If you live in Canada, you have likely heard the word “reconciliation” thrown around a lot in the past few years. Some nod their head in agreement, others scoff with derision. “It wasn’t me”, they say. “Why should I atone for things other people did?” Because that is what reconciliation is. To reconcile, you need to admit there was a problem. That there IS a problem. That our colonial system continues to oppress Indigenous Peoples in Canada and our silence firmly puts us at fault too.
So use your voice! Speak! Become an ally to those who are pushed aside and unjustly let down time and time again.
I grew up in the Cowichan Valley. There is a strong Indigenous presence within the community. I had classmates from the reserve. I got to know youth my age. Youth who were surely victims of inter-generational trauma due to residential schools. I carved and painted alongside them on a totem pole created by my high school with a master carver from Cowichan Nation. I had an appreciation for their culture, and through that, a vague understanding of the historical atrocities they had been subjected to. But I did not know the full extent of what the Canadian Government and the Church was guilty of.
Throughout my teenage years, my family volunteered at monthly community dinners. I remember being very aware of the much higher volume of Indigenous patrons, than any other Ethnicity. “Why?” I asked.
Residential Schools were explained to me in more detail then. The trauma and abuse. The disrespect over the years which had, in a way, broken the pride of these families. Others in the community may have been in just as much need as the ones who did come sit down for a free meal, but pride kept them shuttered in at home. Choosing to be cold and hungry than to ask for help.
This stuck with me for all the years since. How could a Nation’s pride be broken so severely? Why? How?
It was all part of the Canadian Government’s plan to “kill the Indian in the child“. It almost worked. But these Nations are rising again. We can help them. Reconciliation. Admit what happened was wrong. Have Empathy. Build. Strengthen. Grow.
I attended the University of Victoria and obtained a Bachelor’s Degree in Education in 2014. One of the required programs for teachers at UVic is “Indigenous Education”, taught by an Indigenous community member. We cover Residential Schools, the potlatch bans, modern culture, and even Indigenous Sports and games. It astounded me how few of my classmates knew anything about Residential Schools. Most had no clue. Until VERY recently, this era of Canadian History was not mentioned in Canadian grade schools. Those teachers who did know about it were afraid to broach the subject. How do you teach a subject so large and so sensitive with so few resources?
Currently, as part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, all Provinces and Territories include information about Residential Schools in their curriculum, but it is not mandatory, nor is the coverage extensive. We need to continue to push this as a priority across Canada. No one will care about something they don’t even know happened. Our Youth are the Future, but the change must start with us.
When I graduated, I specifically looked for jobs in First Nations schools in remote parts of the coast. I applied in Kingcome Inlet and Ahousaht. Teachers in these remote communities are expected to participate in cultural events. What an honour to even be able to witness such things, after the strong efforts by the Government to smother them out.
I moved to Ahousaht in the summer of 2014. Here I was able to witness and encounter the very raw and real trauma from Residential Schools in modern times. I talked with survivors. People say Residential School is old history. Get over it. Do they realize the survivors walk among us? The last school closed in 1996. That was during my lifetime!
When Lennie and I started dating. He had rules for me. In any other scenario, I would have “Noped” my way right out of there. But I knew there was a deeper reason behind it. I wasn’t allowed to touch him in certain ways. A hand on his shoulder makes him jump at times. The echoes of horror still ring in his head. He has many humorous stories of his time at Christie Residential School – a testament to his ever-present troublemaker personality. But the other stories aren’t shared as easily. They bring me to tears. Every time I hear them, a part of me dies again. MY CULTURE did this to him. So yes, I am responsible. We all are. But our actions today can be our redemption.
I didn’t gain a complete understanding of the scope of the Cultural Genocide Canada committed until I was fully engulfed in the culture of an Indigenous Community. I had to live in Ahousaht and truly know the people to have this perspective. You can’t just stay for a weekend and talk to a few people here and there. You need to sit and listen and get to know the community.
Active listening is something we are all taught in school, but I swear, in this time of smartphones and headphones, we forget how to really listen.
“Active listening involves listening with all senses. As well as giving full attention to the speaker, it is important that the ‘active listener’ is also ‘seen’ to be listening – otherwise the speaker may conclude that what they are talking about is uninteresting to the listener. Interest can be conveyed to the speaker by using both verbal and non-verbal messages such as maintaining eye contact, nodding your head and smiling, agreeing by saying ‘Yes’ or simply ‘Mmm hmm’ to encourage them to continue. By providing this ‘feedback’ the person speaking will usually feel more at ease and therefore communicate more easily, openly and honestly.”
If you ever get the chance to talk to a Survivor, their family or their offspring, LISTEN. Hear their stories. Hear how they are impacted. Hear how the system is still stacked against them.
To me, Reconciliation is acknowledging the wrongs that were done, and recognizing your place in the greater community that committed these atrocities. Reconciliation is having the empathy and respect to listen to Indigenous Peoples and how they are still affected, today, due to these traumas. Reconciliation is spreading the word, joining movements and supporting initiatives to move Indigenous Peoples forward at a pace and in a direction, THEY want to move.
To become a better ally, follow the steps of Reconciliation above. Learn whose Traditional Territory you live in. Talk with members from the Nation. Visit their Administration Office and ask to learn more – Maybe they have programs you can attend – Language, arts, dance. I am sure they would welcome you with open arms if your heart is in the right place.
Listen with an open heart and open mind. It’s hard to go wrong from there.
I would like to graciously thank my friend Zan who posed the questions of What reconciliation means to me? and How can Non-Indigenous community members become better Indigenous Allies? I really appreciate the chance to write out my thoughts on the matter.
For those interested in further information, I urge you to check out the following websites:
Truth and Reconciliation Commission
First Contact (Ahousaht is featured in one of the episodes!)
MacLeans Residential School Article
We Are The Children
Canada’s Dark Secret
National Post Residential School Article