Everything begins with a relationship

During a recent visit, Victoria Grant spoke about community, equity, and what it means to be open to the world

By Glen Herbert

“It was a really interesting meeting,” says Victoria Grant of her first time visiting Rosseau Lake College. That was 2018, and she had been introduced to the school by alumnus Kelly Carrick ’85. The meeting, with then head of school Robert Carreau, was ostensibly to discuss RLCs response to the Truth and Reconciliation Report. As they spoke that day, Carreau outlined the Seven Generations program, then a nascent initiative. They also discussed strategies for introducing the principles of reconciliation into all aspects of student life.

It’s safe to say that, at the time, many Canadians likely saw reconciliation as a matter of policy: it was a means of addressing the impacts of residential schools on Indigenous communities. It was an important report, to be sure, and one which addressed the issue at a national level. Still, Grant, characteristically, brought the conversation to a more personal level. “As I said to Robert,” she recalled recently, “ask yourself: What would make an Indigenous student feel comfortable here? How can they see themselves within the school?”

On the face of it, she was asking exactly that: What would make Indigenous students feel comfortable here? The school had welcomed many from local First Nations communities, and had inaugurated a bursary program to benefit more. But Grant’s larger point was that there is a need to understand the perspective of those entering an institution that wasn’t, at least initially, crafted with them in mind. It could be as simple as, say, seeing the international flags in the dining hall—they represent all nations that students had arrived from—yet absent of those of the First Nations students. The process of reconciliation, within the school community, was an opportunity to reconsider how we approach diversity, particularly here, given all the lessons that had been learned.

Building community

As Grant has demonstrated during that meeting and also through her advocacy, reconciliation isn’t only about how we address the past, or any aspect of our history, it’s also about how we approach and understand each other. You, me, the people down the street. “We all have to relearn something,” she says. For her, reconciliation is ultimately “about how we build relationships,” and she has spent decades doing exactly that. (She’s often described as a philanthropist, which she is, though during a visit to RLC last week she commented that “I would describe myself as a community builder.”)

Early on, she says, "I realized that part of what I was seeing was that people didn't really have any kind of understanding or knowledge of Indigenous people.” To address that gap, Grant brought people together, literally, into a room. She hosted workshops to provide opportunities for individuals, this on a very local level, to begin the process of discovering who they are, and what they can mean to each other. The workshops offered a chance to “really talk about the history, the past, our true shared history.” When she was invested into the Order of Canada in 2021, the citation from the Governor General's office recognized that work, noting Grant’s effort to “bridge the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous culture, businesses and communities, through … facilitation and mediation.” Grant’s work grew, at times taking various forms. In 2020, she was instrumental in the creation of the Indigenous Peoples Resilience Fund (IPRF) an Indigenous-led initiative to address urgent needs.

Since that first visit to the campus, she’s had a significant impact on curriculum and delivery at RLC. It’s not an exaggeration to say that she has been instrumental in shaping the delivery of the Seven Generations program and, with it, the direction of the school itself. She helped draft the role of Seven Generations Lead, one that Dawn Tabobondung has fulfilled, bringing all the concepts to life. Content is a part of the program—the school has integrated indigegogy, or Indigenous ways of knowing and teaching, into the curriculum. But the way content is introduced, and learning conducted, reflects the approach that Grant has long employed in her work: bringing people together, providing a space where they can learn from each other. “The school is a whole school,” she says. From Austrian to Anishinabek, “it comes together with many different cultures. You come together [and] you learn from each other.”

“When we talk to our donors, we say ‘come walk with us, and we’ll create a better world for us,’” she said of her work with the IRFR. “Our philosophy is there is brilliance and ingenuity in our communities.” Turning to Sadie, she said, “you’re the brilliance and ingenuity. And how do I know that? Because you’re here. … We want to support that, so that our children will do what they need to do in order to come back and build up our communities in a better way and a better place.”

It’s a process of support—making people feel comfortable being the thinnest end of the wedge—though Grant was clear that not all people need the same things. Grant made the distinction between equality—where everybody gets the same—and equity, where everyone gets what they require. “Each of my boys are incredibly different,” she said. “I have three sons. And if I treated them equally none of them would be getting what they need. But if I treat them with equity, they all get what they need. Sometimes there’s more need in some places, and we just have to figure that out to get to a place that’s fair.”

Leading by example

It’s telling that, when parents and students talk about their experience at RLC, they often talk first about community. Marcus Schenck, father of a current student, recently said, “we were really impressed by the sense of community … our son actually never dared to speak in front of larger groups. At RLC, he spoke to the whole school in month two.” Said another student, “I feel really accepted here, and that’s an incredible feeling.”

It is, and, as Grant knows intimately, those things don’t just happen. They require attention, care and, ultimately, love. “That’s what that word philanthropy means,” she said during the Fireside Chat. “It talks about love of humankind. That’s what philanthropy means, literally.” She admits that for many the word has come to refer to a process of donation, funding social and civic projects, “but in true philanthropy, it means to do things for the love of humankind.”

As Grant has shown in her work and by her example, that will be a lasting legacy of the process of reconciliation: relearning how we understand community, how we approach others, and how we express love of humankind. In part, it’s because of her, that those things are evident, not only in the delivery of Indigenous teaching at Rosseau Lake College, but in all teaching. Everything begins with a relationship. Grant helps build communities, and, through her friendship and inspiration, Rosseau Lake College is one of them.

The Fireside Chat with Victoria Grant was the first in an ongoing series of talks held on the campus of Rosseau Lake College. For a recording of that conversation, click here.