Erin Melnychuk, used with permission
By Sebastien Rioux
In early July, Newo had the honour of being invited to speak at the Social Venture Institute conference in Banff. Over three days, social venture leaders from across Alberta and the prairies gathered at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in the shadow of what is known to Stoney First Nation people as Sleeping Buffalo mountain (changed to “Tunnel Mountain” by settlers).
This was the first big external gathering Newo had been involved in since COVID, and for me, personally, it initially didn’t sound all that enticing. I’m not typically a fan of networking events and conferences. However, I had set an intention at the beginning of this year to get out more into the community and to connect with organizations doing compassionate work, so, with some coaxing, I begrudgingly decided to join.
Part of what changed my mind and made the team more comfortable was the effort the event co-ordinators made to engage with us. Philip Lozano in particular spent at least six hours learning about Newo and discussing what we would talk about in our presentation. The time and care Philip put into understanding us allowed us to relax and trust that this would be a receptive space for our story. We decided we would “wing it,” but with intention, to allow the energy of the room to determine the direction of our talk. Our hope was to share vulnerably and invite the group to sit together in the ambiguity we all face in our work, to find comfort in not knowing.
We like to roll in packs at Newo, so Raj, Joby, Verna, and I attended the conference. We felt that going as a group rather than having an individual representative would allow us to more genuinely represent Newo as an organization. It also offered us the side benefit of getting to spend more time together outside of our typical work setting. On our way to Banff, we spotted close to a dozen hawks, a good sign, as they are the beings through which the spirit of Joby’s late brother visits him. The hawks safely guided us to a late supper arrival at the Banff Centre, where we began to settle into our beautiful surroundings.
Seb, Verna, Joby and Raj bond on the journey to SVI Banff.
On the first full day of the conference, we were the first speakers of the morning. We took the time to rearrange the room, moving the chairs into a semi-circle facing the mountain views through a large window at the back of the room, and changing the emphasis from the stage to the nature behind us. Our presentation began with a prayer from Joby, and then Raj led us off. The four of us spoke about the different elements of our organization, focusing on the internal, personal aspects of the work as much as the external projects. I honestly can’t tell you exactly what we said, but I can say that it felt right. “Winging it with intention” worked once again. Our story was received with gratitude, warmth, and confusion, a good healthy mix of reactions, with some people expressing appreciation for our openness and willingness to show up as humans, while others scratched their heads over our structure and ways of operating. Over the next day and a half, we were able to discuss our work with people from the full range of the reactionary spectrum, which led to great connections and mutual learning.
A highlight of our trip came at the end of Day 2, when Travis Snow, a Stoney Nakoda man from Morley, took us for a hike up Sleeping Buffalo mountain. Joby had been in contact with Travis previously, seeking his help to bolster the traditional knowledge and language aspects of our Pecamu Makoce training program, but had no idea Travis would be at SVI, so it was a serendipitous surprise to meet him there. Travis was kind enough to offer to guide us up the mountain, where we learned many stories about the area and shared many laughs as we hiked to the peak. We learned that the golf course was situated on land that used to be home to the winter camp of the Stoney people, chosen because of the geothermal activity that warmed the ground in the winter. We learned that the rail line through Banff was laid over an ancient trail system used to traverse the land. We were taught and then struggled to pronounce many Stoney names and words. We also found out Joby had never climbed a mountain before but, in spite of his suffering lungs, he proved to be a natural mountaineer. It was truly a privilege to spend time with Travis in a place he knew so intimately, and we look forward to working with him in the future.
Joby takes in his first mountain ascent.
Raj captivates fellow conference attendees.
Overall, the conference was a great space for connection and a great opportunity for Newo to share its work with the wider community. We met many like-minded organizations and people doing a wide variety of work: midwives, photographers, farmers, chemists, and many more beautiful people working to make their communities more compassionate, creative, and collaborative. We left with a sense that we are not alone in this work. We left with a sense of community.