Wicihitowin Square: Finding the Heart of our City
“Wi-chi-HEE-to -win” – i was teaching their part to them, and getting it wrong, when i first felt how right this could be.
The assembled elected representatives of Edmonton’s City Council were all in a group, game to join Mayor Mandel and his Poet Laureate, as was then my job, in our duet, to be performed in Council Chambers in mere minutes, and to be recorded live and sent to Regina’s mayor in a friendly shout-out video response to his call to mark World Poetry Day. Council would chime in on the chorus.
“Wi-chi- HEE -“ it was Don Iveson – now our mayor – and Amerjeet Sohi who stopped me, very graciously informing me that mine was not the correct pronunciation. Two or three other heads nodded in agreement, kind but concerned. They didn’t want me to get this wrong. It mattered to them that we say this word right. This Cree word. None of them are Cree, but all of them knew how to say it, and that it mattered to say it right.
The whole world changed for me then.
You see, when i was growing up, being an Aboriginal Canadian was not cool. Being openly of mixed heritage? Not cool. My dad refusing to hide his Anishinabe birthright and Reservation upbringing? Not cool. My mom, marrying a dirty Indian, raising a brood of dirty Halfbreed kids? You guessed it, not cool.
We took a few things on the chin in those days. And when i grew up and got out in the world, i met a lot of others who’d spent their lives taking it on the chin, working to change things for our society, challenging racist oppression and leading the way toward this process we now name Truth and Reconciliation. It had been a long and literally a bloody road, for so many, to get to this place.
And yet it felt breath-takingly sudden to me, that these leaders of our city were all earnestly correcting me, so as to ensure we paid due respect to the Cree people of our community. I probably would have dissolved entirely in a puddle of wondering tears, but we had a performance to do in about five minutes.
So, i quickly thanked them, reassured them that i knew, and explained that i was stretching and manipulating the pronunciation to create a rhythmic effect. “Think of it, Don,” i said, “like Stevie Nicks singing Dreams – ‘when the rain wa-SHES you clean’.” Iveson laughed, the rest grinned and nodded, and we firmed up that chorus, with its bouncy little rhythm:
“Wi-chi-HEE-to-win, all to-GE-ther now,
this is EDmonton, our HOME”
And it worked. Mayor Mandel read out his verses, i read out my responses, the Council gave the chorus; the City Hall School principal got her shoal of kids to join the chant, and we had ourselves a feeling, there in that room. For a girl who grew up isolated, bullied, fearful and withdrawn, being in the centre of that feeling was pure gold.
Some words have the power to create a feeling, to bind a group of souls together in fellowship.
Wicihitowin is one of those words.
Basically, wicihitowin (‘wi-CHEE-toh-in’ is a better, non-Fleetwood-Mac way to say it, by the way) translates as “they help each other” or “coming together to share and work” or “working in relationship” – so i understand. And, full disclosure, i’m not Cree nor a Cree speaker, so i rely on the fluent among us for your corrections if needed.
I understand that this word is understood and honoured across Canada. You can see why. It embodies a concept of togetherness, of common purpose, of sharing in the work and the success of the work.
Can you think of a finer concept around which to build a city?
Our city’s central square, at present, is named for Winston Churchill. Mr. Churchill, so far as i know, never set foot in this town. Yes, he was Britain’s WW2 Commander in Chief, and thus, as Commonwealth members, we somewhat ‘belonged’ to him, too. But he never knew us, did he? He didn’t found this city. Didn’t build this city.
And, while his ‘Finest Hour’ speech was very stirring, how about his use and championing of poison gas?
Not surprising for his time and background, but also not a spirit that will carry us forward in a good way.
Our city was not founded in war, but as a gathering place, whose spirit is rooted in Wicihitowin.
This is not to erase history. We have not always honoured the founding Mothers of this city, those Aboriginal women who married the newcomers, made homes for them, raised their children and were too often scorned by both communities for their daring to make connections. We have not always known that it matters to acknowledge our true history. We have lived with official amnesia, where Residential Schools operated all over the country and too many people didn’t know, care or believe the abuse perpetuated within their walls, for generations.
We have not always succeeded. We have a long way yet to go. But we are committed to inclusion. Don Iveson, now our Mayor, started his tenure by declaring a Year of Reconciliation, in honour of the national TRC event held here last March.
And what has got us this far, and what will help us become a world-class city worthy of the work and dreams of people of all heritages who have built and continue building this city? It’s a spirit of cooperation. It’s Wicihitowin.
So, Edmonton, how about this?
How about we rename the central square at the heart of our city? Let’s stop honouring a man who advocated use of poison gas, who never came here, who espoused attitudes of racial intolerance at odds with our vision of being world-class. Let’s honour the people of all heritages who have worked, dreamed and struggled so long to bring us to this time. Let’s rename the Heart of our City, in honour of a powerful concept whose time has come.
Edmonton, will you meet me in Wicihitowin Square?