A group of students huddle in a circle listening to the Akitcha Cante Waste Indigenous men’s drum group.

The drum beats aim to inspire the young people to learn more about Indigenous culture, the land and how it weaves together with the Brandon, Man., trail system. In between songs, the students learn about the green space surrounding them or enjoy bannock with Indigenous knowledge keepers.

Providing these teachings to young people means they can continue and use those lessons throughout their lives and inspire them to see the world around them differently, says Dezarae Bodnar, a research assistant with the Children’s Hospital Research Institute of Manitoba.

“If people walk away with the idea that these trails are for them, that that’s the best thing that we could hope for,” she told CBC.

Bodnar is part of a research study looking to break down barriers and make trails at Brandon’s Riverbank Discovery Centre more accessible. She wants to find out how Brandonites use the city’s largest green space to make it more inclusive and welcoming, especially for First Nation, Métis and Inuit members of the community.

“Trails weren’t always designed with everybody’s needs and different backgrounds in mind,” Bodnar said.

They are striving for what is called “trail equity,” where everyone feels safe using the trails regularly, whether it’s for transportation, to connect with the land or to be physically active.

Researchers and community volunteers debuted the project that began in July to 80 Brandon School Division students on Friday, and on Saturday the greater community was invited to come participate in the “Trail Teachings on the Full Moon.”

Trail equity

Jon McGavock of the Children’s Hospital Research Institute of Manitoba says there’s a long way to go when it comes to trail equity, especially for women, two-spirit and Indigenous people in Canada. He said they’re vastly underrepresented.

In Brandon, the people using the trails are typically “white dudes in their 30s, 40s and 50s,” McGavock said. 

“There is something about the way we’ve designed these trails that is not safe and so we need to address that,” McGavock said.

“In terms of Indigenous and newcomer equity, we have a long way to go.”

The research is designed to work with communities and local organizations like the Riverbank Discovery Centre to try to reduce those inequities. McGavock says this guided research looks at how Indigenous people can reclaim these trails and land and see themselves in the space.

A man stands outside in the snow.
Jon McGavock, with the Children’s Hospital Research Institute of Manitoba, says women, two-spirited and Indigenous people are vastly underrepresented in Brandon’s trail systems. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

During the study, researchers are using surveys to see if community members feel like they belong at the Riverbank, along with looking at foot traffic in the area.

The hope is that as trails become more inclusive more people visit, he said.

A part of this is “Indigenous place-making” — creating safe places so people see themselves and don’t feel the structural racism when exploring the community spaces, he says.

“Hopefully this is the beginning of something that we can spread across Manitoba, hopefully, ripple it out across Canada,” he said. “Make these trails safer and … a greater sensible belonging for Indigenous people.”

Natashia Marion, Brandon Urban Aboriginal Peoples Council co-ordinator, says the Riverbank is important on two fronts— it has existing Indigenous community connections and sits on Treaty 2 territory.

Brandon has a growing population and it’s important to continue sharing Indigenous culture with residents, she said. The Riverbank is creating a safe space to learn about Indigenous culture and ask difficult questions.

A woman wearing a ribbon skirt stands outside.
Natashia Marion, Brandon Urban Aboriginal Peoples’ Council co-ordinator, says Brandon has a growing population and it’s important to continue sharing Indigenous culture with residents. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

“We have a lot of outreach communities that come to Brandon and more people … more cultures,” Marion said. “Hosting events like this gives the public a chance to really … ask questions.”

Dean Hammond, Riverbank Discovery Centre executive director, says they want to be a year-round centre that draws all people in. 

This means they are looking at different projects including Indigenous trail and place names, along with the possibility of having a sweat lodge placed on the Riverbank grounds. 

A man wearing a toque stands outside.
Riverbank Discovery Centre Executive Director Dean Hammond says they want to use research to help guide making trails more welcoming to all Brandonites. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

How the research project will guide Riverbank in the future remains to be seen, Hammond said. But there will be a focus on Indigeneity and ensuring the Riverbank is a welcoming, inclusive and multi-cultural destination.

“The ultimate goal is to get people down here and on our trails,” Hammond said. “There is nothing better for your mental health than getting outside.”



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