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!

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.

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.

Stephen Harper's larger-than-life apology at the Winnipeg Art Gallery

It’s been one month since the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission held its first national gathering, and I feel as though I am still processing the event. Over the course of four days, I heard stories of both devastation and strength, of both anger and hope.

Several moments stand out in my memory:

Patrick Etherington Sr., his son Patrick Etherington Jr., Frances Whiskeychan, Christopher Paulmartin and Jorge Hookimaw’llillerre all walked for 31 days to reach the event. Beginning in Cochrane, Ontario, they walked to promote awareness for the reconciliation process. When they arrived at the national gathering in Winnipeg, Patrick Jr. spoke of the lines of communication opened between his father and himself during the walk.

In many ways, they did what I believe the commission hopes people will do: take the process of reconciliation beyond the confines of the commission, and make it personally meaningful. Because, for the most part, the IRS TRC can only be part of this process.

We also heard from those who worked at the schools. In the sharing circle held on the first day, I heard the experiences of a pilot who had taken children from up north to bring them to schools. He told of separating one young girl in particular who was crying because he had just taken her from her Inuit family. He had thought he was doing what was right. A teacher told of her experiences and the difficult conditions at the Indian Residential School where she taught. She read the names of her students in their honor.

One issue that I continue to wonder about since (and during) the event is the place of religion during this process. The churches played an instrumental role in running the Indian Residential School system, and they will play an important role in reconciliation. I noticed some visible discomfort from some people when church representatives addressed the crowds. At the same time, I also heard former students express their connections to Christian faiths. Before the event, I read a short article in the Globe and Mail where Peter Yellowquill, a survivor of the schools said: “The churches committed spiritual genocide. But I am still a Christian man. It’s complicated.”

At the event, the role that religious leaders played was indeed complicated. At times, they offered apologies, at others, I heard denials. At the opening ceremony, the crowd heard native blessings and ceremonies. At the end of his closing remarks during that first ceremony on that first day, I was surprised to hear the Chair of the Commission, Justice Sinclair, offer the Lords Prayer.

After the event, I visited the the Winnipeg Art Gallery. In the foyer of the gallery, they had erected two large art pieces that contained portions of the official apologies given by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd for the histories involving the taking of Aboriginal children. In some ways, the larger-than-life signs conveyed a sense of power. At the same time, they drew attention to the fact that apologies were simply words. Important words, yes, but they remain meaningless without action.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's official apology in 2008


Gus Higheagle (Dakota) riding into Oodena Circle at the Forks in Winnipeg.

Faced with tornado warnings and heavy rain, the second day of the IRS TRC national gathering pushed forward. Unfortunately, because of the weather, a few events had to be cancelled or postponed, resulting in some confusion.

Despite these issues, the ceremony welcoming the Unity Riders into the Oodena Circle went forward. The Unity Ride began in Virden, Manitoba last Friday and ended on Thursday in Winnipeg. It was made in honour of residential school survivors and to show unity between the First Nations in the prairies.

Like many aspects of the events at the IRS TRC’s first national gathering, the ceremony welcoming the riders included its fair share of contradictions. As some of the riders were presented with blankets in commemoration of their ride, a residential school survivor in the audience shouted his  displeasure at being unable to give his testimony that day. The volume of people wanting to share in combination with poor weather has made it difficult for some to give their testimonies, particularly those that had hoped to share their experiences publicly as opposed to through one of the private means (through private statement giving or in writing.) Even those offering blessings at the IRS TRC’s events, including Elder Albert Taylor who gave the blessing for the Unity Riders, mentioned their concerns regarding the promises and implications of the commission.

These tensions will undoubtedly continue through the next few days of the event, and throughout the reconciliation process in general. They are reminders that processes of reconciliation are laden with contradictions and discomfort. And I would like to think that these tensions reveal not only the difficulties of this process, but the opportunities as well.

IRS TRC Commissioner Wilton Littlechild on horseback with the Unity Riders

Some local coverage of the Unity Ride: the Brandon Sun and the Winnipeg Sun.

The first day of the IRS TRC’s first national gathering was long. It started at sunrise for the lighting of the sacred fire ceremony and ended just before midnight with amazing musical performances from Buffy St. Marie and Blue Rodeo, among others.

The first day’s events were a reminder of how much there is to work through, about the challenges facing the process of reconciliation, as well as the hope that comes with embarking on this path. I am continually humbled by the strength of the survivors and others who have told their stories (and by those who have not), and their families. I hope to write more about the event, but for now, here are a few of images from the first day of the national gathering in Winnipeg.

After the lighting of the sacred fire. It will continue to burn throughout the event.

Four directions drum calling including the four nations: red, yellow, black, white. The above drummers are originally from Mozambique and Sudan.

Chief Robert Joseph giving an inspirational speech during the welcome ceremony.

A few of the estimated 20,000 people who attending the free evening concert. Amazing.

An image of Blue Rodeo, Buffy Sainte-Marie and surprise guest, Elijah Harper, holding his feather. A great moment.

The evening before

June 15, 2010

A few images of Winnipeg, taken tonight, the evening before the IRS TRC’s first national gathering:

At the forks, where many of the TRC events will take place.

Canadian flags against an early evening sky in Winnipeg.

On the way to the folks, the site of the new human rights museum.

Peaceful at the forks, before the national event tomorrow.