Monday, 31 March 2014

Truth and Reconciliation: 'Waiting to Load/' Waiting to Comprehend

In June of 2008, a historic event in Canada’s history occurred. That event was an official apology from the federal government of Canada (via a private members bill from Liberal MP Gary Maresty calling for an apology alongside the establishment of a TRC) to Indigenous peoples, more specifically victims, survivors, and attendees, over one of its worst colonial actions: The Residential Schools. This past week (specifically March 25-30, 2014) the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), formed in order to have an open and frank discussion of the atrocities at the Residential Schools, held its final public forum in Edmonton, Alberta – on the traditional territory of the Nehiyaw and within what is referred to as ‘Treaty Six’ Territory. I volunteered to assist during the event – looking at it as my way to honour my family, community, and fellow Anishinaabeg.

The Point of the TRC:

The Mohawk Institute Residential School, near Brantford,
Ontario (Controlled by the Anglican Church)
The TRC came to fruition only after courts officially acknowledged the Canadian state, and the Christian Churches involved, had an onus to their participation in the Residential School process. These schools, as many of you will know, were eventually mandated to educate, Christianize, and assimilate Indigenous children throughout the northern half of Turtle Island (The United States had their own system of Residential Schools in place). In fact, Duncan Campbell-Scott, the Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs (Now Aboriginal Affairs), was a major proponent of the work residential schools were to achieve. Campbell-Scott is well documented for stating that his goal was to make sure there would not be a single ‘Indian’ left in Canada. Thus, the Residential Schools began working towards the concept of ‘beating the Indian out of the child.’

Throughout the second half of the 19th century, and well into the second last decade of the 20th century, many Residential Schools worked towards ‘civilizing’ Indigenous children – teaching them the art of domestic work or hard labour – not really much more. For those children who attended and survived, the concepts of family were broken and left untaught (leading to much of what we refer to as intergenerational abuse and Residential School survivors today) as well as a ‘loss’ of identity for many Indigenous peoples. As the horrors from many residential schools began to be reported (from physical and sexual abuse, mass-disease, science experiments, brain-washing, cultural destruction, and murder), the Canadian government would not recognize such mistakes until the Canadian courts ordered it to. People must remember this when considering the concept of moving forward and dealing with the past – how can it effectively be dealt with when the state that inflicted such pain would not acknowledge until the courts made it? This is why I do commend the Methodist, United, and Anglican Churches specifically – they acted quickly and did not wait for a court to force them. Today they continue to try to rectify their mistakes, stating at the TRC event in Edmonton how they failed Indigenous children, their faith, and their own god because of the actions their church had partaken in.

Map of Residential School Locations
Despite such negative points, the TRC set about doing what it was expected to do. Its principles are based off of the Working Group on Truth and Reconciliation and of the Exploratory Dialogues of 1998-1998. These principles include: accessible; victim-centred;  confidentiality if requested; No Harm; Health and Safety of Participants; Representative; Public and Transparent; Accountable; Open and Honourable; Comprehensive; Inclusive; Educational; Holistic; Just; Fair; Respectful; Voluntary; Flexible; and ‘Forward Looking.’ (See: trcinstitution/index.php?p=7 for additional information on TRC).

In keeping to these goals, the TRC held public forums in Winnipeg, MB (Anishinaabeg/Treaty One Territory as well as Metis Territory under the Manitoba Act of 1870); Inuvik NT (Inuit Territory); Halifax NS (Mi’kmaq Territory); Saskatoon SK (Nehiyaw/Treaty Six Territory); Montreal QC (Haudenousanee Territory); Vancouver BC (Musqueam Territory); and, most recently, Edmonton AB (Nehiyaw/Treaty Six Territory). These events were important to bringing together those impacted by the schools as well as the other side of the treaty relations: Canadian citizens and descendants.

TRC in Edmonton:

Participation in the TRC forum held in Edmonton is something I will always hold close in my life-learning experiences. In early 2014 the Political Science Department, specifically through Dr. Malinda Smith, sent out an email from the TRC about the ability to volunteer during the March 25-30 event. I was hesitant as I was concerned with the emotional impact some of it would have on me, especially since attendees would be sharing their stories. I did not know if I was prepared for the amount of personal connection that would occur – I had learned about the schools and many other components of the colonization and oppression of Indigenous peoples throughout my life. I will also admit, because I do not look stereotypically ‘Indigenous’ I was slightly concerned with how attendees would view me as I have experienced animosity previously at other events I have participated/volunteered at.

After some thinking, I concluded I had to be there – I must assist and learn. To honour my own family and the fight for survival, the resurgence of my community after the Residential Schools had nearly succeeded at accomplishing their mission against my own community, and to honour the many who never returned – the many whom are still missing and unidentified in the graves found and waiting to be found. I was correct that I would learn, however, participating did come with some difficulties.

My first day was assisting at the registration table – I couldn’t even keep count of how many I filled out forms with. But their faces and their stories will live with me. For instance, one elder was the only survivor from his family by the time he was 18, many of his siblings contracting tuberculosis and not recovering – the disease was brought back to his community, claiming his parents and his other siblings (He too would contract it but wouldn’t succumb to it). Another individual told me of how she and her siblings were separated and sent to schools in BC, NWT, and Alberta (she herself to the one near Edmonton) – all of them were from the Haida Nation. Many survivors I met had been shipped to and between three to four different schools; while more then one told me about how their best friends simply disappeared (with one mentioning how the last time they saw their's was before bed one night and that the next morning he was nowhere to be found. I assisted with registration for people who came from the Mi’kmaq nation on the East Coast, Nehiyaw from James Bay, Anishinaabeg near my community, Dene from Inuvik NWT, as well as Inuit and Metis. One of the most shocking things I heard from almost every person I registered: Their need to highlight they didn’t take part in the ‘payout’ from the court case. I could only imagine why so many felt they needed to point out they never took a payment for their ordeal – it highlights, in my mind, Canadian mentality and the majority’s lack of understanding.

TRC Forum in Edmonton (Hall A of the Shaw Centre)
My recollection of my time at TRC Edmonton doesn't even get to properly or fully include those who attended as survivors of the Day Schools Missions, forced sterilization by the province of Alberta, or the Sixties-Scoop (all of which Canada has yet to deal with). Those of us volunteering who comprehended the importance of these other actions by governments in Canada understood the scope of these survivors also attending the TRC, despite the very narrow term the courts and government had the TRC focus on. However, some volunteers did not comprehend the delicate nature of this. One volunteer I witnessed explaining to a survivor how we don’t know how to fix something if we do not know how it is broken; another telling a survivor how they had every right to money because of what Canada did – rather then focusing on the point of healing. In other cases, there were volunteers, during the lunches, who clearly were not given an Indig-101 on protocol during lunches. Such as, you assist those with mobility issues and elders first and foremost. You help women with children if they need it. You do not stand idly by and shuffle them into lines. Furthermore, YOU DO NOT jump into line and get food for yourself while elders and those with mobility issues are lined up behind you for their lunch – it was referred to as a ‘Survivors Lunch’ after all.

Although some volunteers did this, I do not blame the TRC – such understanding was explained to those volunteers who signed up specifically through the TRC and partook in the pre-Event training. Those who did not, or were volunteering through the churches – lacked the understanding. If anything, it symbolized cultural misunderstandings, especially when I was approached by an attendee and yelled at for those who weren’t following Indigenous protocol at feast times. However, I do not hold the organizers responsible for this problem… Those who were their working 12-18 hour shifts through the TRC were understanding and knew the role such a forum was to hold. I have astounding respect for them and what they pushed to achieve. One cannot control volunteers, unfortunately, like that of a boss over employees. I left the TRC on my last day of volunteering with much respect for those who planned such a difficult and emotional process. I also left realizing I am here today, I exist today, because my ancestors survived the onslaught, the colonization and genocide - the residential school system (even though intergenerational problems still reverberate). I admire and thank those survivors and victims who taught me so much in those few days as well as sharing their stories. But, I believe so much more has to be done.

Where Do We All Go From Here?

While participating and volunteering, I was happy to see the attendance of non-Indigenous people increase more specifically over the weekend. However, Edmonton is a city of just over one million people and Alberta a province of just over Four million – I would have hoped for more Canadians to attend. This doesn’t even include the fact that many Canadians still do not comprehend what Residential Schools were and what they did to Indigenous peoples. Thus, much more work needs to be done in engaging and educating the other side of the treaty relationship. This is why I commend the province of Alberta for introducing a K-12 educational component on the horrors and effects of Residential schools to their future generations (All provinces should be following suit).

That being said, Canada must broaden the scope of how their imposed education standards go further then Residential Schools – such as Day Schools, the Missions, and the strong opposition to the current government’s FN Education Act. Canada must also begin to deal with the issues of genocide, such as the Sixties-Scoop, forced-sterilization and, most recently to hit the 'Canadian psyche,' the scientific experiments. The Residential Schools are not the only form of colonial impact on Indigenous nations, their present generations, ancestors, or the future generations to come. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples spoke to this. Numerous reports and organizations over the past 100 years have highlighted this. Thus the work of the TRC is a step forward, but it can never be considered the only step needed.

Therefore, I leave you all with this final point: Ignorance may be bliss, but bliss is short lived when anger from that ignorance boils over and passes the point of cooling down.

A Quote from Paul Martin on Residential Schools & Genocide, Poster brought by the Aboriginal People's Commission of the Liberal Party of Canada.

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