While today is the last day of this year's Couchiching Conference, for many it's a new beginning.

Delegates and presenters from across Canada say it’s the start of a new conversation between First Nation communities and the rest of Canada. And they say the conversations and presentations this weekend have been emotional.

“To watch everyone coming together and grappling with this together in the spirit of cooperation and acknowledging the pain and acknowledging the history but recognizing the history,” says Rima Berns-McGown, outgoing president of the Couchiching Institute on Public Affairs.

“That has been so powerful.”

Berns-McGown says the conversations have to keep progressing, and the conference at Geneva Park just south of Washago, across the bay from Orillia, has been a good start.

“There was a real sense here today that this was the beginning of something,” she says. “People were saying, ‘What can we do?’ We're going to get out there, we're going to educate, we're going to talk, we’re going to get people to understand that this is all of our problem and fight.”

Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, spoke this morning and says he's encouraged by how people are starting to think about aboriginal concerns.

“It suggests to me that we are in an important moment,” he says, adding that moment is of “unprecedented engagement on an important discussion…”

Atleo says the realities faced by First Nations communities and their relationship with Canada is important in terms of “how to build a future together.”

For many, the conference created a context to help advance discussions about that future that are already happening at home.


“Having had these conversations on a smaller scale and then to have had it sort of ramped up I would say is changing and transforming,” says Karen Hamilton from the Canadian Council of Churches in Toronto.

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Meanwhile, some say what they learned on the shore of Lake Couchiching will change the way they approach the work they do in their own communities.

“It starts with understanding … it starts with listening,” says Liban Abokor with Youth LEAPS, a non-profit that supports at-risk youth in Scarborough. “So we'll probably start to listen a bit more, do a little bit less. And I think we'll get a bit further ahead.”

Hamilton adds: “We want to be doers and we want to be fixers, but part of the experience of this conference very clearly has been about listening, hearing, and just being able to sit with the pain and be with it.”

About 300 people attended the conference this year.

Planning for next year’s event is already underway, and it will focus on discussing the politics and potential of sports.