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Gentili: If we don’t keep Looking Ahead, we’ll be looking back with regret

There’s a unique partnership in Greater Sudbury between the police and the Native Friendship Centre that needs us to be vocal if it’s to be preserved
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About six months or so ago, I started a YouTube show for Sudbury.com called Tea with the Editor.

My idea was pretty simple: I wanted to sit down for tea (Earl Grey for me, piping hot) with interesting Sudburians. They’re kind of interviews, very long form, about an hour each. I know, an hour is a long time to stare at two people talking, so we’re going to be releasing them as audio podcasts soon (I’ll keep you posted on that).

My inspiration for the show was a mix of the great Charlie Rose, WTF with Marc Maron (one of my favourite podcasts) and a little bit of the Rubin Report with Dave Rubin … that’s where I was coming from. Long-form conversations about ideas and people.

I’ve pressed the mayor on some of his campaign promises, got a little heated with Ward 2 Coun. Michael Vagnini over the role of city councillors, and learned about Sudbury Wolves owner Dario Zulich’s early years to try to find out what makes him tick. 

Jeff MacIntyre of Downtown Sudbury had tea with me to talk about the evolution of the city’s core, up-and-coming Sudbury spirit medium Jay Lane chatted about the business side of spiritualism and local skeptic Ashley Rooney and I shared our thoughts on everything from humanism to monsters to Marxism. You can find the episodes on Sudbury.com’s YouTube channel, under the Tea with the Editor playlist.

My most recent one was particularly meaningful for me. I had tea with the two people heading up a two-year pilot between Greater Sudbury Police Service and N’Swakamok Native Friendship Centre. 

Const. Shannon Agowissa and Lisa Osawamik are knowledgeable, resourceful and, above all maybe, passionate about the work they’ve been doing the past two years. Agowissa is the police service’s Aboriginal liaison officer, while Osawamik is the Friendship Centre’s Aboriginal women’s violence prevention co-ordinator.

The project they head up has the all-encompassing title of Looking Ahead to Build the Spirit of Our Women Learning to Live Free From Violence or, as Agowissa and Osawamik call it, Looking Ahead. I’m all about brevity.

Anyway, the project is pretty amazing. And also, as far as I can tell, unique.

Ostensibly, it’s related to the missing and murdered Indigenous women movement. There are around 1,800 missing and murdered Aboriginal women. And, while they represent only about four per cent of the Canadian population, they account for 16 per cent of all female homicides. Indigenous women suffer violence at a rate that’s 3.5 times higher than average. They are five times more likely to die by violence.

Like I said in conversation with Osawamik and Agowissa, those are chilling numbers.

Looking Ahead is unique because it works both with the police service and with Indigenous people. With police, one goal is to sensitize officers to the distrust of uniformed authority figures that is common among First Nations people. 

That distrust, Agowissa and Osawamik explained to me, goes back to the time when Indian agents would show up in Indigenous communities and take children away to residential schools. Those traumatic experiences might be a thing of the past, but they are still very much alive in the hearts and minds of Aboriginal families, passed down from generation to generation. 

The pilot project also aims to work with Indigenous people to change their perception of police, to make interactions with police less traumatic. Families shouldn’t be reticent to go to the authorities when a loved one has been assaulted; they should feel that they can trust the police are there to help.

That many Indigenous people are reluctant speaks (sadly) to the need for a program like Looking Ahead.

The project also works with women and girls to raise awareness about violence,  how to access help (and that it is OK to seek help) and workS with survivors of violence to help them move forward.

This multi-pronged approached is smart and, if I might say, egalitarian. It doesn’t focus on one side or the other when it comes to interactions between Indigenous people and police, and doesn’t place blame. Instead, it acknowledges that good information and mutual understanding is key to move forward together. 

It’s the very spirit of reconciliation in action. 

But here’s the thing, it’s only a two-year pilot project. Come March 2018, Looking Ahead is supposed to come to an end. After sitting down for an hour and talking with the two people who designed and ran the project, I’m convinced Looking Ahead shouldn’t disappear. 

The work Agowissa and Osawamik are doing is important and I urge Greater Sudbury Police and N’Swakamok not to let Looking Ahead disappear. There is a need. If you agree and want to see this program continue, write to your ward councillor, write to the Police Services Board, write to the Friendship Centre. 

Let’s see if we can ensure this worthwhile program — which should be a model for other communities, as far as I’m concerned — can continue to do good work.

Mark Gentili is the managing editor of Sudbury.com and Northern Life.



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