Day One in Halifax

October 27, 2011

It’s the end of the first day of the TRC’s third national gathering in Halifax. The day began with the lighting of the sacred fire, which took place on the grounds of Province House. The ashes from the sacred fire at the first gathering in Winnipeg were transferred to the sacred fire in Inuvik, and have now been brought to Halifax. According to the TRC:

The Lighting of the Sacred Fire happens before we begin each Event to ensure that it is the spirits and the teachings that guide us and protect us while the Commission does its work. The transferring of the ashes has become a symbol of national unity as it becomes lit from coast to coast to coast.

The ceremony took place in front of a statue of Joseph Howe (1804-1873), a Nova Scotian politician. Under his outstretched arm, the commission, elders, and participants watched as the sacred fire was lit. (Photos of sacred ceremonies are forbidden. The image above was taken before the ceremony began.) Shortly afterwards, the Truth and Reconciliation Walkers entered the square. The group of five walked for 2,200 kilometres from Cochrane, Ontario to attend the event in Halifax: Patrick Etherington Jr.Robert HunterJames KiokeSamuel KooseesFrances R. Whiskeychan. As they walked from community to community, they raised awareness about the Indian Residential School legacy and the truth commission’s work. I had the honour of hearing Patrick Etherington Jr. speak in Winnipeg about their journey to the first national gathering. They are a truly inspiring group. For more on their journey, click here, or here.

Hello Halifax

October 25, 2011

Occupy Halifax

The TRC is gearing up for the third national gathering in Halifax. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’m still working through the complicated dynamics of the first two events. It will be interesting to see how the Atlantic National Gathering differs. Already, one interesting issue is the use of space outside the Convention Centre being used for the TRC events. Originally identified as a potential space for the TRC’s sacred fire, the space has been claimed by the Occupy Halifax movement. Although it appears that an alternative space has been identified for the sacred fire, the negotiation of public space and differing political/cultural objectives provides an interesting starting point for the event. More from the event to come soon.

Click here for information on the schedule.

UPDATE: The Sacred Fire will be located at Province House, at the corner of Hollis and Prince St.

Incomplete Archives

September 27, 2011

Balloons for Canada Day and birthday celebrations in Inuvik.

I am still sifting through the notes I took in Inuvik. I spent the last few days listening to recordings and watching footage on the TRC’s website. Unfortunately, many of my own recordings are of poor quality. During the giving of testimony, I didn’t want to be intrusive with my audio recording device. Even though it’s small, I felt that it marked me as an outsider, a researcher there to observe as opposed to participate. So, for the most part, I pressed record and left it on my lap. Because the room would get cold or warm or stuffy, the sound of doors opening and closing, and the periodic whirring of a fan muffle some parts of the testimony. But even when deciphering exact words is difficult, I can hear the emotion and strength of the Survivors come through.

The recordings are an incomplete archive of what I heard and saw in Inuvik. But I suppose that all archives are incomplete. Sometimes it is in filling in the absences of these archives where the most productive work is done. In the meantime, it reminds me of the courage of those who participated in the Inuvik event.

The IRS TRC’s next national event will be held in Halifax from October 26 – 29, 2011. More information is available here.

Inuvik in Images

July 1, 2011

Petah Inukpuk holds up an image of his grandfather as he gives his testimony to the commission.

Like the IRS TRC’s national gathering in Winnipeg last summer, the Inuvik event is a complicated negotiation between personal, familial and national reconciliation. And like the Winnipeg event, I have a feeling it will be some time before I process and begin to understand these negotiations.

The days are long and filled with emotion. The morning and afternoon sessions (generally focusing on the gathering of testimony and expressions of reconciliation) often contain stories of extreme hardship and abuse, as well as those of resilience and survival. The evenings are then filled with music and cultural expressions; people dance and sing, ask questions, continue to share their stories and create connections.

Tomorrow (Canada Day) is the last day of the event. I’m sure I will continue to think about what I’ve seen here for a long time to come. I hope to post more about the event, but in the meantime, here are a few images from the last few days.

At the welcome ceremony.

The Commission and dignitaries face the crowd during the traditional blessings.

Dancing to "Forty Days" after a long first day.

The "igloo church" not far from the event site.

It begins with drums

June 29, 2011

Watching the stage at the welcome event.

On the night before the IRS TRC’s second national gathering, the small northern town of Inuvik was already welcoming hundreds of people into their community. On the trip up, the majority of the plane was filled with people attending the event. Some discussed the possibility of giving their testimony, others talked about reuniting with other former students, many that they hadn’t seen in decades. Some were calling the IRS TRC event “the reunion.”

In the early evening, the commissioners, representatives of the state and the churches involved in running the Indian Residential School system addressed the crowd in Jim Koe Park. After the opening remarks, and a recognition of the long days of work ahead, the evening’s attention turned to food and entertainment.

Dancers and drummers after the welcome ceremony (June 27)

After my trip to Vancouver, I traveled to my next stop: St. Paul, Alberta. After flying into Edmonton, I drove 3 hours to St. Paul. The landscape was beautiful. Not quite the flat lands of the prairies I had been expecting, but low hills, fields of crops, and bales of hay. The grass was yellowed in spots, creating patterns that spoke to the wild weather sometimes experienced in these parts.

A back view of the school

I traveled to St. Paul in order to attend the annual Blue Quills Cultural Camp. I had read about the Blue Quills First Nations College and their story of taking back their school (in the 1970s) and wanted to learn more about it. At the time, the Minister of Indian Affairs was Jean Chretien, who predicted that the school under Aboriginal control would only last six months. Forty years later, the school is still going strong. They offer programs in Business Application & Data Management/ Office Readiness, Cree Language, Early Childhood Education, and Information Technology among others.

The school is governed by seven local First Nations communities: Beaver Lake, Cold Lake, Frog Lake, Whitefish Lake, Heart Lake, Kehewin, and Saddle Lake, representing approximately 17,500 people.

Coinciding with the national day of reconciliation on May 25th, the Cultural Camp was a week long event held at the school. The schedule was filled with arts and crafts (rattle making, decorative drums, hide scraping etc.), sharing circles, wagon rides, sweat lodges, and traditional ceremonies (horse dance ceremony and chicken dance ceremony). These events helped to create a real sense of place and a strong sense of community.

Eric Large looking up at his former school

During my visit, former student Eric Large took me on a tour of the school. He pointed out the old dormitories where he slept, the supply closet for the nurse, old classrooms. We walked through what was once the girls dormitory. “I don’t know much about this part of the building,” he said. “We were never allowed here. They always kept us apart. We didn’t take classes together, eat together or play together. Even brothers and sisters were separated.”

As we walked through the third floor of the four storey building, he pointed to one door, now locked. “This is where the traveling dentist worked from. I gave a tour of this building before and the smell of the dental fluoride came flooding back to me. I asked the others on the tour if they could smell it. It was so strong. I guess that’s my body remembering.”

The school means different things to different people. For some it is filled with difficult memories, others recall the struggle to reclaim the space, and for current students it is a place of learning and empowerment. Thank you to Eric Large, Bernadine Houle-Steinhauer, Harvey Young Chief, Charles Wood and many of the other participants for sharing your knowledge and creating such a positive space.

Coqualeetza

June 14, 2011

After I visited St. Mary’s, I drove the short distance towards Coqualeetza. Soon after arriving, it became very clear that my short trip out west would only be long enough to scratch the surface of Coqualeetza’s history. Thankfully, Patricia Raymond-Adair and Karen Bonneau at the Coqualeetza Cultural Education Centre answered my questions and kindly photocopied a mass of documents (including old pamphlets and media coverage) that I’ve brought home with me to go through.

When I began this research, I was under the impression that many of the former Indian Residential Schools no longer existed. I had heard stories of schools that had been demolished, neglected and decayed, and had heard several times about schools lost to (both intentional and unintentional) fires.  As I continued the research, however, I found that several of the schools have been taken back by communities. And I wanted to hear more about the strength and determination involved in doing so.

As I’ve mentioned previously, the former Portage la Prairie school is now being used as tribal and administrative offices. Some former students work in the same building where they went to school. The Coqualeetza school in Chilliwack also has an interesting history.

The Coqualeetza site has been used over the last centry as a Methodist Indian Residential School, a tuberculosis hospital and army barracks. In the 1970s, the Sto:lo First Nations occupied the former school to reclaim it as their own. A report in the Chilliwack Progress (May 5, 1976) describes the occupation:

Acting under orders, with the sound of tribal drums ringing in their ears, members of the Canadian Armed Forced heaved against the front door to the former nurses residence at Coqualeetza. By 7:45pm Monday 23 people were carried or led away from the scene that erupted only a short time before when members of the Stalo Indian band decided to stand ground and disobey military and RCMP orders to vacate the Coqualeetza facility.

The Coqualeetza Cultural Education website notes that the occupation was an attempt to “publicize the lack of action on achieving reserve status and ownership of the Coqualeetza Property.” The occupation certainly brought more attention to the Sto:lo First Nation’s claims to the land. The buildings, now being used as the headquarters for Sto:lo Nation and other cultural, health and educational initiatives, still show traces of the past. But they also reveal a promising future.

My next post will be about Blue Quills in St. Paul, Alberta. And shortly afterwards I’ll be heading up north to Yellowknife and then Inuvik. I hope to be posting images and reflections as the trip unfolds.

Thanks to Patricia and Karen for their help at Coqualeetza!