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.

The last couple of weeks have been crammed full with interesting events. Recently, I posted about the Memory Studies conference in New York. The event, which started off with a fascinating opening night screening called A Film Unfinished, brought memory scholars from around together to discuss their research. It was the first time I was able to present some of my research on the IRS TRC’s national gathering in Winnipeg, Manitoba last summer, and I think (and hope) it went well.

Still from "Canned Meat". Image from Harbourfront Centre website.

Back in Toronto, I attended two other wonderful events. On Wednesday, March 30th, the Harbourfront Centre hosted Aboriginal Women in the Arts: Using Art to Reclaim Traditional Roles with Terril Calder, Lee Maracle and Cheryl L’hirondelle. Calder’s film, Canned Meat, was a jarring and beautiful film that spoke to themes of isolation, memory, and community. Maracle’s poetry, as always, was moving. Her responses during the Q and A were insightful and inspiring. And L’hirondelle’s songs were heartfelt and beautiful. (One of the songs was written in collaboration with Aboriginal women in prison in Saskatchewan.) My favourite song was “Wishful Heart,” written while walking through Vancouver’s downtown east side.

Image of the exhibit's book cover from the AGO website.

And last but not least was the Art Galley of Ontario’s symposium called Inuit Modern. The symposium, on April 2nd, brought together Inuit artists and curators to discuss the new exhibit at the AGO: Inuit Modern. As one of the moderators noted, it was the first time so many Inuit artists were gathered together in “the south.” (I learned that Toronto counts as part of “the south” when the point of comparison is so far north.) The participants discussed the tensions between concepts like traditional and modern, north and south, and art and authority.

New Book: Other Tongues

December 10, 2010

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of attending the book launch for Other Tongues: Mixed Race Women Speak Out at the Toronto Women’s Bookstore. It was an inspirational evening and I felt so honoured to be a part of the event and this amazing book.

Earlier in the week, I had decided that I wasn’t going to read an excerpt from my short story, “On the Train”. The idea of standing up in front of a room full of strangers to share this story made me too nervous. But as I sat in the audience and heard all these amazing women read their poems and stories, I gathered the courage and decided to read as well. I’m glad I did.

Thank you to the editors, Adebe D.A. and Andrea Thompson, the publishers Inanna Press (York University), and all the contributors who made the collection possible. I’m looking forward to reading the book from cover to cover.

Hello, France.

November 7, 2010

An obligatory shot of the Eiffel Tower

I arrived in France at the beginning of November to begin my 5 week stay as a Memory and Memorialization Fellow at l’École normale supérieure in Cachan (a suburb of Paris). The Fellowship, organized by CNRS (France), New York University (USA), Memorial de Caen (France), and the National September 11 Memorial and Museum (USA), brings together memory scholars and experts to foster dialogue across disciplines.

During my stay, I’m interested in seeing how discourses of public memory circulate in France, particularly in relation to a history of colonialism and the second world war. I’m also interested in discourses of assimilation in France, as they reveal some of the ways in which France imagines itself as a nation and imagines its citizens. Although my main emphasis remains the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I’m curious to see if or how drawing comparisons between the two contexts can lead to some interesting conversations.

In my first week, I’ve managed to dive into my reading list, do a little writing, and  visit two museums of interest: Le musée du quai Branly and Cité Nationale de l’Histoire de l’Immigration. I’m going to post about them soon. But in the meantime, here are a few photos from my trip so far:

Me and the leaves

A quiet morning at l'École normale supérieure campus in Cachan.

NA and JB reunited.

The former Portage la Prairie Indian Residential School, renamed the Rufus Prince building.

A heart sticker near a drain at the former Indian Residential School in Portage la Prairie.

As I’ve mentioned, I spent some time traveling and researching this summer. One stop I have yet to write about is my short visit to Portage la Prairie. Located just an hour or so outside of Winnipeg, I spent a day there after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s first national event. While in Portage la Prairie, I visited a former residential school that is now being used as development and tribal offices for the Long Plain First Nation. The school itself is still in good condition, and it had been chosen to house the Indian Residential School Museum of Canada. Originally slated to open in 2008, the Museum unfortunately lost its funding and the project has been put on hold. Some of the archival documents, artwork and photographs are still housed in the school’s basement.

While visiting the school, I was fortunate to have a tour of the grounds. Barb Esau and Robert Peters walked with me through the school. As we walked, they pointed to where the students had showered, where they were sequestered when punished, and where they lined up to eat….

NOTE: I am currently working on writing a longer piece about visiting the school, so I have truncated the version that originally appeared here.

Thank you to Ruth Roulette, Barb Esau, Robert Peters and Angela Roulette for sharing your time, memories and experiences.

Recently, I’ve been reading about the role that indigenous literature can play in the process of reconciliation in Canada. I’m currently finishing Jo-Ann Episkenew’s Taking Back Our Spirits: Indigenous Literature, Public Policy, and Healing where she explores the work of Aboriginal authors including Basil Johnston, Maria Campbell and Beatrice Culleton Mosionier. But this post will focus on a short story from the collection, Our Story: Aboriginal Voices on Canada’s Past (published in 2005).

Although the book is filled with excellent writing, the narrative that I found most striking was Thomas King’s piece entitled “Coyote and the Enemy Aliens.” Here, King tells a tale of a coyote who becomes involved in rounding up “enemy aliens.” The story is set during the internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II.  As the definition of enemy alien changes in the story, King illustrates the fickle nature of dividing people into categories of “us” and “them.”

I have been curious for some time about how the process of redress for historical injustices in Canada has taken shape. In particular, the demand for an apology and reparation for Japanese Canadians interned during the second world war is one that I have followed closely. And I have often wondered how to relate these two experiences (of Japanese Canadians and Aboriginal peoples) to each other without erasing the important differences. Thomas King’s work in his short story is impressive in this regard. He uses the familiar character of the trickster coyote to tie the two historical narratives together. In his foreword to the story, he explains his intentions:

“I know the story of the Japanese internment in Canada. I know it as most Canadians know it.

In pieces.

From a distance.

But whenever I hear the story, I think about Indians, for the treatment the Canadian government afforded Japanese people during the Second World War is strikingly similar to the treatment that the Canadian government has always afforded Native people, and whenever I hear either of these stories, a strange thing happens.

I think of the other.

I’m not suggesting that Native people have suffered the way the Japanese suffered or that the Japanese suffered the way Native people have. I’m simply suggesting that hatred and greed produce much the same sort of results, no matter who we practice on” (158).

King’s story captured my imagination. Not only because it is a well-told tale, but because it opens up a way of creating a particular type of Canadian narrative, one that incorporates many voices while maintaining ties to an indigenous mode of story-telling. It also works to close a gap between seemingly disparate histories, drawing attention to similarities rather than differences. I recommend the book in general, and this story in particular.

Thursday, February 4th, 2010 – 6pm – 20 Cooper Square, 5th Floor, New York, NY