A blanket for change

Kirstin Witwicki gratefully accepted well wishes after being draped with a very special blanket at a traditional Indigenous ceremony at The Forks in Winnipeg. But as the drum beats softly in the background and a sweetgrass smudge lingers in the air, she’s quick to point out that the special gift is for someone who will never lay eyes upon it.  

ACU's Indigenous Leadership Circle
ACU’s Indigenous Leadership Circle members: (From left to right) Nicole Lavallee, Lisa Delorme Meiler, Kirstin Witwicki, Brian McIvor and Ashlee Mercredi

The Indigenous Leadership Circle (ILC) held a special ceremony on September 21, 2021 to honour Kirstin Witwicki, Aabita Mishtadim Ikwe (Half Horse woman), a third-generation residential school survivor. Kirstin is an Anishinaabe woman from Long Plain First Nation and a member of the Bear Clan Patrol.

“I’m humbled and honoured,” said Kirstin, one of the founding members of Assiniboine Credit Union’s (ACU) ILC and also a Financial Service Advisor at the credit union. “But I’m accepting this on behalf of my granny who endured so much.”

Her grandmother, Rose Harris (born Rosie Beauchamp), and lovingly known to everyone as Rose Ikwe, attended Portage la Prairie Residential School. Sadly, Rose passed away in 2008.

Kirstin Witwicki and family
Four generations hold the blanket:
Kirstin’s daughter, Patience, holding Kirstin’s granddaughter (left); Kirstin (centre); and her mother, Lillian (right).

Coming together to create the blanket

In honouring Kirstin as a third-generation residential school survivor, ACU’s employees began working on individual squares to contribute to a quilt in response to the first 215 unmarked graves found at a former residential school.

Based on a theme of Every Child Matters, the quilt includes images of Turtle Island, beadwork and a pair of tiny mittens. One square includes the message, “they tried to bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds.

Kirstin was one of the founding members of the ILC and the group offered her much thanks, noting that they may not have been on this path of reconciliation without her leadership.

Now, the ceremony is the most recent effort of ACU and the ILC on their shared path toward reconciliation.

Ceremony at the Lodge

Jerry Fontaine at blanket ceremony at the Lodge, The Forks, Winnipeg

Jerry Fontaine (makwa ogimaa), from the Ojibway-Anishnaabe community of Sagkeeng First Nation and a member of the Bear Clan, led the ceremony at the newly completed Indigenous site called the Lodge at The Forks. He currently teaches Indigenous Studies at The University of Winnipeg and is globally recognized as a leader and advocate.

“The work is hard,” he said of travelling the path of reconciliation. “And the onus is on our people to reach out and show what reconciliation really means to us.”

Alternating between Anishinaabemowin and English, Jerry went on to say that there are two sides to the issues, but the solution doesn’t lie in division.

“Kirstin is working to bridge these two worlds, because it’s very true that our world views are different,” he said. “She speaks about reconciliation and she believes it in her heart. That is respect. That is leadership.”

Eric Atkinson, assisting in the ceremony, also brought the space to life during the ceremony with his drumming and special song. His music and dance told the story of a beautiful woman, facing the East and singing praises to the sunrise.

Drummer and singer performs during blanket ceremony at the Lodge, The Forks, Winnipeg

The Lodge, The Forks, Winnipeg

About the Lodge

The blanket ceremony was held at the Lodge at the Forks, the newest addition to Niizhoziibean, formerly named South Point of The Forks. The traditional structure was created using poles from northern Manitoba and stones from southern Manitoba. The space includes benches, tables, grandfather rocks, a ceremonial offerings table and a fire pit.

Learn more about the Lodge construction from Jason Parenteau.

Passing the blanket

The ILC passed the blanket during the sacred ceremony to acknowledge, honour, respect and recognize Kirstin’s achievements. 

Blanket ceremony: ACU CEO, Kevin Sitka, passes the blanket

ACU President and CEO, Kevin Sitka, passed the blanket on behalf of the credit union’s employees, which they created with love, to the Ochitakaway—the four women who Kirstin chose to lift her. The Ochitakaway included her mother Lillian, daughter Patience, Kim Champion Taylor (from ACU’s leadership team) and Lisa Delorme-Meiler (who represented the ILC). These four women were also passed tobacco, as the ceremony celebrated the four women for lifting Kirstin.

Kirstin Witwicki receiving blanket at blanket ceremony at the Lodge, The Forks, Winnipeg

The making of the blanket and subsequent passing of the blanket is a symbol of healing and is an important step in ACU’s reconciliation journey. 

“In Indigenous culture, the blanket helps connect a person to their spirit, as a form of healing to begin the process of wellness,” Lisa explained. “The blanket connects us back to what is missing, and it is meant to reground us back to who we were. It is believed that when we are wrapped in a quilt, our ancestors are amongst us and with us.”

During the ceremony, each participant took part in a smudge, allowing them to stop, slow down, become mindful and centred. After opening words, Kirstin was wrapped in the blanket and individually embraced by family, friends and colleagues as each member moved around the sacred fire.

Blanket ceremony at the Lodge, The Forks, Winnipeg

Steps towards positive change

When the ILC was first created, there was no playbook on how to move ahead since no other organizations were embarking on a similar program, Kirstin said.

“We couldn’t have done this without the support of the executive team that really provided invaluable support so we could create our own direction and vision,” she said. “It’s an Indigenous employee-led effort that really speaks from the heart.”

ACU and ILC in front of the Lodge, The Forks, Winnipeg
ACU’s Executive Leadership Team and the Indigenous Leadership Circle (From left to right – front row) Andrea Dysievick , Nicole Lavallee, Lisa Delorme Meiler, Kirstin Witwicki, Jennifer Mullen-Berube, Kim Champion Taylor, Ashlee Mercredi ( From left to right – Back row) Michael Taylor, Brian McIvor, Kevin Sitka, Allan Godfrey, Brendan Reimer.

Through the ILC, ACU employees have visited the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and walked with the Bear Clan, among other events. Kirstin explained that every effort is a positive step, even if employees are new to the culture.

“Every Indigenous employee is in a different place when it comes to reclaiming their culture. Some have never participated in ceremony and might be uncomfortable with the experience,” she continued. “But allowing us the opportunity to be uncomfortable is not a bad thing. That’s when change happens. Reconnecting with the land and our culture is a necessary step on our journey, and I am honoured to have taken another step with the ILC and ACU during this ceremony.”

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About Shel Zolkewich

A journalist by trade and an adventurer at heart, Shel is always collecting stories, whether on assignment or not. She loves to explore the unexpected places that are filled with surprising discoveries. Her clothes are seldom clean and her hair is never brushed but her head is full of ideas to share. She lives on a farm in rural Manitoba with chickens, ducks, bees, a dog named Sammy and assorted humans.

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