Category Archives: Indigenous–Reconciliation

Are apologies a sign of weakness?

 

 

Some people don’t like apologies, particularly from their leaders. A lot of people don’t like Justin Trudeau because they think he apologizes too much.  They see an apology as a sign of weakness.

Lawyers constantly tell their clients to avoid apologies. Perhaps it was lawyers that held sway over Pope Francis  of the Catholic Church for so long that he almost  had to be dragged to Canada  nearly a decade after the call for him to apologize by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He apologized long after the leader of the United Church apologized for damage done to Indian residential school children by his church,

Speaking as a person and a citizen, not a lawyer, I say that an apology is a sign of strength not weakness. The leader of the United Church of Canada, the very Reverend Dr. Bill Phillips gave a moving apology to the victim of residential schools I Canada. Here is part of his words:

We are on a long and painful journey as we reflect on the cries that we did not or would not hear. And how we have behaved as a church. We travel this difficult road of repentance and reconciliation and healing. We commit ourselves to work towards ensuring that we will never again use our power as a church to hurt others with attitudes of racial and spiritual superiority.

 

I heard no weakness in that apology. Only strength.  The United Church did wrong. It apologized. What is weak about that? Misusing power against vulnerable children on the other hand, that is weakness.

 

A day without resentment/ A Day for Reconciliation

 

One of the things Chris and I learned about Vivian, the indigenous person we met  at the  Reconciliation event at the Pat Porter Active Living Centre, while eating a traditional indigenous meal of bison stew, Bannock, wild rice and ice cream with mixed summer berries, was the remarkable lack of resentment Vivian had. She seemed entirely free of it. How could that be, after all she was violently ripped away from her mother and father at the age of 5 by Canadian authorities in order to be civilized and brought to a completely strange school a long way from home? Who was civilized? Yet she was not filled with hate! She was filled with love and told us many stories about her family. Not all survivors of residential schools were as fortunate as she was.

 

At the Pat Porter  centre in Steinbach, we were shown a short emotional video with comments from survivors of residential schools. Audrey Desvents, one of the survivors wisely said this, “By forgiving the Church and by and  forgiving the abusers and not carrying all of that garbage with us wherever we go we invest in our own healing.” Another survivor, Ted Fontaine said people asked him what he hoped to achieve by railing against the residential schools? His answer was “freedom. I am free.” He did it to free himself from hate!

People who can live without hate are lucky people.

Torn from Her Family at age of 5

 

At the Pat Porter Centre on September 27, 2022, we were lucky to sit beside Vivian Barkley, sister of Jennifer Wood, one of the presenters.  Vivian came all the way from Kitchener Ontario to support her sister Jennifer Wood today. I was impressed. Both of them are residential third school survivors. That means 3 generations of their family went to a residential school.

 

Vivian told us how she had been swept into an Indian Residential School at the age of 5. She explained that the authorities had really gone into their community to roust up older children, but when they came to their house she was included. She said it was a shocking day when she was torn away from her family and community at such a young age for totally inexplicable reasons that she could not understand. Her family was very poor and could not afford to pay for her to come home for her school holidays so mostly for 5 years she stayed in the school separated from her family. Can you imagine what reasons the educational authorities might give to justify their actions of ‘kidnapping’ these children and taking them away from their homes?

 

It is not without reason, that such actions are considered by the UN Genocide Convention to be genocide. This is how that international convention, which has been signed by Canada, defines genocide:

 

In Article II of that Convention:

 

“…genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

 

“(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. [emphasis added]”

 

Was Canada guilty of genocide.  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission called it “cultural genocide.” Was that qualification necessary? It also says that everyone complicit with such acts can also be punished along with the perpetrator.

Christiane and I were both struck by how much Vivian was free of rancor and resentment notwithstanding how she had been treated by Canada.  How would you feel if Canada did that to your children? What would it take for you to want to reconcile with such a country? Is it something that can be done in a couple of weeks? Or a couple of years?

For Christiane and I this was a remarkable day. We learned some harsh Canadian truths by watching the program.

A National Journey for Truth and Reconciliation

 

Frankly, I had hoped to attend a Truth and Reconciliation event this year like I did last year. I remember how people thanked me for coming. Total strangers came up to thank me for wearing orange or coming. It was an amazing experience.

This year a cold is keeping me at home.

At the Pat Porter Seniors Centre on September 27, 2022 the old people there, including Chris and I and a surprisingly large contingent of old Steinbach and area people, were shown a film I had seen last year at the inaugural Day for Truth  Reconciliation. The film was called A National Journey for Truth and Reconciliation. It was worth seeing again.

You can get to see it online at no cost. The price is right. And it is a very short film—less than 10 minutes long. But there is a lot packed into 10 minutes. Gruesome stories are left out. Strength and freedom are on display.

The film consists mainly of the voices of survivors of residential schools. One of them said,

“I had these skeleton keys. And I went through a door in my mind. And I would go to each door. And I would open them. This one was fear. And this one was low self-esteem. And this one was sexual abuse. And the list goes on and on and on…I am proud to say, I opened those doors and I forgave.”

 

Ted Fontaine, a residential school survivor from Manitoba said this:

“I went through sexual abuse. I went through physical abuse. Mental, spiritual. And I will tell you, the one thing that we suffer the most is the mental and spiritual abuse that we carry the rest of our lives.”

 

Fontaine admitted that for the last 50 years he hated the perpetrator of the sexual assault on him. He said,

“I wanted to kill you. That came from me! But that wasn’t me speaking. That was a 6, 7, 8-year-old boy. Getting out what was still bothering him after 65 years.”

 

Fontaine could not believe that he had hated so much. That was not who he was. But that was who he became.

Ethel Lamothe another survivor said this with quite grace:

“My mother and father had 13 children and every single one of us had gone to residential school. I longed for the smell of spruce boughs. And the smoke. Wood smoke. I longed for the taste of the dried meat and the dried fish. I was hungry for all of that time. For my own food. And there was such a longing in my heart. Such a loneliness. For my people.”

 

And why could she not have that? Was she asking for too much? Her own people and her own food?

 

Lamothe also described how her brother died as a result of injuries suffered in residential school. She said,

“It was about my mother. And me. It was about us. And it was about the children who never came back.”

 

I paused to think. Children who went to school and never came back. In what kind of a world is that acceptable?

In the film A National Journey for Reconciliation, Joe Clarke, the former Prime Minister of Canada had some moving words to say about reconciliation:

“The Commission Chair, the eloquent Mr. Justice Murray Sinclair, borrows a phrase that was used by the leaders of the American Civil Rights Movement. That phrase is, “Keep your eye on the prize.” That sets a challenge for all of us. Indigenous and non-indigenous. Commissioners and Citizens. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission will help to define the prize. We as Canadians, as citizens, have to mobilize the eyes and help the larger Canadian population both see and act. Reconciliation means coming together as a whole with one purpose being to hear and to heal  and then a critical common purpose which is to move forward together. And if we fail to do that, if we fail to go beyond apology and regret, if we admit the truth and ignore the reconciliation that would be to repeat the profound offences of the Residential Schools themselves. I believe that Canada as a broad and generous country can find the will to repair the damage of that past and build new partnerships if enough of our citizens know and if their eyes are turned to the prize.”

 

I think that is what reconciliation looks like.

I too think Canada can do this. I also  think of what Angela Merkel said when she proposed Germany accept 1,000,000 Syrian refuges: “Wir machen das.” We can do this.

 

Dropped from the Sky

 

This is reconciliation week in Canada. Christiane and I are participating in a number of events as part of this week. We want to learn more.

The Pat Porter Active Living Centre (‘the Centre’), in Steinbach  of which Christiane and I are members, hosted an afternoon of learning the history of Indian Residential Schools on Tuesday.  The Centre is geared to seniors over 55 years old. Old people like us. That day we also enjoyed an authentic indigenous cuisine lunch of bison stew, Bannock, wild rice, and summer berries with ice cream. That lunch was  followed by a ceremony and cultural teachings, drumming and dance.

Frankly, Christiane and I were surprised that the Centre had sponsored such an event.  We had never heard of them doing such a thing before.  There was pretty good attendance too.

During the day we learned that Jennifer Wood the Indigenous leader the Centre invited to bring to us a couple of hours of entertainment and knowledge was also very pleasantly surprised that the Centre had done this. She  said she was  very impressed that Steinbach’s seniors would be interested in that. Added to that, she was surprised by how many of us wore orange shirts to identify support for the cause of indigenous children under the banner of ‘All Children Matter.’ Frankly ,I was proud that we were a part of this event. Wood said that 25 years ago this would never have happened. I am not sure it would have happened 5 years ago.  Wood said, “The era of change is what you represent here today.”She also said that “by inviting us to speak we were participating in reconciliation.” People like her are accustomed to non-indigenous Canadians showing little interest in such matters.

 

After the opening water ceremony, we heard from Jennifer Wood, an Ojibway woman from Neyaashiinigmiing First Nation, Ontario. She was the Coordinator of the Residential Schools Settlement Agreement for nearly a decade for the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs. She has organized some of the largest and most important Indigenous conferences in Canada. We were lucky to have her come to Steinbach to tell us old folks her perspective on indigenous issues, particularly reconciliation.

 

Here she was a third-generation survivor of Residential Schools, yet she thanked us profusely for inviting her. She was clearly excited about seeing such interest in Steinbach. Who would have believed it?

 

Added to that, Wood said to those of us wearing the orange shirts that alluded to our support for the Every Child Matters movement, “When you wear an orange shirt you are wearing a bit of justice.” I liked that. That made Christiane and I who were wearing our orange shirts very proud. Wood appreciated our little gesture. I don’t think she was expecting to see a lot of orange shirts in Steinbach.

 

She opened by saying, she was not there to blame or make people feel guilty. She just wanted us to learn the truth.  That was why we were there. For generations the indigenous perspective has been ignored. As she said, “It is a heavy subject, but I want everybody to know the truth.”  Without truth there can be no reconciliation.

 

She told us about how her and her 4 siblings including her sister Vivian who was sitting with Christiane and I, had been seized by government officials and taken away from her loving home without her consent when she was a very young girl. 5 family members were swept up in one day. Imagine the terror!

She knew no one there and could not see her siblings. She was deliberately separated from them and, of course, her parents.

It reminded me of what we had seen in the short video presentation we saw earlier. A residential school survivor told us about her first day at the school. She said,

“When I arrived at the school, far from home, I felt like I had been dropped from the sky. Strangers around me. I don’t know them; they don’t know me. I didn’t know how to socialize. I don’t even know how to love.

 

 

As I have learned, there was a reason for this. It is a harsh Canadian truth.  Separating children form parents and siblings was done on purpose It was done deliberately to destroy the Indigenous Family. They wanted to do that. And this is one thing they were very good at.

 

Guilt Free Zone

 

 

We non-indigenous people are not responsible for what sins were committed by whites that arrived in “the New World.”  It was never a new world, these people were not ancestors to very many of us, and there is nothing we could do to stop what they did long before our time on earth. Therefore, when it comes to the sins of white settlers of North America as far as I am concerned, we live in a guilt free zone. My ancestors, for whom I am not responsible either, were not even in North America at the time. They were deep in Russia (now Ukraine).

 

One of the worst things non-indigenous settlers they did in North America was to establish Indian Residential Schools. What made them think they had the right to take children away from their parents, put them into schools often far away from home, separate them from their families, teach them that their parents were savages, rob them of their culture, language and social networks?  What gave them the right was a seriously misguided ideology of white supremacy. They thought they were better than indigenous people. That was despicable, but we here today are not responsible for that.

 

However, we should denounce, clearly and unequivocally the ideology of white supremacy which those people left behind. That ideology is morally corrupt and we must make it clear that we dissent from it. Furthermore, we should not accept the advantages bestowed on us by virtue of the colour of our skin. We have not earned those benefits and must make clear that we do not want those unearned advantages.  Since we have not earned them, we should not take them, at least not at the expense of anyone else. That is just plain unfair. To accept such benefits would be to facilitate injustice.

 

But I believe it is also our duty first to confront the truth. As Nietzsche said, “The worth of a person is measured is by how much truth that person can bear.” We must not shy away from the truth. In fact, we must search out the truth, even if we suspect it might be uncomfortable.  This is something American conservatives fail to understand. They want their offspring not to learn truths that might make them feel uncomfortable.  Those are precisely the truths we ought to seek out. And we do that because we know, as Nietzsche said, such knowledge will make us stronger and better. We search those truths out to make ourselves better people. Like John F. Kennedy said about going to the moon: ‘We do it because it’s hard.’  Only the best people can do what is hard.

Even though I went to 12 years of local education followed by 7 years of university education after that, I never once heard about Indian Residential Schools during that time. Someone, “protected me” from that knowledge. They did not do me a favour by that. They did me a disservice.

I think though I had vague knowledge that white people had treated indigenous people badly. Why else were they largely relegated to Indian reservations or poor parts of big cities while whites were enjoying the fruits of the land? I think anyone who did not realize why was deliberately avoiding an uncomfortable truth. I think we knew—deep down perhaps—that Indigenous people had been treated unfairly.

But now we all know better. The truth, thanks to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has come out. Those who don’t know that truth are being deliberately obtuse.  Those people don’t want to know the truth because they think they can’t bear it. They think knowledge of the truth might rob us of the enjoyment of unjust advantages which we don’t deserve.

We can be better than this. We don’t need to feel guilty about what happened 150 years ago by people we don’t know and are not responsible for. However, we must feel guilt, if we continue to benefit from injustices visited on injustice people by being advantaged while others suffer disadvantages. We must do all that we can reasonably do to do fully restore fairness and justice. Only then will be able to enjoy the guilt free sleep of the just. Until then the unjust advantages we had bestowed on us by an unfair system will be worn heavily by us. They will haunt us.

Small Steps Matter

 

For a long time I have been thinking about reconciliation. Sadly, I have not solved the question of what I can do to move us closer to reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous people in Canada.  I think it is important. If we can’t do it in Canada we will all be poorer for that that failure. Yet what can each of us do?

I once asked a respected Indigenous thinker—Niigaan Sinclair—a Professor of Indigenous Studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg Free Press commentator,  and deep thinker that question. He seemed annoyed by the question. He did not want to do my work for me.  It was up to me to answer that question.  Then I was annoyed.

But eventually I realized Sinclair was right. I had to make the effort to figure it out.  He did though have one suggestion. He suggested I could talk to people—white people like me. They might listen a little bit to me whereas they would not read his columns in the paper. That made some sense to me. I knew most people who knew me would justifiably dismiss me as a windbag. That was fair enough. But a few—a very small few– might listen and then consider what I said. Most of those people will never read his columns even though they are excellent.

So I have been trying—you might have noticed—to comment on indigenous issues from time to time in a weak effort to move us closer to reconciliation. That is something. Not much but at least something. That could be better than doing nothing. Right?

Added to that, I have come to realize I can do a few things. Small things. But again better than nothing. For example, today I attended a meeting at the Pat Porter Seniors centre in Steinbach where there was a presentation by a group of indigenous people.  One of the speakers said how surprised and pleased she was that a seniors group in Steinbach wanted to reach out to the indigenous people to learn from them. She was a residential school survivor and leader in the indigenous community. She was very pleased to see a number of orange shirts in the crowd which represented to her a show of support for indigenous people. That was important to her. I could hear that in her voice.  Christiane and I had worn our orange ‘All Children Matter’ shirts today to this event. We had a contributed a very small level of support that she appreciated.

Wow, I thought to myself. We had not done much, but even that small effort was appreciated. She felt good about it and said she was going to brag about Steinbach to everyone she knew. And she made me feel good in return. This was a tiny step towards reconciliation, but it made both of us feel good.

I think reconciliation means to take a step—even a small step—in the right direction. A series of small steps could be an even better thing. Not?

Small Steps Matter.

Every Child Matters: A Common Foe

 

It was members of the black community that came up with the expression “Black Lives Matter” to define their group. It was a brilliant motto. And of course, immediately other groups wanted to latch onto it.  There was the group of supporters of the police forces who used the handle, “Blue Lives Matter.”  That was like the enemy adopting your own motto. That was not cool. The supporters of police forces for a while had also wanted to use it as well.   Some claimed, rightly but inappropriately that “All lives Matter.”  After that, I noticed indigenous groups using the expression “Every Child Matters .”   Really, indigenous groups should admit it—this was an “appropriation” of a name. That is something indigenous groups are very quick to complain about when others do it to them.  With some justification I might add.

 

Much more importantly than a name however, I want oppressed groups to remember who their enemy is. Their enemy is white supremacy. It is not the other oppressed groups. No oppressed group should waste valuable moral capital attacking another oppressed group, particularly when they have a powerful common enemy such as white supremacy that demands all their attention. That is enough of an enemy. They don’t need to make enemies of their common oppressed people.

 

Give it up. Join forces to unite against the powerful oppressor—i.e., white supremacy. They should not waste arrows on each other.

All lives do matter and all of us who are opposed to oppression should unite against the common foe. That really is the point!

Then, hopefully reconciliation can begin.

 

The Colour of Reconciliation

 

I don’t know what reconciliation will look like. I know it’s important and Canadians must figure it out. What colour is reconciliation?  Is it white? Do white people have to figure it out? Yes, but not alone and not in such a way as we try to impose on others what it means. We tried that approach to relations with Indigenous people and it did not work very well. In fact, that is what got us into trouble.

Is the colour of reconciliation red? Yes, in part. We need indigenous people to actively engage in this process. I think they are prepared to  engage, provided  the white people are serious in their discussions and respectful in their intentions.

Is the colour of reconciliation red and white. Yes, in part again. It is more than that. It involves all Canadians and that means an array of colours.  It involves an abundance of colours. We have people of all colours in Canada. That is great. It is what makes Canada great. We don’t need a great white hope to “make Canada great again.”  Canada is not a great power. We have no goal to be that (I hope). Canada  has made many mistakes, but it also has learned a lot. It has learned enough that others can learn something from us. We just need to understand and respect what we have and what we can do.

Is the Colour of reconciliation orange? Yes, in part. We must learn from that colour. That colour was chosen because of the experience of a 6-year-old Indigenous girl going to Residential School for the first time with her grandmother. Her name was Phyliss Webstad. She had chosen an orange shirt for her first exciting day in school because her shirt was bright and shiny and  smooth and she was very proud of that shirt. But the shirt was taken away from her on her first day in residential school because the school administrators, for some reason did not like it. She never got to wear it again.

When she got older and remembered the incident and how unjust it was, she helped to start Orange Shirt day, on September 30 so that she could demonstrate that she could wear an orange shirt if she wanted to. As she said, “When I see people wearing an orange shirt or an ‘Every child matters pin,’ for us survivors, it’s like a little bit of justice in our life time.’

I don’t really know what reconciliation looks like. I hope to learn.  But I hope it is the colour of justice. A little bit of justice.