Seneca News

President David Agnew moderates the second annual Seneca Talks
(l-r) President David Agnew moderates the second annual Seneca Talks: A Conversation About Reconciliation, featuring guest speakers Ashley Callingbull and Jesse Wente.

March 14, 2018

All talk. No action.

That’s the sentiment shared by Ashley Callingbull, a Cree First Nations model, actor and activist, and Jesse Wente, an Ojibwe broadcaster and film critic, at the second annual Seneca Talks: A Conversation About Reconciliation.

The two special guests took centre stage in the Great Hall at Newnham on Monday, March 12. Moderated by President David Agnew, the talk touched on issues such as the power of social media and the lack of Indigenous representation in postsecondary institutions.

In 2015, shortly after she won the Mrs. Universe pageant — the first Canadian and first Indigenous woman to do so — Ashley used her fame to openly criticize the Harper government on Facebook.

“I called out the government — which was crazy — and I still experience backlash,” she says, adding that politicians remind her of “pageants in suits.”

Instead of fighting back with anger, Ashley says she chooses to respond to haters with kindness.

“I educate people with kindness,” she says. “If I show ignorance back, I show hatred back. Then they’ll close off on me completely and think that they were right.”

Jesse, an Indigenous rights advocate, offers a slightly different view. “I find it interesting that it’s always incumbent on us to be nice, to be civil,” he says.

While social media has been empowering for Indigenous people, Jesse says it’s all in the nuance.

“The black and white is never the answer,” he says, admitting he has been less active on social media in recent years. “When you get a lot of hate … why would you engage that? When do we disengage?”

Despite Jesse’s growing up “very privileged” and attending a private boys school in Toronto, he was the only Indigenous person in his class.

And despite his later becoming the first nationally syndicated Indigenous columnist for the CBC, covering film and pop culture for 21 years, and the first director of Canada’s new Indigenous Screen Office, “I have never met another Indigenous film critic and that’s upsetting,” Jesse says. “It suggests that there are real barriers continuing.”

At the end of the day, “reconciliation isn’t about doing new things,” he adds. “It’s about doing everything different. People have to be OK with a different Canada in the end.”

Ashley believes education is a good place to start creating change for Indigenous youth.

When she went to university, “it was really hard,” she recalls. “I was the only Indigenous person in every program, every class. Schools lacked Indigenous representation and there weren’t enough people to understand me. My culture was just what I carried in me.”

Ashley says she wishes there were more Indigenous faculty members at the table to help make decisions.

“Because we lack that, we’ll never have that say, there’ll never be that understanding at that level. Yes, there might be some more programs and what not, but where is it in the curriculum?” she asks.

Until these issues faced by the Indigenous people are resolved, reconciliation is just a word for Jesse. “It’s just an Indigenous thing for people who are not Indigenous,” he says. “Indigenous people know the truth. We really need to move beyond talking.”

If you missed the event, it is now available online.