Intersections

October 29, 2012

Q. How do three recent news stories about alcoholism, a housing crisis and a recent canonization intersect?

A. Through the discourse of reconciliation

When I started to become interested in the reconciliation process in Canada, I set up google alerts  with the tag words “Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission” and “Indian Residential School.” I generally receive a few alerts a week about the commission and the IRS system. Often, they are articles that mention a TRC event taking place somewhere, or the announcement of an upcoming talk or event. Sometimes, it is an article about new curriculum, an approaching deadline, or about reconciliation processes happening elsewhere around the world. For the most part, I use the alerts to try to understand the IRS TRC’s media presence and how influential the discourse of reconciliation is (or isn’t) becoming.

This week, I got three alerts, and together I thought they represented an interesting intersection of issues:

Commisioner LIttlechild in Rome for the canonization of the first Aboriginal saint. Photo: Wab Kinew in the Winnipeg Free Press.

1. A story about the first Aboriginal canonization. The title of the article is “It’s the same great sprit.” The subheading is “Canonization of Kateri is a big step toward true reconciliation, but the embrace could go further.”

2. An article about the one year anniversary of Attawapiskat’s declaration of a state of emergency (and the release of Alanis Obamsawin’s documentary about it).

3.  A news release about Romeo Saganash’s public struggle with alcoholism. Saganash noted his experience in the Indian Residential School system as one of the factors that lead to a recent incident on an Air Canada flight.

The three articles landed in my email inbox within days of each other and cover a broad range of issues that touch upon the process of reconciliation: negotiating religious relationships, lack of funding and support for indigenous communities, and the after-effects of the IRS system in the form of alcohol abuse.  In each case, the Indian Residential School system is raised in a different context, drawing attention to the many ways it touches indigenous (and non-indigenous) individuals and communities.

The article, written by Wab Kinew, about Kateri’s canonization is the one I find most intriguing. Here’s an excerpt, but I definitely recommend giving the full piece a read:

The canonization ceremony (Kateri is one of seven new saints) capped off a series of celebrations that brought indigenous North Americans into the Catholic Church perhaps more completely than ever before. The rite itself featured a prayer in the Mohawk language. The night before, at a special vigil for Saint Kateri, the cardinals, bishops and worshippers present smudged with sage and sweetgrass — this in the San Giovanni In Laterano Basilica, the “mother of all churches.”

Yet even as indigenous North Americans are celebrated by the church, there are signs the embrace could go further. During his remarks, the Pope noted that although Saint Kateri “worked, faithful to the traditions of her people,” she “renounc[ed] their religious convictions.”

The church views indigenous cultures as merely a host for the Catholic religion. This approach is called “acculturation” by Catholic missionaries. As one priest explains in the new film In Her Footsteps: The Story of Kateri Tekakwitha, acculturation is the process where the local culture becomes like a “prism” through which the “truth” of the gospel is revealed.

Talking to many of the indigenous people at the canonization ceremony, many of them residential school survivors, I don’t think this is what they have in mind. They speak of embracing Catholicism, but also of practising their traditional spirituality. It is precisely this pluralistic approach that made the inclusion of smudging and indigenous language so important to them. It is that same reason that motivated so many of them to wear their traditional clothing to Vatican City.

As Chief Littlechild says: “We can have both spiritual beliefs, although it’s the same great spirit and the same Creator.”

There was much talk from church officials this week about how Kateri’s sainthood opens the doors for new forms of evangelism. Pope Benedict himself called for a “renewal of faith in the First Nations.” This misses an opportunity.

The truth about reconciliation is this: It is not a second chance at assimilation. It should not be a kinder, gentler evangelism, free from the horrors of the residential school era. Rather, true reconciliation is a second chance at building a mutually respectful relationship.

Text or Testimony?

November 14, 2011

Iris Nicolas giving her testimony at the Commissioner's Sharing Panel on Thursday, October 27th, 2011.


I’ve had a lot to think about since the Halifax national gathering. This is the third event I’ve attended and the mix of questions, emotions, and concerns that arise from them do not get less complicated as time moves forward.

At the moment, I am still struggling with some of the same issues I found at the other events in Winnipeg and Inuvik. In part this has to do with my own relation to the events. As a graduate student who is conducting research while attending these events, the ethical considerations of listening to testimony and observing the dynamics at the events are a constant challenge. Although most people attending these public events believe that there should be more awareness about what happened at the Indian Residential Schools, the ways in which this awareness should be raised is still controversial.

In particular, I am currently wondering how to write ethically about testimony. How can I write about the words of another without appropriating them for my own academic purposes? As I transcribe some of the recorded testimony, I wonder how these words on my computer screen can possibly encapsulate the emotions, thoughts, and spirit of the person sharing their experiences? When people are talking about abuse or extreme hardship, or about their triumphs over overwhelming difficulty, how is it possible to take these stories, put them on paper and then analyze them in relation to a theoretical framework that often shapes them into something altogether different? At the moment, I am letting these questions and concerns guide my writing.

A few quotes that I’m thinking with and through at the moment:

Lee Maracle (Sto:lo) in “Ka-Nata” in Bent Box:

“Academic theories/ are but the leaky summations/of human stories” (107).

Shoshana Felman in Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History.

“A life-testimony is not simply a testimony to a private life, but a point of conflation between text and life, a textual testimony which can penetrate us like an actual life” (2).

(Thanks to the Aesthetics of Reconciliation in Canada research group for the great discussion about the difficulties I mention above.)

UPDATE: Some of the presentations are available online. Click here to watch.

For those people (like me) who couldn’t make it to the “Sharing Truth – Creating a National Research Centre on Residential Schools” Forum in Vancouver, you can watch the proceedings online here.

Catherine Kennedy at the Sharing Truth event in Vancouver

At the moment, Catherine Kennedy, the Executive Director of the South Africa History Archives is discussing some of the challenges regarding the compilation, interpretation and accessibility of the TRC archives in South Africa. Tom Adami, Chief of the Archives and Records Management United Nations Mission in Sudan is scheduled to speak next.

The program for the rest of Day One of the Forum is available here.

An image from my last trip to Berlin

An interesting article appears in the New York Times today about a contest of memory over the date, November 9 in Germany. The date carries double-meaning as the date of the “Kristallnacht,” as well as the day the Berlin wall was breached.

From the article:

Germans take the business of remembering very seriously, and so Nov. 9 has always presented a bit of a challenge — how to celebrate the joy of the wall’s coming down while at the same time commemorating the night of terror known as Kristallnacht, or the night of broken glass….

Years ago, Germany decided to sidestep the awkward historical coincidence by emphasizing Oct. 3, 1990, as the day of unification, and playing down Nov. 9, 1989. But that effort seems to have lost steam. “Memory is about self-interest,” said Maxim Biller, a prominent writer and commentator who is Jewish. “The Germans wanted to reconcile with history, to have a better corporate identity for society, in a way, yes.”

Read the full article here.

The title of the front-page Toronto Star article today, “No Truth, No Reconciliation” refers explicitly to those former students who have passed on since the creation of the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2006. For those students, the article states, there can be no truth, and no reconciliation. The article also implies that the quest for truth and reconciliation may be stalled in general, painting a picture of a commission facing extreme difficulties: “The saga of truth and reconciliation is fraught with scandal, power struggles, firings, lost friendships and soul-destroying delays,” writes author Linda Diebel.

I agree that the commission has faced struggles, and also that time is of the essence for aging survivors. I also believe, however, that the road to reconciliation is always fraught with challenges. Having attended the first national event in June in Winnipeg, I witnessed the complicated journey towards reconciliation. The event was filled with contradictions and conflicting voices.  And having lived in South Africa almost a decade after the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established (I was there from 2004-2005), I know that these challenges are not easily resolved. Indeed, people still debate the strengths and weaknesses of the South African TRC in dealing with the injustices of apartheid.

Linda Diebel’s article discusses the challenges of the commission, including the heavy hand of government involvement, the setbacks caused by resignations and staff shuffles, and budget concerns. It’s important that we are made aware of these challenges, and that dialogue about the commission occurs in the public sphere. I think too that it is important to remember that reconciliation must occur both through the commission’s work and outside of it. Otherwise, Canadians (both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal) won’t feel engaged or implicated by the reconciliation process.

To read more from Linda Diebel’s article, click here.

Stephen Harper's larger-than-life apology at the Winnipeg Art Gallery

It’s been one month since the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission held its first national gathering, and I feel as though I am still processing the event. Over the course of four days, I heard stories of both devastation and strength, of both anger and hope.

Several moments stand out in my memory:

Patrick Etherington Sr., his son Patrick Etherington Jr., Frances Whiskeychan, Christopher Paulmartin and Jorge Hookimaw’llillerre all walked for 31 days to reach the event. Beginning in Cochrane, Ontario, they walked to promote awareness for the reconciliation process. When they arrived at the national gathering in Winnipeg, Patrick Jr. spoke of the lines of communication opened between his father and himself during the walk.

In many ways, they did what I believe the commission hopes people will do: take the process of reconciliation beyond the confines of the commission, and make it personally meaningful. Because, for the most part, the IRS TRC can only be part of this process.

We also heard from those who worked at the schools. In the sharing circle held on the first day, I heard the experiences of a pilot who had taken children from up north to bring them to schools. He told of separating one young girl in particular who was crying because he had just taken her from her Inuit family. He had thought he was doing what was right. A teacher told of her experiences and the difficult conditions at the Indian Residential School where she taught. She read the names of her students in their honor.

One issue that I continue to wonder about since (and during) the event is the place of religion during this process. The churches played an instrumental role in running the Indian Residential School system, and they will play an important role in reconciliation. I noticed some visible discomfort from some people when church representatives addressed the crowds. At the same time, I also heard former students express their connections to Christian faiths. Before the event, I read a short article in the Globe and Mail where Peter Yellowquill, a survivor of the schools said: “The churches committed spiritual genocide. But I am still a Christian man. It’s complicated.”

At the event, the role that religious leaders played was indeed complicated. At times, they offered apologies, at others, I heard denials. At the opening ceremony, the crowd heard native blessings and ceremonies. At the end of his closing remarks during that first ceremony on that first day, I was surprised to hear the Chair of the Commission, Justice Sinclair, offer the Lords Prayer.

After the event, I visited the the Winnipeg Art Gallery. In the foyer of the gallery, they had erected two large art pieces that contained portions of the official apologies given by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd for the histories involving the taking of Aboriginal children. In some ways, the larger-than-life signs conveyed a sense of power. At the same time, they drew attention to the fact that apologies were simply words. Important words, yes, but they remain meaningless without action.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's official apology in 2008

The news of Dr. John Milloy’s resignation as Research Director of the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) comes just weeks after the commission completed its first national gathering in Winnipeg.  According to a statement issued by the TRC, Dr. Milloy is still committed to the work of the commission and will now assume the role of Special Advisor on Research to the Commissioners. Paulette Regan is stepping in as Interim Director. One reason given for his resignation was the heavy load of administrative work involved in the position.

In another staff shuffle, Tom McMahon, who was announced last year as the TRC’s Executive Director is being replaced by Kim Murray, a lawyer, professor and community leader from the Kahnesetake First Nation of Oka. Mr. McMahon will now take the position of General Council for the Commission.

Given the importance placed on the research component of the TRC’s mandate, Dr. Milloy’s strong research background, and the history of  resignations at the commission, Dr. Milloy’s resignation is an unfortunate setback. And although he has said that the research tasks have been assigned to others in an effort to avoid delays, it is difficult  to imagine that his resignation has not created any. But perhaps most importantly, if the commission is trying to foster trust in communities and individuals, staff shuffles and resignations do not help their cause.

To read more, see the Globe and Mail article here.