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Muckpaloo Ipeelie, photographed at Sunset Point Park in Collingwood, Ont., says her involvement with Elephant Thoughts helped give her the confidence to launch her consulting company, the Urban Inuit Identity Project.Martin Lamprecht

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While on a student placement as a medical laboratory technologist in Barrie, Ont., 33-year-old Inuk Muckpaloo Ipeelie felt invisible.

“I was removed from my Indigenous peers and support system and placed in a very Western health sciences field where I didn’t feel supported,” says Ms. Ipeelie of the placement, which she completed last year. “There was a lack of Indigenous knowledge and ways of thinking.”

Ms. Ipeelie says this dearth of Indigenous knowledge permeated her entire three-year program – the course discussed a lack of resources for Indigenous communities but didn’t mention cultural awareness and issues such as residential schools, racism, youth suicide and substance abuse.

So, in January 2022, Ms. Ipeelie created the Urban Inuit Identity Project (UIIP), a consulting company which aims to educate health care workers about Indigenous culture and provide culturally safe care. UIIP’s goals align with recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which include education to improve health care for Indigenous and Inuit peoples.

Ms. Ipeelie says an important driver that gave her the confidence to launch her organization was her involvement with a charitable organization called Elephant Thoughts and its co-creator, Lisa Farano. Ms. Ipeelie first connected with Elephant Thoughts several years ago, attending multiple Indigenous events and finding a business mentor through the organization.

“Elephant Thoughts taught me that if given the opportunity, Indigenous people will gather and that there are Indigenous funds out there,” she says. “They wanted me to succeed.”

Awareness and allyship

Elephant Thoughts began as a global development organization 20 years ago, supporting and building schools in marginalized international communities in places such as Nepal and India. Ms. Farano joined founder Jeremy Rhodes shortly after the organization’s inception.

Now, the Durham, Ont.-based charity works with schools in Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities across Canada, responding to requests from communities and offering support to complement education programs already in place. That might include digital literacy, helping high school students with postsecondary guidance or tutoring in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

In 2021, Ms. Farano received the Order of Ontario for her work as Elephant Thoughts’ co-creator and for building awareness and understanding among non-Indigenous populations about issues facing Indigenous peoples, while offering academic support to Indigenous communities throughout Canada. Ms. Farano sees herself as an ally in helping Canadians work toward truth and reconciliation. She is encouraged that the government is finally shedding light on Indigenous issues, but it must begin with truth, she adds.

“In school we were duped a little,” says Ms. Farano. “We didn’t learn the real facts about what happened. I feel it’s our responsibility to know the truth and to understand.”

If we can be more accepting of cross-cultural differences and experience, it benefits us all, she says.

“It’s a privilege to be welcomed into communities because of the reputation we’ve built and the relationship we’ve built has taken years, and that comes with delivering on promises when you [make] them,” she says. (That includes having Indigenous employees and Indigenous individuals on Elephant Thoughts’ board of directors.)

For the past eight years, Elephant Thoughts has been working on an Indigenous awareness campaign teaching non-Indigenous people about Indigenous history, which goes hand in hand with their recently-acquired youth camps – Riverstone Retreat in Durham and The Woods at Kimbercote based in Kimberley, Ont.

“The camps focus on cross-cultural programing that brings Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth together, including Somalian youth for example,” she says. “We all learn from each other because there are so many cultural nuances that are different and similar.”

And while career-building skills is a key goal for Elephant Thoughts, understanding and respecting those cultural nuances is essential. “We work with youth who are dealing with intergenerational trauma,” says Ms. Farano. “We help them gain skills and confidence to make better lives and make better choices with their lives.”

Sharing cultures

Elephant Thoughts came along at the right time for 23-year-old Tyanne Murdock, whose life was veering down a difficult path not too long ago.

Removed from her mother, who was a victim of residential schools, Ms. Murdock grew up in a white foster home in Winnipeg. At Sunday school, she was forbidden to speak about her family and culture.

“I grew up with my Indigenous sister and brother, but we had to learn a different way and it held us back,” she says.

Depressed and disconnected, she moved to Toronto three years ago. Life started to change when her housing support worker told her about an opportunity: a four-month course from Elephant Thoughts called “Free as a Girl” which taught digital literacy including web design and podcasting.

Even more importantly, Ms. Murdock got the chance to spend time with other Indigenous youth, even attending camp at Riverstone Retreat.

“At first [culture] wasn’t important to me, but I started to go to different ceremonies and after a while I realized, this is actually helping me,” says Ms. Murdock.

Afterwards, she started a placement with HIP (Honouring Indigenous People), a charitable organization which fosters relationships between Rotary clubs and Indigenous communities.

“Non-Indigenous people really appreciate our ways and our traditions and our teachings,” says Ms. Murdock. “I love that we can all share that.”

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