Pamela Sevigny and Qatsuu Evis after their Inuit throat singing performance.

On Thursday I attended the opening evening of the Truth and Reconciliation Event in Toronto. Like many of these events, the evening included statements of support and challenge as well as musical and artistic performances. Lt. Governor David Onley pledged his ongoing support for the work of the commission while Chief William Montour of the Six Nations of Grand River called the TRC toothless, pushing for more recognition of ongoing issues facing First Nation communities such as land, health and housing.

As always, the evening focused on some difficult truths, about Canada’s colonial history and about a challenging road ahead. But the event was also a celebration of sorts, a celebration of resilience. The MC for the evening, Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, noted that even in the face of incredible obstacles and hardship, “we have not forgotten how to dance and we have not forgotten how to laugh.”

Two young Inuit throat singers were a great example of this laughter and resilience. The two young women stood on stage, holding each other by the arms, standing face to face. They began the rhythmic humming and deep gutteral sounds of throat singing. An exercise in both competition and collaboration, each song ended in laughter. I am by no means an expert in Inuit throat singing, and so all I will say about their performance is that it was beautiful, and that their laughter was inspiring.

Last week, I participated in an event sponsored by the Institute of Public Knowledge at NYU and the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ). It was an honour to share the presentation stage with Marie Wilson, Commissioner of the Indian Residential School Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Virginie Ladisch, Head of the Children and Transitional Justice Program at the ICTJ. The presentation included a screening of a short, documentary film (introduced by Tamara Cremo) made by several high school students who attended the Halifax national gathering last year. Commissioner Wilson spoke eloquently about the work done thus far by the commission and Virginie Ladisch shared her knowledge about both the opportunities and challenges in engaging youth in processes of transitional justice.

I think a video of the talk may be available shortly so for now, I’d like to focus on a conversation that happened after the talk. The panelists, organizers and budding filmmakers/students went out to dinner after the presentation. The conversation touched on everything from the challenges of motherhood and work/life balance, transitional justice in other international settings, and the importance of creating more awareness about the IRS legacy. We also spoke briefly about Antjie Krog’s work. A journalist and author who covered the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Krog wrote about the work of the commission throughout its mandate and eventually wrote the award-winning book, Country of My Skull. In discussing the lack of national media coverage about the IRS TRC in Canada, Marie Wilson asked, “Where is our Antjie Krog?” Her question made me pause. It’s true. Why hasn’t there been more national coverage about the reconciliation process? Why haven’t journalists and/or media outlets offered sustained media coverage of the IRS TRC? Where is the journalist who has taken up the reconciliation process to portray all its political and personal complexities?

A few years ago, when the commission was still in its early days, I gave a talk at the American Comparative Literature Association Conference at Harvard University. During the Q and A, a member of the audience, a scholar writing about the TRC in Sierra Leone, asked me whether the IRS TRC and the process of reconciliation had galvanized the Canadian public. I answered quickly and with disappointment that it had not. In fact, there are still many Canadians unaware that such a commission even exists. Although there has been some excellent media coverage, it has been sporadic and often appears in local presses. The national newspapers and broadcasters may run a short story on it from time to time, but there hasn’t been any sustained coverage of the reconciliation process. Why is there no weekly or even monthly column that regularly covers the TRC in the Globe and Mail or National Post? Why doesn’t the CBC have a regular radio or TV segment on Canadian reconciliation?

Some people are quick to point out that there are, of course, differences between the South African TRC and the Canadian one. In South Africa, the system of apartheid implicated and effected everyone and it happened in the immediate past. But, I would argue that the same is true in Canada. The Indian Residential Schools and their legacies implicate every Canadian, not just Aboriginal peoples. The last school closed in 1996, suggesting that this history is still fresh and its repercussions are playing out in the present.  More national media coverage is necessary for a greater and deeper awareness of how the reverberations of the IRS system reach out through Canadian society.

I’m looking forward to participating in this event at NYU:

Our Legacy Our Hope: Youth Perspectives on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada

May 10, 2012 6:00pm – 7:30pm, 20 Cooper Square, New York, NYU, Journalism 7th Floor Commons

Jointly convened by the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University and The International Center for Transitional Justice, this evening will feature a mini-documentary screening and panel discussion on the intergenerational effects of the Indian Residential School and youth involvement in transitional justice processes.

“Our Legacy Our Hope,” a mini-documentary filmed, scripted, and edited by Canadian youth, depicts the proceedings of the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission Atlantic National Event from the perspective of intergenerational survivors of the Indian Residential Schools system. This short film will be presented by the student filmmakers and followed by a panel discussion examining the importance, the benefits, and the challenges of active youth participation in transitional justice mechanisms.

Panelists include:

Virginie Ladisch
Head of the Children and Youth Program at the International Center for Transitional Justice

Marie Wilson
Commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (to be confirmed)

Naomi Angel
Ph.D. Student in Media, Culture, and Communication at investigating the ways in which Truth Commissions speak to issues of historical responsibility

Before and After Images of Thomas Moore

It has been a long time since I’ve posted to the blog. Life with baby is busy! My research continues to progress, but the pace has certainly changed. There have been many moments over the last few weeks where I’ve thought, ‘I should post this to my blog,’ but just didn’t get the chance.

A friend and colleague, Eric Large, recently sent me an interesting article about the missing children who never returned from the Indian Residential Schools. Many children died while in the IRS system. Their bodies were often buried at cemeteries near the schools. Some families didn’t know (and still don’t) what happened to their children or their bodies. The article mentions the work of researchers now trying to find out where those bodies are to provide some sort of peace of mind to families. A small fragment in the article stands out to me. A researcher is quoted as studying the movement of students at a particular school, but her work is cut short because the records simply cease to exist after 1916. She pursues the documents “until the records disappear.” In the context of the article, this simply refers to a particular school’s records.  But the words strike me as indicative of a much larger issue. So many of these schools didn’t keep or lost their records. But there is nothing simple about disappearance. Many factors are involved in the disappearing of things, of people, of cultures, and it is an active rather than a passive process. As I continue to look through archives, I am reminded that the gaps found there are not simply absences but active erasures.

Two of the most circulated images from the IRS system are of Thomas Moore. Arranged as before and after images, the photos are an evocative representation of the goals of colonial assimilation. When I began this research, I had hoped to write about Thomas Moore. I quickly found, however, that finding out what happened to young Thomas Moore was more difficult than I had thought it would be. Because the images are some of the most re-printed images from the IRS system, I would have thought that more about his life would have been known. But, I found that this was not the case. One exchange with an archivist in Saskatchewan provided some limited information:

Thank you for your enquiry. Yes, the two photos are probably some of our most popular images. No, we do not have the original photos. They were copied from the Canada Sessional Papers, No.14, Volume XXXI, No. 11 (1897). This Department of Indian Affairs Report was for the year ending at June 30, 1896. The photos would have been taken before that date.

The only information we have on Thomas Moore comes from the student register for the Regina Indian Industrial School, 1891 to 1908 (microfilm R-2.40, see entry No. 22). He was actually admitted to the school on August 26, 1891 when he was 8 years old. He was a full blooded Indian from the Saulteaux tribe. He was from the Muscowpetung Band which is about 35 miles northeast of Regina. His full name was Thomas Moore Kusick. His father was St.(?) Paul Desjarlais (deceased) and his mother’s name was Hanna Moore Kusick. The boy was a Protestant and had previously attended Lakes End School. His state of education upon admission consisted of knowing the alphabet. His height was 3 feet, 11 inches and he weighed 54 1/2 pounds.  There is a note in the admission register that directs one to look for page 20 in the Discharge Register. However, we do not have this document and therefore we do not know when he completed his education.

The height and weight information strikes me as particularly sad. He was just a boy, 3 feet 11 inches and 54 1/2 pounds.

With this email exchange, I had very quickly reached the point where the records (at this particular archive, anyway) disappeared. Of course, information about Thomas Moore may be scattered in several archives (and I have reached out to several). More than likely, the best place to look for more information will be outside the archives, in communities near Regina, or through networks of extended family. I’m going to keep looking, but I don’t have much hope of finding out what happened to Thomas Moore.

If anyone out there has any information, please feel free to reach out!

Images of the different incarnations of the before and after images of Thomas Moore.

The IRS TRC is releasing its interim report today. Above, Elder Barney Williams starts the press conference with an opening prayer.

CFP: Empathy and Memory

February 23, 2012

Conference on Empathy and Memory Studies (23 June 2012, Birkbeck, University of London)
Conference organisers: Silke Arnold-de Simine (ECL, Birkbeck, University of London); Richard Crownshaw (English, Goldsmiths); Susannah Radstone (Arts and Digital Industries, UEL)
Conference venue: Birkbeck, Malet Street, London, WC1E 7HX (room B04)

The concept of empathy has become central to the transdisciplinary field of memory studies with the rise of interest in witnessing and trauma. Trauma studies has raised the question of primary witnessing’s relations with the unrepresentable and the problems this poses for empathy. More recently with the growing attention to mediated memory and its travels a focus has emerged on the possibilities for empathy in ‘postmemory’ (Hirsch), ‘secondary witnessing’ (Apel) and ‘prosthetic memory’ (Landsberg).
This one-day conference will provide a much needed interdisciplinary forum for memory studies to engage explicitly with the question of empathy. To date, empathy has been pitted against sympathy or over-identification with victims of past injustice and violence. On this account, sympathy leads to the appropriation or colonisation of the identities of those remembered by those who remember them, whereas empathy preserves a sense of alterity (Silvermann). Indeed, for LaCapra, empathy may not just be a means of respecting difference but also the way in which those who remember can be ‘unsettled’ and remembrance provoked.
However, in the theory and practice of cultural memory, what do we really mean when we speak of empathy? Rather than simply define empathy as the antithesis of sympathy, how might memory studies move beyond extant definitions of empathy to open up the field of affect, identification, memory and witnessing.
Themes for the symposium will include:
–      Aesthetics, identification and the imagination

–      Gender, empathy and witnessing

–      Specific media and the transmission of empathy

–      The historicity of empathy

–      The politics of empathy

–      Empathy and the transnational/transcultural

The day will be divided into three sessions, including a keynote from Stef Craps (Department of English Literature, Ghent University), plus generous time for discussion and responses from the floor.

Please send abstracts of no more than 300 words to Silke Arnold-de Simine (
Deadline:  29 February 2012

New Beginnings

January 13, 2012

There is snow on the ground in Toronto today. It’s the first proper snowfall of an unusually warm winter. It’s been a over a month since my last blog post and lots has happened. We welcomed a new member, a son, to our family. Born in December, he has quickly become the center of attention. And now that I’m settling into some sort of routine with him, I have a moment (however fleeting) to reflect on some of the ways in which our new addition has already influenced my research.

I attended the last two national gatherings (in Halifax and Inuvik) while pregnant. Listening to the difficult testimonies of children taken from their parents, I had a lot of time to reflect on how heart-wrenching this would be. Faced with imagining something that seemed unimaginable, the strength of those giving their testimonies became even more clear. Whether they were the child taken or the parent left behind, they spoke of the heartache of losing their families.

I’ve written in the past about the challenges of writing about testimony, about how to write about the pain (or strength, anger and resilience) of others while trying to avoid appropriating their voices. I am now also reflecting on finding my own voice as a researcher, a settler, a student, and as a mother in negotiating Canada’s colonial past.

I have wondered whether I should mention the birth of my son on this blog. I have wondered whether I should keep the more personal details of my life out of this public space. But I have realized that this research is constantly shaped by these personal aspects and that keeping them in the margins leads to an incomplete picture of how this research is profoundly personal. I don’t know yet how some of these personal reflections will make it into the dissertation,  but one of the reasons I started the blog was to wonder aloud about the research process and its challenges.

2012 is undoubtedly going to be a year of many changes and many adventures. Wishing you all a happy and productive new year.