The Legacy of Residential Schools
Sometimes referred to as the Aboriginal Holocaust, this Residential School System was a nationally run living nightmare for Indigenous peoples from 1883 - 1998 (with documentation of first attempts as early as the 17th Century). At least 7 generations of children had their families, communities, culture and innocence stripped violently from their lives.
If you were educated in the mainstream Canadian education system or outside of Canada, chances are you never learned about this dark chapter of our history. This video by Aljazeera gives you a quick overview of the Residential School System in Canada.
These atrocities and assimilative tactics that began during the Residential School Era have continued throughout our government's policies and permeated throughout our society. Although there is a strong sense of revitalization and resurgence amongst our communities and nations, the disparities amongst Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples is perplexing, heartbreaking and unacceptable.
Understanding Reconciliation: Who is in the Room?
Recently, I attended a conference training at McGill University called Reconciliation, Conflict Prevention for the creation of more Inclusive Societies. It was 5 days of heavy and sometimes dry material that blended dialogue and theories of reconciliation and nation-building on the domestic and international scene. Several of the speakers and participants were thought provoking and eloquent with their experiences and perspectives. Others were raw with their storytelling, exposing all of their vulnerabilities and courage all at once. It was a great learning experience that has been a catalyst for the creation of our upcoming grass-roots initiative, The Journey Forward: Reconciliation in Action.
There was one question that was brought up during this conference on several occasions. We must ask ourselves with any dialogue surrounding Reconciliation is "Who is in the room?".
I had not identified myself as an Intergenerational Survivor until I had attended the Reconciliation conference training. In fact, that concept didn't even exist in my mind. I had always removed myself from the experience of my mother, aunts, uncles and grandparents because we simply do not ask or talk about this era. In a sense, my ignorance of my connection to their trauma was arguably a success in the process of the residential school system - it was their burden, not mine.
Like so many other native children in Canada, I lived a daily battle against racism, assimilation in school, poverty, dysfunctional parenting, and witnessing physical and emotional violence and drug abuse. I considered myself fortunate that the physical and sexual abuse was not inflicted on my sister or myself, which had become somewhat of a norm for other family and community members who fell victim to very sick people with broken spirits.
The fundamental goal of Residential School System was to "Kill the Indian" by all means necessary. This was achieved by many coercive tactics, however, the primary means was by demolishing the sacred connection between parents and their children. This means that the transmission of values, language, customs, cultural ways and most importantly LOVE was not shared.
These next steps in reconciliation and healing are important to me in how I take care of myself, the words and actions I put out in my relationships and community, and the values and teachings I pass on to my daughter and her children. My reconciliation includes healing from the anger and hurt I have carried from this legacy for the sake of my children's children.
It is a tenuous time of revitalization and resurgence for all of us and our inherent rights as Indigenous peoples. Our cultural ways and spiritual practices are building strength. This has been happening in waves for a number of years, even decades thanks to knowledge keepers, warriors, and leaders who courageously fight for our rights, protect our lands and preserve our languages and traditions for all of us to return to.
How can we heal this trauma and broken relationship?
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission completed their documentation in June 2015, however, the real work is just beginning. We cannot wait or expect the government to change this through legislation and policies; we can't expect the perpetrator to create change and healing and respond to the 94 Calls to Action.
From the ground up, we are healing from multiple layers of historical traumas and fighting ingrained beliefs that we as Indigenous peoples are inherently inferior. Our Canadian government outlawed our spiritual practices, imprisoned our spiritual leaders, sieged our lands, stole our children and confiscated our sacred objects because of this belief - but anger and resentment towards these entities will only continue to fuel the symptoms and power struggle.
The fundamental truth and solution is captured beautifully in collective voice shared in the Elder's Statement by Reconciliation Canada:
"...Through sharing our personal stories, legends and traditional teachings, we found that we are interconnected through the same mind and spirit. Our traditional teachings speak to acts such as holding one another up, walking together, balance, healing, and unity. Our stories show how these teachings can heal their pain and restore dignity. We discovered that in all of our cultural traditions there are teachings about reconciliation, forgiveness, unity, healing and balance..."
Recognizing the power of this statement is one step forward in the right direction.
According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, reconciliation is describes as “an ongoing individual and collective process, and will require commitment from all those affected including First Nations, Inuit and Métis former Indian Residential School (IRS) students, their families, communities, religious entities, former school employees, government and the people of Canada. Reconciliation may occur between any of the above groups".
<< Reconciliation requires listening, contemplation, meditation, and a deep internal dialogue >>
One of the keywords in reconciliation is: process. The process of reconciliation requires ethical and inclusive spaces, honest dialogue, and mutual respect. Reconciliation respects the voices of individuals from all directions so our nations may stand together, shoulder to shoulder, through some or all of the following challenges, outlined clearly in the Final Report of the TRC:
We must look to, and learn from the past.
We must acknowledge the harm and oppression that has been and still is inflicted upon Indigenous people in Canada.
We must support and allow amends to follow in the appropriate time.
We must create meaningful action to change our behaviours and beliefs.
When I heard Marie Wilson, one of the TRC Commissioners, state with a straight face: "Reconciliation isn't a flavour of the month", I realized the importance of her statement. Reconciliation is complex, demanding and it is not something that you can simply like or share on social media and feel like you did your part. It demands you bring your true human nature to the table.
The Journey Forward
Reconciliation and healing has to come from the hearts, hands and minds of the people from the bottom up.
Join us January 23rd, 2016 in Montreal
The Journey Forward: Reconciliation in Action is an Indigenous-led, culturally rich experience for professional and personal development that aims to inspire the individual and collective response for change in our society.
References + Suggested Reading
Honouring the Truth, Reconciling the Future, Truth and Reconciliation Commission Final Report
Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action
Elders Statement, Reconciliation Canada
Reconciliation Canada Tool-Kits