Truth & Reconciliation at CMHA Toronto

June 14, 2024

In 2019, CMHA Toronto’s Health Equity Coordinator approached Terry Pariseau with an idea. She and other staff had attended San’yas Indigenous Cultural Safety training and wanted to set up a Truth & Reconciliation Committee. They believed that Terry, a member of Bear Clan from Mahingan Sagaigan (Wolf Lake First Nation), was one of the best people to help establish it.

If the adage ‘when you want something done, ask a busy person to do it’ is true, then Terry was a perfect choice. Terry has worked as a regional housing coordinator in CMHA Toronto’s Community Housing Initiatives program since 2017. She’s also active in many municipal and community associations and taskforces, including the Toronto Alliance to End Homelessness; the Toronto Mental Health and Addictions Supportive Housing Network; the Scarborough Shelter Task Force; and the Beyond Housing Project at the MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions. She’s currently co-chair of the City of Toronto’s Coordinated Access Subcommittee and community lead for Built for Zero Canada – a national change effort to help end chronic and veteran homelessness.

It wasn’t the addition to her workload that concerned Terry. “I was one of those Indigenous people who was cut off from my culture,” she says. Her early experiences of racism and disconnection from her culture made her hesitant to lead the committee and she knew that being a part of reconciliation work can be difficult.

The disconnection from identity and culture that Terry and so many Indigenous people experience is the result of the long history and ongoing oppression brought about by colonization. It’s at the heart of why truth and reconciliation are so sorely needed.

Terry recognized that CMHA Toronto was sincere in its desire “to do its part in reconciling with Indigenous communities.” The purpose of the committee would be to help the agency confront the truth of the troubled history between the social work community and Indigenous people and begin to take meaningful and substantive steps towards addressing the harms caused. The consequences of that history were clear to virtually everyone at CMHA Toronto who, every day and across every area of programming, could see the effects of intergenerational trauma on Indigenous mental health.

Terry, whose Indigenous name is Baapaasekwe (Woodpecker Woman), overcame her initial hesitation and agreed to take on the task. CMHA Toronto’s Truth & Reconciliation Committee (TRC) was born, and so began a journey that would have an impact not only on the agency but also on Terry’s own personal path to reconnecting to her Indigenous culture.

Truth & Reconciliation Committee MISSION

  • To spread knowledge and awareness of Indigenous people being the true inhabitants of the land we live on and the truth of how their rights have been violated and lives have been disrupted.
  • We will enhance the relationships CMHA Toronto has with Indigenous staff and service users and enable meaningful partnerships with Indigenous communities.
  • The TRC will model and advise CMHA Toronto on opportunities to decolonize and Indigenize delivery of their programs and services.
  • Participation in the TRC will be enjoyable, educational, and an opportunity to build our Indigenous cultural competencies.

Launching the TRC at CMHA Toronto

The committee includes volunteer members from across CMHA Toronto representing leadership, frontline staff, and clients. They came together with the intention to lead activities that would foster, in the words of the committee’s 2021 project charter, “a culturally safe and inclusive space which reflects and honours Indigenous ways of being, accepts Truth, is a leader in Reconciliation, and works towards decolonization of services.”

Clockwise from top left: 
Kerry Anne, Tiffany Garcia, Garfield Bembridge, Painted Sky, Terry Pariseau, Harris Beder, Felicia De Sousa, Mark Dwyer, Duane Lee, Cat Padmore. 
Not shown: Sushmitha Shankar.

One of the TRC’s first acts was to create a land acknowledgement and the tools needed to socialize it, which include a training, a guidance document, and a resource book for staff.

They also began hosting regular events coinciding with important days and months such as Indigenous History Month in June, National Indigenous People’s Day on June 21, and the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation also known as Orange Shirt Day on September 30.

These are opportunities to celebrate Indigenous culture and share the painful but important truths about the history of colonization in Canada and how it has affected Indigenous peoples.

Getting political

Progress has been steady, but Terry acknowledges that there is some frustration that it’s been too slow. Some on the TRC have wanted to take a more activist orientation. For example, during the development of the land acknowledgement Terry explains that “we wanted the land acknowledgement to acknowledge the harm that was caused by the social work community early on.”

Garfield Bembridge, CMHA Toronto’s Chief Organizational Performance Officer and a TRC member, suggested that they needed to build more awareness first. “Garfield is our barometer for what the organization is ready to hear and for letting us know when we can push and when we can’t,” Terry says.

“My philosophical approach when dealing with difficult change, transformative change, is gentle teaching,” Garfield says. He points to the Board-approved statement on diversity, equity and inclusion which which sets the tone, for example by directly acknowledging CMHA’s contribution to negative activities such as its role in eugenics, which is directly referenced.

There is the appetite to acknowledge where we went wrong, and that moving forward we're going to learn and we're going to do and we're going to try.

This approach may be slower than some would like, but if CMHA Toronto is a client that the TRC is supporting through the process of behaviour change, it makes sense to follow the social worker’s maxim to ‘meet the client where they are.’

It’s important too, Terry says, to acknowledge the small wins, which sometimes seem basic and symbolic but which are clear signs that the education the TRC is doing is rippling through CMHA Toronto’s culture. For example, Terry’s director has recommended to the leadership team that they remove the term ‘residential’ from the name of some of the programs and staff roles because of its association with residential schools. “I really appreciated him bringing that forward. He told me it was because he had thought about it from a reconciliation lens. Sometimes we’re so focused on the big picture that we miss the little things we can do. It doesn’t take a lot to do things like that and I really appreciated him reminding me about that.”

Activating the reconciliation agenda

The committee’s awareness-raising work has laid a solid foundation, and the TRC is now in a position to move towards greater activism and substantive partnerships.

This year’s work with No More Silence is a case in point. No More Silence is a community-based organization that brings together social justice activists, academics, researchers, agencies, and communities to honour, raise awareness and, ultimately, work to stop the murders and disappearances of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, trans and two-spirit people.

Terry and other CMHA Toronto staff attended No More Silence’s 19th Annual Strawberry Ceremony in February. The ceremony is held to honour, grieve, and remember missing and murdered women, girls, two-spirit and trans people “who have otherwise been made invisible,” says No More Silence. The event takes place each year at Toronto Police Headquarters, which they call “the epicentre of the enactment of colonial violence on Indigenous peoples.”

There is a delicate but necessary dynamic to navigate when doing reconciliation work within a settler organization like CMHA Toronto. Terry emphasizes that meaningful partnerships that aim towards reconciliation require CMHA Toronto to, first, be prepared to follow not lead, and second, have something to offer in return. “You don't want people, especially Indigenous people or Indigenous organizations, to do all the work. You want to come to them and say, we want to do that work to better our relationships with you.”

Without the understanding and acceptance of Truth, there cannot be Reconciliation.

Reciprocity as a guiding principle

In the early days of the TRC, Terry spoke with Indigenous organizations that had been disappointed in the partnerships they had formed with various municipal and provincial entities. “They had to do a lot of the work and they were given nothing in return for their investment into those partnerships. They said, ‘it needs to be mutually beneficial for both of us.’ I thought that was good advice and we try to keep that in mind when we're approaching potential partners in Toronto.”

When the TRC spoke with No More Silence about attending the Strawberry Ceremony, Terry said they first asked what they could do to help with the day. “Some of us volunteered, which was great,” she says, adding that she was "really honoured that they asked me to smudge people at the event.”

From that beginning, an ongoing conversation took root.

The TRC invited No More Silence to visit CMHA Toronto’s offices to talk more about their organization during a lunchtime dialogue with staff. During this conversation, the Elder who was hosting the session mentioned that they have Indigenous women coming out of treatment and they need beds for them. “She put the idea into our heads about how we could try to move that forward. I approached Pio [Giralico, CMHA Toronto’s Director of Community Housing Initiatives] and we're working on a proposal to deepen this partnership with No More Silence by making some units available to them. In addition, No More Silence has a healing lodge on Six Nations Reserve that they’ve offered to CMHA clients.”

This is the type of reciprocity that builds relationships – and relationships pave the way to reconciliation.

It's in the news all the time about how slow reconciliation is. Unfortunately, that's just the way it is but we've had some good successes so far and I'm hopeful that it will only get better from here.

Moving forward in a good way

The committee’s concerns now are two-fold: one is about capacity and the other is about sustainability. Terry mentions that the organization invested in the creation of the TRC’s 2021-2024 work plan working with Indigenous consultant, Bob Goulais, from Nibisiing Consulting Incorporated. It gave the committee energy and direction, but the reality is that “we're all doing this work from the side of our desks,” she says, and they haven’t been able to act on as much of the plan as they would have liked. She calls it “a double-edged sword. It’s an amazing work plan but at the same time, we ask ourselves, shouldn’t we be doing more of what’s in it?”

Garfield emphasizes that the agency is fully committed to the TRC. “Our challenge is that we have the plan but there are some things we might not be able to get through in a timely manner,” he says, adding that “we are making progress because we have the machinery and the advisory around the committee in place.”

Terry says that they’re looking forward to “how we sustain this committee into the future. So, we’ll be documenting everything we’ve accomplished and what we still want to accomplish and framing it from a quality improvement lens. We’ll identify who we can pull into this work and what resources we need to help move it forward.”

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