Indigenous Action Committee and be inspired by their growth and success,
- Email Chuck Thibeault at firstname.lastname@example.org so we can figure out how to help you with your business success.
Chase your dream!
Story by Katherine Ryalen