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.

I’m happy to report that an article I’ve written about reconciliation in Canada has recently been published in Culture, Theory, and Critique (Taylor and Francis/Routledge). It is entitled “Before Truth: The Labors of Testimony and the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission” and appears in a special issue focusing on the “Crossroads of Memory.

Here’s the abstract:

“Truth commissions are based on the premise that dialogue about past crimes, violence, and abuse can alleviate the suffering of victims and ease the relationship between oppressed and oppressor. They also assume a certain relationship between history and memory, presuming a duty to remember and the need for a re-articulation of history through memory. This paper examines the context and dynamics of the Indian Residential School Truth and Reconciliation Commission (IRS TRC) established in Canada in 2008. By exploring the uses of testimony at the IRS TRC’s first national gathering, the essay focuses on the interplay between constructs of nationhood and forms of public intimacy. In considering both the public testimony given at the gathering and the larger, nascent narratives formed there, the essay demonstrates how survivors participating in the IRS TRC negotiate and challenge colonial relations of power while also strengthening and repairing intimate, familial relations.”

The article is largely based on field research I conducted in Winnipeg in 2010 at the Indian Residential School Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s first national gathering. I’d be happy hear feedback on the article!

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.

Before and After Images of Thomas Moore

It has been a long time since I’ve posted to the blog. Life with baby is busy! My research continues to progress, but the pace has certainly changed. There have been many moments over the last few weeks where I’ve thought, ‘I should post this to my blog,’ but just didn’t get the chance.

A friend and colleague, Eric Large, recently sent me an interesting article about the missing children who never returned from the Indian Residential Schools. Many children died while in the IRS system. Their bodies were often buried at cemeteries near the schools. Some families didn’t know (and still don’t) what happened to their children or their bodies. The article mentions the work of researchers now trying to find out where those bodies are to provide some sort of peace of mind to families. A small fragment in the article stands out to me. A researcher is quoted as studying the movement of students at a particular school, but her work is cut short because the records simply cease to exist after 1916. She pursues the documents “until the records disappear.” In the context of the article, this simply refers to a particular school’s records.  But the words strike me as indicative of a much larger issue. So many of these schools didn’t keep or lost their records. But there is nothing simple about disappearance. Many factors are involved in the disappearing of things, of people, of cultures, and it is an active rather than a passive process. As I continue to look through archives, I am reminded that the gaps found there are not simply absences but active erasures.

Two of the most circulated images from the IRS system are of Thomas Moore. Arranged as before and after images, the photos are an evocative representation of the goals of colonial assimilation. When I began this research, I had hoped to write about Thomas Moore. I quickly found, however, that finding out what happened to young Thomas Moore was more difficult than I had thought it would be. Because the images are some of the most re-printed images from the IRS system, I would have thought that more about his life would have been known. But, I found that this was not the case. One exchange with an archivist in Saskatchewan provided some limited information:

Thank you for your enquiry. Yes, the two photos are probably some of our most popular images. No, we do not have the original photos. They were copied from the Canada Sessional Papers, No.14, Volume XXXI, No. 11 (1897). This Department of Indian Affairs Report was for the year ending at June 30, 1896. The photos would have been taken before that date.

The only information we have on Thomas Moore comes from the student register for the Regina Indian Industrial School, 1891 to 1908 (microfilm R-2.40, see entry No. 22). He was actually admitted to the school on August 26, 1891 when he was 8 years old. He was a full blooded Indian from the Saulteaux tribe. He was from the Muscowpetung Band which is about 35 miles northeast of Regina. His full name was Thomas Moore Kusick. His father was St.(?) Paul Desjarlais (deceased) and his mother’s name was Hanna Moore Kusick. The boy was a Protestant and had previously attended Lakes End School. His state of education upon admission consisted of knowing the alphabet. His height was 3 feet, 11 inches and he weighed 54 1/2 pounds.  There is a note in the admission register that directs one to look for page 20 in the Discharge Register. However, we do not have this document and therefore we do not know when he completed his education.

The height and weight information strikes me as particularly sad. He was just a boy, 3 feet 11 inches and 54 1/2 pounds.

With this email exchange, I had very quickly reached the point where the records (at this particular archive, anyway) disappeared. Of course, information about Thomas Moore may be scattered in several archives (and I have reached out to several). More than likely, the best place to look for more information will be outside the archives, in communities near Regina, or through networks of extended family. I’m going to keep looking, but I don’t have much hope of finding out what happened to Thomas Moore.

If anyone out there has any information, please feel free to reach out!

Images of the different incarnations of the before and after images of Thomas Moore.

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.

e-misférica: After Truth

February 22, 2011

A special edition of e-misférica, focusing on truth commissions, has just been published. The articles and reviews cover a diverse range of issues related to truth commissions around the world. I have two short pieces on the IRS TRC in this issue: Contexualizing Truth: Recent Contributions to Discourses of Reconciliation in Canada, and The Nation Gathers. Looking forward to reading more of this special edition.

Louder than Words

January 24, 2011

There is an article in the New York Times today about Zimbabwean artist, Owen Maseko, whose recent exhibit at the National Gallery has been censored. Maseko’s work focuses on the Gukuranhundi, a massacre of thousands of Ndebele people that occurred between 1983 – 1987 in Zimbabwe. The exhibit remains standing but access has been barred. Instead, patrons can catch glimpses of the work from a balcony above. The windows of the gallery have been covered with newspapers.

The windows of the National Gallery, covered in newspaper. Source: NY Times

The New York Times article touches on the troubled past (and present) of Zimbabwe under President Mugabe’s rule, and discusses the fear of a public who cannot criticize its rulers or play a hand in shaping their country’s future. It also highlights the complicated relationship between art, politics and reconciliation. The article notes that Owen Maseko “created the Gukurahundi exhibit to contribute to reconciliation.” I wonder what reconciliation means in this context, especially given that Mugabe is still in power.

As my research on the Indian Residential School Truth and Reconciliation Commission (IRS TRC) moves forward, the role of artwork in the negotiation of a troubled past and particularly within the context of reconciliation continues to arise as an area of interest. The IRS TRC has put out a call for artwork, recognizing that images/artwork/film etc. can play a powerful role in processes of reconciliation. It is the first TRC that has prioritized artist engagements with the past in this way.

I recently came across this image on one of my favorite blogs, No Caption Needed. The blog post is entitled “Seeing the Past in the Present,” and showcases the work of artist Sergey Larenkov. Larenkov uses archival images of Europe during World War II and current photographs to make the past legible in the present.  Because I find these images so striking, and because sometimes images do speak louder than words, I end this post with one of Larenkov’s images.

By Sergey Larenkov. Source: No Caption Needed