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.

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.

On Blogging as Process

March 11, 2011

Why a research blog?

Here are some of the reasons that I am a fan of blogging:

1. Forget the big words:

There is a particular style of academic writing. Citations are required, specialized terminology is often necessary, and styles of argumentation and critique often, although certainly not always, close off academic writing from a larger audience. My hope is that this blog allows me to participate in a wider discourse.

2. Blogging as process:

Blogging is also about documenting the academic experience as a process. Often, the end result of one’s work is a research article or two, academic presentations, or hopefully, a book. But there is so much more involved in the academic experience. I wanted to document some of the day-to-dayness (or week-to-weekness) of the process.

3. Track this!

Blogging has helped me to keep track of relevant articles and discourses currently happening in relation to the IRS TRC. It has also helped me tie in other more tangentially related issues that, although interesting, will likely not make it into my dissertation or longer pieces of writing. Still, they are relevant and blogging gives me a small space to share those thoughts.

4. The joys of writing in short form:

I am a slow writer. So when faced with a large project like a dissertation, giving myself the task of writing a short blog post often helps me get in gear to write longer pieces.

5. Sometimes people post comments:

This makes me happy. It reminds me that people are out there who agree or disagree with me, who want to know more, or just want to share a word of support.

6. Reconciliation requires many voices:

Not only do I want to do research on reconciliation, I want to be a part of it. My hope is that by sharing resources and reflections, I can contribute as a witness and participant in this process.

Thanks for stopping by to read this.

A short piece on Canada’s colonial history, and Prime Minister Harper’s denial of it, is available at The Mark.

Alana Lajoie O’Malley writes:

“At the G20 Summit last September, our prime minister boasted that we “have no history of colonialism.” That the leader of our country can stand in front of dignitaries from around the world and speak these words is a testament to just how far we have to go in really understanding our national history.”

Read the full piece here.

Photo by axiepics available under a Creative Commons License

Berlin! (Part 1)

November 2, 2009

naomi-berlinI recently returned from Berlin where I was participating in the Eleventh Berlin Roundtables on Transnationality. The event, generously supported by the Irmgard Coninx Foundation, was amazing. The Foundation sponsored about 50 young scholars from around the world to participate in discussions centered around three themes: Memorials and Museums, Transitional Justice and Political Discourse. I presented my research on the IRS TRC in Canada and had the pleasure of hearing others present their work related to issues from Ghana, Cambodia, Peru, Japan, Israel, Yemin, and Cypress among others.

The Foundation also arranged for three guest lecturers:

Karl Schlögel (Professor of Eastern European History, European University Viadrina Frankfurt/Oder): “Divided Horizons, Divided Memories: The Year 1989 and Europe”

Albie Sachs (Judge on the Constitutional Court of South Africa): “From Prison to Constitutional Court: The Changing Face of Justice in South Africa”

Daniel Libeskind (Architect, New York): “Counterpoint: The Architecture of Memory”

The lectures were great. Albie Sachs’ talk was particularly inspiring. Sachs was a freedom fighter in South Africa and during his exile in Mozambique, he survived a car bomb attack. He lost his right arm and partial vision in his eyes, but, as he said in his talk, retained his sense of humour and his will to fight. After the fall of apartheid, he returned to South Africa where President Mandela appointed him a judge on the newly formed constitutional court. After his talk, I had the opportunity to speak with him briefly – a truly generous and special man.

The Foundation has recently announced its next Call for Papers. The theme is Cultural Pluralism Revisited: Religious and Linguistic Freedoms. I encourage everyone to apply!

Next on my list: Washington, DC. I head there on Friday for the annual American Studies Association (ASA) Conference. My last conference of the year!

Beautiful Bogotá: Part I

September 15, 2009


Plaza de Bolívar, Bogotá

This August I had the pleasure of attending the Encuentro, a conference organized by the Hemispheric Institute at NYU, in Bogotá, Colombia. It was an amazing ten days filled with performances, roundtables and work shops.  I participated in a work group led by Peter Kulchyski and Edwin E. Corbin Gutiérrez where I presented my research on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada. The other presenters were artists, activists and academics who are working in communities around the world on issues ranging from the right to education, social justice, the re-appropriation of public spaces, and art as activism. It was amazing and inspiring.

Some of the highlights from the conference include Andreas Huyssen’s keynote address on “Natural Rights, Civil Rights and the Politics of Memory,” Mary Louise Pratt’s keynote entitled “Language Ecology, Language Politics: Towards a Geolinguistic Imagination,” and the Roundtable addressing “The Struggles Over Citizenship.”

There was also plenty of controversy. Performer Tania Bruguera, for example, incorporated cocaine into her performance, inviting audience members to partake in the drug. In a roundtable discussion a few days later she tried to explain her motivation behind the performance, linking this performance to a series she was doing in Cuba and a planned performance in Palestine. For the most part, the audience seemed offended by her work, charging her with being irresponsible and self-indulgent.

I stumbled upon this powerful interview with Andrew Windyboy recently. It highlights that the experiences of Aboriginal people with the Indian Residential Schools is by no means confined to Canada.