Celebrating cultural identity on International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination

March 21 - International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination

Toronto – March 19, 2020 – March 21 marks the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, a day to acknowledge the struggles faced by racialized and Indigenous communities around the world.

To commemorate this year’s #IDERD, our union reached out to UFCW Local 832 activist and UFCW Canada Indigenous Subcommittee member Tom Biebrich. Brother Biebrich wanted to share what it meant for him to reconnect with his culture after a long struggle with his Indigenous ancestry following the Sixties Scoop in Canada, during which Indigenous children were separated from their families for placement in foster homes or adoption.

It has been a difficult journey for Tom and, as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination approaches, he wants to share his story in hopes of helping others who are struggling with racism, negative cultural stereotypes, and discrimination in their lives.

“Boozhoo Aaniin (Hello). These words seemed so different weeks ago but now slowly things are becoming more familiar and comfortable. Adopted at two years of age, and growing up with a German family, I did not know my ancestry. As far as my Mother knew, I was Cree and we never questioned it. Where I live, there are a lot of German and Ukrainian people, so these are the languages that I picked up – words here and there. I read that of the 7,000 languages spoken in the world, over half are expected to disappear. On average, we lose one every two weeks. With today’s struggles to make ends meet, far too many families simply don’t have the time or are too exhausted to teach the children of the “old” ways. And technology (gaming, Facebook, etc.) takes up most kids’ time.

Growing up in a small community, where there was only one other Indigenous family, we never questioned anything. We never knew of racism until I went to Winnipeg. I played all the sports and we played against a reserve that I later found out I am from. In Winnipeg, there were so many times an Indigenous person would start talking to me in Cree or Ojibwe and sadly I had to stop them and explain I didn’t know the language because I was adopted when I was young. I have never been to a Pow Wow but that will change this year. I also plan on contacting an Elder from my reserve so I can discuss my journey and find out more about my family and culture, as well as which Clan I belong to. Throughout the years, I have worked with and met many people from different ethnic backgrounds. I was always happy to learn different words from different languages to follow along a bit with the stories being told. My parents taught me a bit of German, but there was still something missing.

My time being an activist with UFCW Local 832 has been an eye-opening and rewarding journey. While being a facilitator, I have been able to meet and learn from a more diverse group and have been able to pick up more words along the way. Sitting on the Union Executive Board opened the door to me being able to sit on the UFCW Canada Indigenous Sub-Committee, which brought me closer to my culture and made me more determined to learn more. I was always looking to see if there were any Ojibwe classes that would work with my schedule, and I finally found one that runs once a week on Thursday nights. Perfect. Now, it has been a long time since I was in school and quite frankly, I was worried if I was going to be able to learn this. Our facilitators – Dawnis Kennedy and Virginia Scott, along with Jared (Joe) Okanase – help make learning Ojibwe fun. We start out introducing ourselves in Ojibwe and each week they add another piece to the introduction. We have a nice mix of people in our class. From the Grandmother who brings her 3 young grand daughters to learn, to someone like me who has never known his own language. We have learned games and songs and even had a night of drumming. Learning verbs and past, present, and future tense is sometimes awkward but by night’s end I hold on to a little more. I am so grateful that I have this opportunity to learn my language and culture and I will strive to keep learning and passing along information to others.

I have heard and seen too many bad stereotypes of our people. It is time people knew of our good traits, such as the encouragement and understanding I see every class. The laughter we share in stories and the little mistakes we may make. The respect shown to elders, as well as the people you are with. To see the pride within everyone. I would never give up the values, traditions, and lessons taught to me by my adopted family. At the same time, I go forward with open arms to embrace the new lessons of a culture not lost, merely misplaced for a bit.

Like the forest, bogs, or lands in between, we too must be revitalized. For if we do not teach future generations, we cannot survive as a culture. I wish to thank the people at the Manitoba Indigenous Cultural Education Center in Winnipeg, UFCW Local 832, the UFCW Canada Indigenous Sub-Committee, Emmanuelle Lopez-Bastos, my adopted family, and my new family that I see every Thursday night. I encourage everyone to learn your native language and keep it alive for as long as we inhabit this great world. Chi Miigwetch.”