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.

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.

New Beginnings

January 13, 2012

There is snow on the ground in Toronto today. It’s the first proper snowfall of an unusually warm winter. It’s been a over a month since my last blog post and lots has happened. We welcomed a new member, a son, to our family. Born in December, he has quickly become the center of attention. And now that I’m settling into some sort of routine with him, I have a moment (however fleeting) to reflect on some of the ways in which our new addition has already influenced my research.

I attended the last two national gatherings (in Halifax and Inuvik) while pregnant. Listening to the difficult testimonies of children taken from their parents, I had a lot of time to reflect on how heart-wrenching this would be. Faced with imagining something that seemed unimaginable, the strength of those giving their testimonies became even more clear. Whether they were the child taken or the parent left behind, they spoke of the heartache of losing their families.

I’ve written in the past about the challenges of writing about testimony, about how to write about the pain (or strength, anger and resilience) of others while trying to avoid appropriating their voices. I am now also reflecting on finding my own voice as a researcher, a settler, a student, and as a mother in negotiating Canada’s colonial past.

I have wondered whether I should mention the birth of my son on this blog. I have wondered whether I should keep the more personal details of my life out of this public space. But I have realized that this research is constantly shaped by these personal aspects and that keeping them in the margins leads to an incomplete picture of how this research is profoundly personal. I don’t know yet how some of these personal reflections will make it into the dissertation,  but one of the reasons I started the blog was to wonder aloud about the research process and its challenges.

2012 is undoubtedly going to be a year of many changes and many adventures. Wishing you all a happy and productive new year.

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.)

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.)

Hello Halifax

October 25, 2011

Occupy Halifax

The TRC is gearing up for the third national gathering in Halifax. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’m still working through the complicated dynamics of the first two events. It will be interesting to see how the Atlantic National Gathering differs. Already, one interesting issue is the use of space outside the Convention Centre being used for the TRC events. Originally identified as a potential space for the TRC’s sacred fire, the space has been claimed by the Occupy Halifax movement. Although it appears that an alternative space has been identified for the sacred fire, the negotiation of public space and differing political/cultural objectives provides an interesting starting point for the event. More from the event to come soon.

Click here for information on the schedule.

UPDATE: The Sacred Fire will be located at Province House, at the corner of Hollis and Prince St.