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.

University of Manitoba President, David Barnard, addresses the audience at the Halifax National Gathering

In my last post, I wrote briefly about being a researcher attending the national gatherings and some of the difficulties in negotiating the ethics of writing about testimony. In navigating the spaces between public (the national gatherings) and private (personal experiences of the schools), I have come to wonder about the role of the University in the reconciliation process.

At the Halifax national gathering, the President of the University of Manitoba, David Barnard, addressed the crowd. With a voice that at times shook with emotion, he offered an apology to the residential school survivors. He spoke of how the University of Manitoba should have and could have done more to challenge the systematic oppression of Aboriginal peoples through the Indian Residential School system. U of M trained teachers who then went to work at the schools, he explained. As an institute of higher education, he questioned why people did not recognize the Indian Residential Schools for what they were: one manifestation of an oppressive and violent system of forced assimilation.

“Our institution failed to recognize or challenge the forced assimilation of aboriginal peoples and the subsequent loss of their language, culture and traditions. That was a grave mistake. It is our responsibility. We are sorry.”

Barnard’s apology acts as a reminder that the responsibilities for the IRS system do not lie solely with the groups named in the settlement agreement (the Churches and the State). Rather, the responsibility for the system reverberates throughout Canadian society. I wonder, though, if other sectors of Canadian society (both public and private) will follow suit. And I wonder whether public apologies about things that happened in the past can truly address the injustices of the present.

(Also, if you haven’t seen the great blog post about the Attawapiskat housing crisis and reactions to it, click here.)

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.

To watch the live webcast of Public Education Initiative, presented by the Indian Residential School Survivors Society, connect to the IRSSS site and click on the webcast link. The event is scheduled to run from 8:30am – 4:30pm PST and is hosted by Squamish Nation at the Chief Joe Mathias Centre in North Vancouver.

The audience listens to Grand Chief Stewart Phillip the Public Education Initiative.

Grand Chief Edward John addresses the audience via video link

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.

Check out the Politics and Poetics of Refugees, taking place from September 23-25, 2010 at NYU. For more information, click 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.