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.

Pamela Sevigny and Qatsuu Evis after their Inuit throat singing performance.

On Thursday I attended the opening evening of the Truth and Reconciliation Event in Toronto. Like many of these events, the evening included statements of support and challenge as well as musical and artistic performances. Lt. Governor David Onley pledged his ongoing support for the work of the commission while Chief William Montour of the Six Nations of Grand River called the TRC toothless, pushing for more recognition of ongoing issues facing First Nation communities such as land, health and housing.

As always, the evening focused on some difficult truths, about Canada’s colonial history and about a challenging road ahead. But the event was also a celebration of sorts, a celebration of resilience. The MC for the evening, Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, noted that even in the face of incredible obstacles and hardship, “we have not forgotten how to dance and we have not forgotten how to laugh.”

Two young Inuit throat singers were a great example of this laughter and resilience. The two young women stood on stage, holding each other by the arms, standing face to face. They began the rhythmic humming and deep gutteral sounds of throat singing. An exercise in both competition and collaboration, each song ended in laughter. I am by no means an expert in Inuit throat singing, and so all I will say about their performance is that it was beautiful, and that their laughter was inspiring.

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.

Incomplete Archives

September 27, 2011

Balloons for Canada Day and birthday celebrations in Inuvik.

I am still sifting through the notes I took in Inuvik. I spent the last few days listening to recordings and watching footage on the TRC’s website. Unfortunately, many of my own recordings are of poor quality. During the giving of testimony, I didn’t want to be intrusive with my audio recording device. Even though it’s small, I felt that it marked me as an outsider, a researcher there to observe as opposed to participate. So, for the most part, I pressed record and left it on my lap. Because the room would get cold or warm or stuffy, the sound of doors opening and closing, and the periodic whirring of a fan muffle some parts of the testimony. But even when deciphering exact words is difficult, I can hear the emotion and strength of the Survivors come through.

The recordings are an incomplete archive of what I heard and saw in Inuvik. But I suppose that all archives are incomplete. Sometimes it is in filling in the absences of these archives where the most productive work is done. In the meantime, it reminds me of the courage of those who participated in the Inuvik event.

The IRS TRC’s next national event will be held in Halifax from October 26 – 29, 2011. More information is available here.

Inuvik in Images

July 1, 2011

Petah Inukpuk holds up an image of his grandfather as he gives his testimony to the commission.

Like the IRS TRC’s national gathering in Winnipeg last summer, the Inuvik event is a complicated negotiation between personal, familial and national reconciliation. And like the Winnipeg event, I have a feeling it will be some time before I process and begin to understand these negotiations.

The days are long and filled with emotion. The morning and afternoon sessions (generally focusing on the gathering of testimony and expressions of reconciliation) often contain stories of extreme hardship and abuse, as well as those of resilience and survival. The evenings are then filled with music and cultural expressions; people dance and sing, ask questions, continue to share their stories and create connections.

Tomorrow (Canada Day) is the last day of the event. I’m sure I will continue to think about what I’ve seen here for a long time to come. I hope to post more about the event, but in the meantime, here are a few images from the last few days.

At the welcome ceremony.

The Commission and dignitaries face the crowd during the traditional blessings.

Dancing to "Forty Days" after a long first day.

The "igloo church" not far from the event site.