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.

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.)

Day One in Halifax

October 27, 2011

It’s the end of the first day of the TRC’s third national gathering in Halifax. The day began with the lighting of the sacred fire, which took place on the grounds of Province House. The ashes from the sacred fire at the first gathering in Winnipeg were transferred to the sacred fire in Inuvik, and have now been brought to Halifax. According to the TRC:

The Lighting of the Sacred Fire happens before we begin each Event to ensure that it is the spirits and the teachings that guide us and protect us while the Commission does its work. The transferring of the ashes has become a symbol of national unity as it becomes lit from coast to coast to coast.

The ceremony took place in front of a statue of Joseph Howe (1804-1873), a Nova Scotian politician. Under his outstretched arm, the commission, elders, and participants watched as the sacred fire was lit. (Photos of sacred ceremonies are forbidden. The image above was taken before the ceremony began.) Shortly afterwards, the Truth and Reconciliation Walkers entered the square. The group of five walked for 2,200 kilometres from Cochrane, Ontario to attend the event in Halifax: Patrick Etherington Jr.Robert HunterJames KiokeSamuel KooseesFrances R. Whiskeychan. As they walked from community to community, they raised awareness about the Indian Residential School legacy and the truth commission’s work. I had the honour of hearing Patrick Etherington Jr. speak in Winnipeg about their journey to the first national gathering. They are a truly inspiring group. For more on their journey, click here, or here.

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.

The cement foundations of what was once a classroom at St. Mary's Indian Residential School

“It was an evil place. It was a beautiful place.”[i]

I recently took a trip out west to Vancouver, BC. The trip was both personal (to celebrate the wedding of a friend) and research-related (to visit the grounds of former Indian Residential Schools, first in BC and then in Alberta).

The first school I visited was the former St. Mary’s Indian Residential School in Mission, a school that was demolished in 1965. (The students attending there at the time were moved to a new government-run St. Mary’s not far away.) The remnants of the first school, the oldest permanent Indian Residential School in British Columbia, can now be found in the Fraser River Heritage Park.

It was a beautiful late spring day when I visited the park. I had printed out the map of the former school from the Park’s website before my trip and had it with me as I walked. Without the map, it’s unlikely I would have noticed the low concrete foundations embedded in the landscape of the park. The map included buildings that were still standing, that were gone but still marked in some way, and those whose traces had since vanished.

Another cement foundation marking a structure that was once part of St. Mary's.

There were a few other people in the park that day, most were walking their dogs, a few were sitting on benches over-looking the water. I was the only one taking notice of the cement structures, walking from one to another and puzzling over the map.

I found it strange that the cement foundations weren’t marked in some way, so I went to the visitor center to see if I could find more information. There I met Don Brown, a manager at the Heritage Park, who informed me that indeed the foundations were marked. He mentioned that some time ago, they had painted numbers on the structures to coincide with those on the map. But time and weather had worn those away. Then they marked them with small metal plaques. Unfortunately, Don explained, some of those had been stolen, likely to be melted down for the metal. We walked back out to the structures together to see if we could find them and, after checking out a couple, found one marking the old gym.

There was something both beautiful and haunting about that space. It was both serene and unsettling. While at the visitor center, I purchased Amongst God’s Own: The Enduring Legacy of St. Mary’s Mission, a book that captures the contradictions of St. Mary’s. As author Terry Glavin explains, the history of St. Mary’s and the Indian Residential School system is complicated. He writes:

“This book is about a terrible story. It is a story that involves great suffering, betrayal, love, sacrifice, loss, and redemption. This book is also about a wonderful story, a story that involves faith, memory, comfort, forgiveness, sorrow and loyalty. It is also an unfinished story” (11).

The testimonies from the former students in the book discuss both the difficulties and opportunities they experienced at St. Mary’s. Without downplaying the horrible intentions and legacies of the system, the author and the former students involved in the book complicate the narrative of the IRS system as one where only heartache and destruction were the result.

In my next couple of posts I’ll write about the other schools I visited on the trip: Coqualeetza in Chilliwack, BC and Blue Quills in St. Paul, Alberta.


[i] Glavin, Terry and former students of St. Mary’s. Amongst God’s Own: The Enduring Legacy of St. Mary’s Mission. Mission, BC: Longhouse Publishing, 2002.