I believe that reconciliation is an opportunity that has been given to us here in Canada by the Survivors of the Residential School system.
I don’t mean to say that Survivors intended reconciliation to be an opportunity for Canada, or that Survivors owe us anything at all. What I mean to say is that if it hadn’t been for the courage and strength of Survivors in sharing their stories and holding Canada to account for that history through the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement (IRSSA), I don’t think we would have come around to talking about reconciliation the way we are today.
It is humbling to me to think about the profound strength and courage it must have taken to share those stories. We know that in many cases, the stories that Survivors shared were never told before. In some instances, their own families had never heard the details of the horrors that were residential schools. Perhaps any of us who have survived trauma in our own lives can appreciate how significant it is to share stories of trauma; to relive the pain, fear, and shame that so often accompanies having survived cultural genocide. As an Indigenous person myself, I am proud. I am grateful. Being able to acknowledge that I come from people of such strength inspires me. I would want all Indigenous young people to know that they come from communities of strength and resilience.
Yes, there are barriers acting against young people. There is intergenerational trauma. There is no excuse for turning a blind eye to the suffering of youth across the country. However, there is also intergenerational strength, and dignity, and courage. That fact is as real as any other. I would hope that every Indigenous young person is able to hold their head high with pride for that fact. Indigenous people and communities are strong.
Where schools in Canada were once used as weapons against Indigenous peoples, they can now become places of healing and empowerment for all students.
When I say that reconciliation is an opportunity, what I mean is that through the 94 Calls to Action of the the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), Canada has the opportunity to heal as a nation. A very notable scholar by the name of Tasha Spillett once said on live TV that Canada doesn’t have an Indigenous problem, it has a colonial problem (paraphrasing with deep respect and gratitude). The work of reconciliation is not an act of pity for Indigenous peoples. Rather, it is an opportunity for Canada to get out of the way of the vibrancy and flourishing of Indigenous peoples and communities, while at the same time working to live up to its own values and potential.
Please understand that I am not suggesting that Canada is not a great country; it has been for many people over the past 150 years. I am of mixed ancestry. My father’s family is Ojibway/Métis from Treaty Two area. My grandparents, Mary and E.G., worked tirelessly for the Indian and Métis Friendship Centre here in Winnipeg for many years. There is a street named after them in Winnipeg and I am extremely proud of that. My mother’s family are Ukrainian/Polish from Ukraine. After the First World War, my Baba’s parents fled Ukraine to escape the Soviet Union. I’m told that if they had not they might have faced persecution and death. This was before the Holodomor and the genocide of Ukrainian people at the hands of the Soviet Union. Canada provided my family with an opportunity to survive – and not just survive, but to flourish on land that was made available through the signing of Treaty One. I have to acknowledge that part of my family’s story with gratitude in my heart.
However, as great as this country has been for so many families like my Ukrainian ancestors, Canada hasn’t lived up to its full potential. We are not yet the country that we can be, and I believe we never will be for so long as there are First Nations communities living in Third World conditions. We can never be the country that we want to be for so long as there are people within our own borders living under conditions that other people flee countries to escape from. There are communities in Canada that don’t have clean drinking water. If we consider that statement objectively, I believe the only rational response might be absolute disgust at the injustice. The fact that such conditions are tolerated speaks to just how deep the damage of colonization reaches in our country: into our relationships, our politics, and even our own sense of justice and fairness. Reconciliation is an opportunity to heal and to reach our full potential as a nation.
Reconciliation is an opportunity for all of us to contribute to solutions even though we are not responsible for having created the problems we inherited. That’s the incredible gift that has been given to our generation: to not just be concerned citizens, but to be transformative. We wouldn’t have this opportunity if it had not been for Survivors sharing their truths, and I for one am grateful to them in a way that I can’t fully express through words.
What role do educators play?
Education is key. I once heard Grand Chief Wilton Littlechild, one of the TRC Commissioners, say that in his estimation 72 of the 94 Calls to Action are about education and awareness. If that is true, teachers are crucial to the work that must be done. Schools can become places where students are empowered to be a part of change. Where schools in Canada were once used as weapons against Indigenous peoples, they can now become places of healing and empowerment for all students. The damage created by colonialism and cultural genocide in Canada deeply impacts Indigenous communities, but it doesn’t end there. All Canadians have been impacted by this history. It is visible on our streets, in our schools, in our hospitals, in our justice system. The impact of colonization on thinking, assumptions, and our very identities has caused hatred, injustice, violence, and cruelty. Having watched the rise of populism and extremism globally, I can’t help but think about Canada’s own vulnerability to such threats. Truly, there is much healing work to be done.
Let’s be clear that the education that is needed isn’t just about transferring information from one intellect to another. This work is going to require deeper learning; what Jack Mezirow referred to as Transformative Learning, the pedagogy of allowing individuals to transcend previously held beliefs about the world in favour of a worldview that better serves them moving into the future. The education that is needed would free individuals from ever getting caught up in the callousness and cruelty of statements like, “Why don’t they just get over it?” It would empower young people to transcend apathy. The kind of education that is needed would allow people to see with clarity and compassion the absolute dishonour that exists for Canada in allowing communities to go without clean drinking water.
In order to facilitate that kind of learning, I believe that we will need to return to the basics. I certainly don’t mean reading, writing, and arithmetic (the supposed basics of the holy grail of any school system: academic achievement). I believe we would be better served with the basics of love, kindness, and compassion. I think our children, our economy, and our democratic freedoms would do better with that sort of foundation.
My Ojibway heritage teaches that as human beings we have the sacred responsibility to love and care for children even if they are not our own. The notion that schools should be about something other than this love, kindness, and compassion, is antiquated and rooted in an exploitive understanding of childhood – viewing children as a labour force rather than democratic citizens. The work of reconciliation allows us to reimagine business as usual, such that all children feel safe in schools. We know that school has not been safe for many Indigenous communities; we need to make them safe enough for children to find their voices in challenging the harmful legacies of colonization around them.
There continues to be an abusive discourse in Canada that argues that teachers need to be accountable and that accountability is measured through standardized testing of academics. I’m reminded of the Emperor who parades in front of his subjects, naked in his new clothes. Of course, that cautionary tale tells the story of swindlers who are producing nothing of value on their looms, but who manage to convince the emperor’s subjects to buy into the lie. I don’t believe that standardized tests predict the ability of a nation to navigate an uncertain future. They certainly haven’t served children of colour, Indigenous children, or children surviving poverty. They haven’t served teachers who have had their enthusiasm and passion for teaching handcuffed by the fallacy that we should feel shame for not achieving scores as high as others who were better able to squeeze a couple more points out of their exhausted, terrified, and anxious children. The education system parades through the streets in the fancy clothes of accountability through standardized testing, having been sold empty promises by those who never wanted to see us succeed in the first place.
This article isn’t about the history of such testing, which is grounded in the work of eugenicists and white supremacists who found rationale for their abuse of minorities in those test scores. Nor is it about how such tests, and their philosophic relatives, have been used to justify the forced sterilization of minorities and other “undesirables,” or how many brilliant, vibrant, potentially world-changing minds were cast aside, left believing they were dumb, because they didn’t do well on a test that was never designed to recognize the things that they were good at. No, this article isn’t about that, it is about really getting back to basics. But first we will have to be courageous enough to acknowledge that we have been sold defective goods, and that the Emperor is walking around naked.
Working toward Reconciliation post-pandemic
During the worst days of pandemic lockdown, I was reminded of how willing so many teachers are to go above and beyond the call of duty for their students. I am not surprised by this, but am certainly inspired. The lengths that many were willing to go to ensure that that their students were engaged and loved was nothing short of heroic. However, we also need to recognize that these sacrifices came with a price. The entire system is exhausted and depleted. Many teachers are struggling with very serious consequences that impact their physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. Now, more than ever, I think the notion of schools as places of healing is resonating with people. “Business as usual” isn’t going to allow us meet a post-pandemic future with resiliency, but I believe that engaging in reconciliation might.
Through the work of reconciliation, we have the opportunity to engage with teachings, wisdom, and worldviews that can help us reimagine business as usual. Indigenous people know how to survive and meet hardship with resilience; but there is also a deeply rooted cultural belief regarding the sacredness of children that can help us in our work to create places of healing. Canada made its best attempt to erase that teaching from the face of the Earth – but it failed. The Knowledge Keepers, Elders, Grandmothers, and Grandfathers kept teachings alive so that future generations could reconnect to those sacred lifeways that allowed First Peoples to not only survive, but flourish through sustainable relations with Mide Aki – kind-hearted Mother Earth. Thanks to the courage, strength, and dignity of Residential School Survivors, we have the opportunity to re-engage with relationships that might allow us to see a future that is so deeply threatened in our age.
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