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Towards reconciliation: collective identity and denied history


The last National Gathering of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was held in Edmonton, Alberta late last month.

Thousands of residential school survivors gathered to share stories of their experiences in the schools, as well as the impact it has had on their lives afterwards.

During the gathering, the province of Alberta announced that residential school history will now be added to the province’s curriculum. When the audience’s cheers in reaction to the news quieted down, a key question lingered: how is it possible that this is not already part of collective knowledge across the country?

At a time when the Harper government has introduced a new First Nations Education Act, without respectful engagement with First Nations, it is ironic that non-indigenous Canadians’ own education is so terribly lacking, specifically with respect to it’s history of colonization.

Reconciliation can’t occur in any context if the truth is not first acknowledged.  And educating Canadians about the truth of the Indian Residential Schools would be an important first step in contextualizing the challenges currently facing the country's indigenous communities — challenges which cannot be divorced from this history.

At this historic event, fellow academic Jennifer Adese and I were asked to take part in a panel called “Reconciliation and Collective Memory in a Divided Country.” The panel explored the place of the Indian Residential School system in the collective memory of non-Indigenous Canadians. It interrogated how Canadians’ perceptions differ depending on factors such as privilege, geography, ethnicity and education. But ultimately, it discussed the links between past and present.

What follows summarizes what we spoke about as academics but also as Residential School legacy holders.

Tasha Hubbard

I am an intergenerational survivor of the Indian Residential School system. My maternal great grandparents and grandparents attended, and my great-grandfather was apprehended as a small boy by the Jesuits as his family attempted to travel to the Cypress Hills. My father and my siblings attended the Lebret Residential School, which finally closed its doors in 1996.

But I did not grow up knowing this history. I was adopted out at birth and raised as a fourth-generation settler in southern Saskatchewan. My childhood, while a positive one, was devoid of any real representation of my Cree, Saulteaux, Nakota and  Métis peoples’ history. I received the same distorted and incomplete public education about Indigenous peoples that most Canadians receive. As a young adult who was fortunate enough to be able to find my birth family, my history came to me through talking to family, and through the reconciliation in my own mind that the Canada I grew up thinking I knew is not the benevolent and gentle Canada still powerful in the public imagination.

The residential school legacy is widespread and continues to show itself in the poverty, loss of language, cycles of addiction and the other issues faced by Indigenous peoples that the mainstream media choose to focus on. Canada was and continues to be placed firmly on a foundation of children’s pain and parents’ nightmares.

The Indian Residential Schools were one of many policies that have been imposed with impunity on Indigenous peoples. These policies and laws include forced relocation, starvation policies, the Orwellian Indian Act, and military mobilization against women and children.

We cannot lose sight of the fact that beyond their direct legacies, the spirit of many of historical events like the Indian Residential Schools have morphed into contemporary policies enforced on indigenous peoples.

Jennifer Adese

In the poem “Riel is dead, and I am alive” Michif poet Rita Bouvier problematizes how memories are made with respect to Métis people. Academics, historians, and everyday Canadians, she notes, tend to focus on Louis Riel and his legacy, to the neglect of what she calls “a living people.” She notes that she remembers who she is as a Michif person through her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother.

When I remember, I remember my great-grandma, the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen pictures of. But I also remember that she attended mission school until grade 4, but suffered a breakdown years later and spent the rest of her life in mental health institutions. I remember my grand-auntie, who was a keeper of stories and a woman who knew the land by the dotting of blueberry bushes. I remember how her eyes would cloud over when asked about her time at mission school in St. Albert, and who never could bring herself to do more than whisper, “it wasn’t good.”

These are just some of the beautiful and painful ways that I remember my loved ones, those whose stories stay with me, and inform how I remember who I am.

When talk of reconciliation and remembering come up, I think of stories like these. I think about how people often forget the very important reality that residential schools were just one of many different paths taken by settler peoples and governments to change and ultimately assimilate First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples.

While some Métis have been included within the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA) and have been given room at reconciliation events to share their stories, there has been no genuine account of the wider trauma of colonization as Métis have experienced it.

If we are going to expand “reconciliation” to mean something applicable to more than the specific experiences woven into the work of the TRC, there must be some kind of concerted effort to understand Métis realities from Métis perspectives. Métis cannot be remembered, and present realities can’t be recognized and respected, if there is not a willingness on the part of Canada to truly hear Métis peoples, and to hear the ways that they have been impacted by the legacy of residential schools, day schools, mission schools, and forced relocations.

Canada must acknowledge the military repressions of the late 19th century, the ongoing denials of Métis rights and denial of our existence as distinct peoples. If we don’t take the unique Métis experiences seriously, we create a tiered system of reconciliation, and move forward from a point that obscures the limits to this important project of reconciliation.

Tasha Hubbard is a documentary filmmaker, an Assistant Professor at the University of Saskatchewan in the Department of English, and a Broadbent Fellow. Dr. Jennifer Adese (Métis) is an Assistant Professor in the School of Canadian Studies at Carleton University.

Photo: Dreams of the Future, Sandra Buchner and Julie Stroshein (digital collage with artwork by Department of Art and Art History students at the University of Saskatchewan who were involved in IRS class project), 2013.