Otahpiaaki – the Road to Empathy


When we can come from a place of compassion for our neighbors, we realize that we truly are all treaty people.


Because we are hardwired for connection, disconnection always creates pain. Disconnection can be a normal part of life and relationships, but when coupled with the shame of believing we're disconnected because we're not worthy of connection, it creates a pain we want to numb. - Brene Brown

This is the issue that has haunted me throughout my journey with Otahpiaaki. Otahpiaaki wants to be a platform for Indigenous designers and creatives to become more resilient entrepreneurs and leaders in their communities and the rest of Canada. If it wants to accomplish this, Otahpiaaki needs to understand the vulnerabilities that exist in my communities. It needs to make sure that Indigenous folks are being supported in ways that are acknowledging the colonial damages that continue to haunt our people in modern Canada today.

Otahpiaaki describes the moment the heel and vamp of a moccasin come together, and we’ve used this as an analogy to describe what Otahpiaaki hopes to accomplish: to bring neighbors together in the context of reconciliation. With vulnerabilities that Indigenous people have, it's important to understand the truths that surround those vulnerabilities, such as with abuse in residential schools and the faulty parental practices that were introduced by the schools that has manifested rampant adverse childhood experiences within Indigenous communities. If we want to bring neighbors together, Canadians need to understand the historical truths and tragedies before engaging with reconciliation. It’s important to know the world European settlers created and how we can learn from its traumatic flaws. How can we make it more sustainable and Just?

This is probably the most challenging question to ask to non-Indigenous folks because they may not see the legacies of these old unsustainable systems, or they have privileges that allows them to ignore or forget about those legacies because they directly affect them. Living in a country with so many identities, it can be hard to take seriously everything you hear as a truth;

What I ask from Canadians is to look at the research, look at the truths that are available in scholarly articles produced by folks in social work and from government commissions like the Royal Aboriginal Commission and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Indigenous folks have a culture that has been altered significantly by the very ingredients of neoliberalism: unprincipled government policies and rapacious corporations - the ideology that helped lay down the foundation of “The New World” in North America. The industrial revolution was huge during colonization and the free market was a God send for settlers wanting to pursue their self interests, and at the time that meant the decimation of a “savage” culture.

“When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with its parents, who are savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly impressed upon myself, as head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men." Sir John A. Macdonald, 1879

“In R. v D. M. G., the trial judge remarked on the troubled background of the accused saying, ‘D.G. was born in 1965 to parents who had significant substance abuse problems. Her mother was native and had attended the residential school … suffering the effects of dislocation, loss of identity and self esteem. father was French Canadian and ostracized by his family because of his relationship with a native. D. M. G felt the sting of racial intolerance at an early age.” The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a Denial of JusticeThe Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a Denial of Justice

Brenda Lee Asp 2
Me, my mom Angel Knowlton, and my sister Autumn Sunrise Striped Wolf

“Lack of psycho-social integration”, or in other words, humans are psychologically designed for connection and if a person doesn’t feel adequately integrated into their society or their community, then it causes issues and creates a legacy that can be passed down through generations. For myself, I have seen first hand the relationship with Indigenous folks and non-Indigenous folks and how much Indigenous folks don’t feel they belong in non-Indigenous communities, and non-Indigenous folks feel like they don’t belong in Indigenous communities. I have lived experience with this disconnection as well.

My family and I started out in a small valley on the reserve with a community of Piikani neighbors. This valley could be found near the Oldman River in southern Alberta that the locals called, and continue to call, “Highbush”. A branch of my family tree, the “Knowltons”, have called this area home for generations and this was my first home after the hospital when I was born in 1993.

Back up a year before my birth, the Ralph Klein Alberta Government answered the calls of struggling white farmers in Southern Alberta where droughts were being experienced. His government began transitioning the, once titled “Oldman River”, to the now “Oldman Dam”. Although this angered my community, the Ralph Klein government, with the support of the Federal Government, disregarded the objections from my community by arresting protesters and driving the families out of the valley and at my family’s dismay, our homes were underwater.
Brenda Lee Asp 2

If Indigenous and non-Indigenous people are to find each other, we need to learn empathy. There needs to be an understanding and acceptance of how we got here and our uncomfortable shared history and its legacies today. We all must rebel from the old colonial way of thinking that Indigenous folks or people of colour are different or inferior and that it is indeed our common humanity that connects us all. When we can come from a place of compassion for our neighbors, we realize that we truly are all treaty people. We might not be able to right the wrongs of the past, but we can move forward together by listening to our voices and supporting us as we engage in our own pursuits of happiness.

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