Face in the mirror

The politicians in this place we call Canada have taken hold of the word reconciliation, using it in the House of Commons, in media appearances and in official documents, when they speak of relationships with Indigenous Peoples. The term comes from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada on residential schools, which is in turn related to many other such commissions, in countries that include Argentina, Chile, South Africa, Congo and Sierra Leone.

But in Canada, most, if not all, politicians have dropped the word “truth” from the discussion. As if the truth telling that emerged through the commission’s work—first person testimonies, historical photographs and documents, the final report and calls to action—means that the Canadian government can dispense with the term, with truth, and move on.

The truth of the relationship between Indigenous Peoples and the Canadian government is painful; it’s a long story to tell—more than 150 years long, with many, many voices speaking different languages, filtered through unique cultures, over vast lands. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission on residential schools delved into only one of the crimes committed against Indigenous Peoples by Canada.

But focusing on reconciliation is a way for government and businesses to try and put the past behind them.

Before they understand it, people tend to talk about trauma in terms of wanting to put the past behind them; to move on, to stop rehashing things. This is because we, as human beings, want to avoid pain and fear. Yes, it’s very painful to dig up this past, the shared experience of Indigenous Peoples and settlers. It’s like cutting open the skin with no anaesthesia to drain an infection. And perhaps politicians and corporations want to avoid doing this for other reasons. Maybe it’s dangerous to go digging into history—it might de-stabilize the whole structure: the nation state, its very rich corporate allies, the stories many people tell themselves about Canada, about how everything’s turned out for the best; how we are the most peaceful nation on earth.

It’s not time yet for reconciliation because this country has not yet dealt with the pain and disfigurement just below the surface—a wound that will take a long time to heal. Every time it surfaces, there are people who act out in anger and fear, burning effigies of Indigenous People, throwing rocks, assaulting Indigenous women. Does their hatred come from a belief that their safe and wealthy way of life is actually their due and the result of their own hard work? That it is not in fact a privilege that Indigenous Peoples have paid the price for? Would understanding this make it possible to ease the pain and pour water on the raging fire that’s been burning them up for generations?

I wonder if this anger is also rooted in a misunderstanding about identity. If a person is born in Canada, then they are Canadian—there is nothing they need to do to earn their identity and citizenship. It’s a birthright that comes from being born on Canadian soil.

What if many Indigenous nations see the land where their community is rooted the same way—as the home of their nation? When they are born, they are Anishinabek, Kanienkehaka, Eeyou and so on—it is their birthright and can’t be bought or sold. It is often tied to the land where their nation is rooted.

In this case, the argument that Indigenous Peoples want land without paying for it fall apart. As with Canadian citizenship, Indigenous citizenship can’t be bought or sold. Of course, Canada, the nation state, does not recognize the other nations within its borders. And many Canadians don’t either. They see Indigenous land as belonging only to Canada. And many people believe all reserve land should become private property—broken up into lots to be bought and sold.

If Canada does not know its true history as told by all of us living in this place, Canada is doomed to repeat it. But if the true stories are told often enough, by everyone concerned, the notion of reconciliation might fall away and cease to matter. The scales could fall from eyes and ears. Hearts could open up, becoming bigger, capable of more compassion, able to hold more love. The scabs that have grown over the wound at the heart of this place called Canada might fall away.

But for the most part, Canada doesn’t acknowledge its history and so it repeats and repeats the same mistakes, getting the same results and never learning from them. Sometimes it steps out of the pattern of imposing its will on Indigenous nations and enters into true two-way relationships. Canada implements, together with Indigenous nations, agreements that are bilateral and both parties come away better off.

Some people living here are learning the history and seeing Canada differently–questioning its existence as it is today. Repudiating the pernicious ideas at the heart of Canada’s colonial history–that only Europeans were fully human and everyone else who was “discovered” was less than human. One of the earliest doctrines to articulate this idea is the Doctrine of Discovery, through which European explorers and colonists gave themselves permission to take all the land and wealth everywhere they went.

And so what, 500 years later, do we inherit from this legacy? What does it do to us as a people and as individuals, to live in a society made possible by treating the Indigenous Peoples as less than human? The legacy of this doctrine is the reserve system, the crisis in child welfare, missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, multi-generational trauma caused by residential schools, alcohol and drug abuse and homelessness. And for us settlers, bewilderment, fear, anger and defensiveness at worst and at best a growing feeling that we are running out of time to save ourselves, whatever we may be–Canadians, inhabitants of Turtle island or immigrants. An urgency to save ourselves from growing environmental disaster and collapse, from living in a world solely ruled by institutions almost exclusively devoted to turning profits any way they can.

A truly depressing picture of Canada. But there is a lot of hope, although it is mostly about how things are going on the individual and interpersonal level. As individuals, Indigenous people from all nations are speaking out and transforming their own lives, their family’s and sometimes their community’s lives–pushing back against ignorance and fear. And many settlers are learning about the shared history of settlers and Indigenous Peoples—understanding better why we need to change the relationship in order to change the trajectory of our society as a whole.

There is hope that the Canadian government, under the Liberals, had the will and desire to implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery by removing its influence from our laws and policies.

Even though Bill-262, an Act to ensure that the laws of Canada are in harmony with the UNDRIP, tabled by NDP MP Romeo Saganash, died in the senate, where it was delayed by Conservative senators until the House rose for the summer, it is still remarkable.

It is very rare for non-governmental bills to pass through the House of Commons and to get as far in the Senate. So the fact that this Bill made it to the senate at all is a sign of hope and an indication of the government’s willingness to change. This happened because of widespread support for its passage throughout civil society, from churches, labour unions, human and environmental organizations and Indigenous leadership.

Progress is slow and unfolds along a twisting, difficult-to-discern path. But at least many people are on the path, catching a glimpse of themselves in the mirror of truth and seeing the not just beauty but also the ugly parts. And starting to make room for the story that Canada has always wanted to forget. A story that told in its entirety, is breathtaking in beauty, courage and hope. By opening themselves to this painful history, they begin to recuperate the joy and wholeness they’ve been seeking all along.

Introduce yourself

Reconciliation is so far away. Now is not the right time. We are miles and miles apart, even though we live next door. How do we move closer? How to begin at the beginning? Hello, my name is…. Nice to meet you. Where are you from?

Armed RCMP officers pulled up in front of the trailer belonging to Colten Boushie’s mom. An armed RCMP officer told her that her son Colten had been killed. “He is deceased,” the officer said.

Officers came into her trailer and searched it. Opened all the doors and cupboards. Meanwhile, Colten’s mother lay on the floor. “Ma’am, get yourself together,” the officer said. He said, “Ma’am, was you drinking?” And she said “No.” And then he smelled her breath. Asked Colten’s brothers: had they been drinking?

Gerald Stanley, the farmer who shot Colten, didn’t know him. He used a Russian-made semi-automatic pistol in the conflict between settlers and Indigenous Peoples. Stanley seems to have felt only coldness and fear. He didn’t ask, “Where are you from? How do you do?” The kids in the pickup truck didn’t ask either. No one sat down and introduced themselves.

Almost 200 years ago my mother’s family settled in the bush north of Quebec City. They survived by raising chickens and growing vegetables. Cutting wood. Earning a few dollars here and there.

Margaret McKeown, my grandmother, kept a rifle in her bedroom. When drunk fishermen came to the house to steal farming equipment, tools–anything not nailed down–she filled the gun with rock salt, opened the window, shot them in their behinds and watched them run away.

Would the RCMP officer have helped Colten’s mother up, made her tea and held her hand if he could have seen her as a mom? If we don’t know each other, there is nothing to reconcile, only hard words and stony ground. Walls with no doorways leading through. No garden on the other side, where we could walk together.

I know of a town and a reserve. The mayor and his son went on a canoe trip with the Chief and his son. They travelled together on a rushing river, adventuring to a place they had never been. It was part of their process of creating. Building a community centre, a hockey rink. Something that wasn’t there before. Making a place where strangers can sit side by side and ask, “How are you?”

Rock salt may hurt like hell. But a Tokarev semi-automatic kills (or maims). The absence of knowing each other brings the bullet through the window of the truck. The problem is always the same and keeps repeating: Gerald Stanley’s wife says “That’s what you get for trespassing on private property.” Colten’s family says, “We share the land. To say they killed him for trespassing means they violated the Treaty. Nobody owns the land.”

We are side by side in this place of stories–some shared, some growing out of this old land, belonging to no one. It is not the right time. It is the only time. How do we get close enough to hear the stories, be claimed by them and find ourselves changed?

***************

Details taken from:

 https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/colten-boushie/article32451940/

The long list of problems Colten Boushie’s family says marred the case

https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatoon/colten-boushie-family-list-problems-gerald-stanley-case-1.4532214

Ricochet

His words ricochet. He casts them out, they strike and, on the rebound, start to make sense. They pick up grit and dirt from skittering on roads. Bits of wood from striking against walls and glancing off trees. Words and strings of words: constellations and courage, Newfoundland dogs, a great black plate of ice. Something called winterfighter in Thompson, Manitoba; breezes turning into rivulets; treasures buried on the Paris of the prairies.

If his words come to you, they may create an image in your mind’s eye, a feeling in your heart about living here, on this land and in the city, with your feet on the street, under trees and street lamps, beneath satellites that circle around the world and back to you.

He offered poems and songs like sparks from a campfire, leaving behind flames that smoulder and catch on, enter our imagination and make us see things from the outside—bigger, more mysterious.

His words ricochet. He throws them as hard as he can into the air and fears they will make no sense. But you are alert and quick and your heart is open, so you catch them, closing your hands before they hurtle onward. You feel them bouncing against your palms, see light sparkling through openings between your fingers. The energy of words seeps through your skin, helping you understand the country, the people, your own heart. And the hearts of others, who don’t feel this country, Canada, is home. The words slow down and become softer—like a goose feather that drifts into your hand, or milkweed that flutters around your feet as you wander a field behind your house.

It was urgent for him to get the words out, to use them all up, so he sent them hurtling. But really, he only needed to open his hands and blow softly to release a butterfly of wings and meanings. We were always there, holding out our hands, waiting for them to brush our palms.

Now his work is over, and he’s left a job for the reconcilers: to be gentle and quiet so we hear voices and stories that are always told but not understood. To reach out and take hold of each other across the deep divide of ignorance and anger disturbing this country, and not let go. Even if we are strangers to each other; even if we have to walk a long way together in the cold and dark. A job for the reconcilers: to never forget the promise-breakers; the treaty-breakers. To do everything we can to build good relations and trust. To walk the sometimes cold and treacherous path along the divide, looking for places that might become hospitable; where we can build new crossings together.

The pendant

I got a pendant from a silversmith and I wear it every day. Because of Gord. He writes the names of people he loves on his hands so he can remember. His memory for things close to the surface is bad. Like names of friends or his favourite place to meet for a coffee. He speaks slowly, leaving lots of space to breathe between words. You could break into his thoughts then, or you could wait and see what comes next. It takes a while for his ideas to form, each one unfolding like a flower. On the pendant, there is a heart, and inside the heart, Gord’s name. I could write it on my hand, but it would wash away, and what I’ve learned from him stays with me: how I have always been on an adventure. Tinged with the lightness of having returned from a trip where I did not worry or work too hard, where I found new things each day. I’m sure it’s sentimental, this circle of silver. But sentimentality and gentleness get confused. Anyway, Gord. This jewel is a shimmering reminder. He lost memories but still finds and keeps words: on his skin, on sheets of paper folded in his pockets, in recordings of his voice. He uses them to map all the new days of his adventure.

Visiting Waswanipi

In memory of Robert Ottereyes

I left my country and entered another. After driving a long time on winter roads, we crossed the border. Slowly, the language began to change, until iiyiyuu ayimuun, James Bay Cree, took over completely. When I looked out the window at endless snow, it was all familiar, roads and rooftops covered in white, but it belonged to another land. When we finished driving and stepped onto the ground, my feet sank into white snow and we were encircled by a village of snug houses. We followed a woman wearing snowshoes until the path led us to an outdoor shelter, where we sat on a bed of cedar branches and warmed ourselves by the heat of an oil barrel stove. We ate beaver, goose and ptarmigan. Beaver roasting and crackling on a spit and bannock turning golden in a cast iron pan. The language of the Eeyou Istchee was the lingua franca, with English or French difficult to speak. Outside, winter was fierce and my coat from down south was like a sweater. I sat close to the hot barrel stove and smelled the wood smoke and fat of roasting meat; listened to the hum of people talking; felt the softness of cedar; the roar of a snowmobile in the distance. Outside, I knew the sky would be pure blue and the pines and firs, dark green. We had come from a place called Canada, but there it was another country.

The open door

-for Jesse Thistle

When you say you are sorry (from your heart), you open the door to a room within. A cool, peaceful space where a breeze blows in the half-open window and green leaves brush against the glass. You enter and sit in the chair, yellow sun slants across your face and there are no distractions. You’ve begun to understand pain—being hurt and hurting others. You’ve started to make space for it, and in consequence, find yourself here in this room where pain lives side by side with your heart, in peace.

When you say you are sorry, a door opens and something new begins. The door may open to a different place where sad stories and tragedies fill only a few rooms in a great, sprawling house. A house also filled with laughter and the smells of supper cooking, the quiet murmur of voices in prayer. Someone’s fingers tapping on a keyboard, writing a story; someone else singing, another sewing. Listen to the sounds of children running in and out of the house, playing hide-and-seek in a field, gathering wood for the bonfire. They remember and dream as you do, memories and dreams of their own, mysteries falling from the stars, sparks of light shimmering among trees in summer. This house has always been here. But maybe you belonged to a people that painted over the door. Whole other lives. You never saw them until now.

Sk’elep speaks

Canada’s residential school system for Aboriginal children was an education system in name only for much of its existence. These residential schools were created for the purpose of separating Aboriginal children from their families, in order to minimize and weaken family ties and cultural linkages, and to indoctrinate children into a new culture—the culture of the legally dominant Euro-Christian Canadian society…

– Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future, the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada

Imagine a little boy or girl walking a gravel road on the reserve near home. Picture in your mind’s eye an Indian agent driving through town, opening the door of his truck and snatching a child from the road, to spirit him away over a thousand miles to residential school. As you imagine the scene you may be in a safe place, such as your home or a café. Or on a train taking you to school or work. Unlike the child, you board the train willingly, whether following a familiar route or going on an adventure.

When the children board the train, it is icy cold and strange. They are all alone, without Mum or Dad or Grandma. The train conductor knows this—he’s done this run before, driving the straight rail all night through bush and swamp, his cars full of frightened children, crying for their family. Their lonely voices rise and pass through the windows into moonless sky. The train conductor hears the small voices and remembers them always1.

If such a thing happened to even one of our children we would call the police. Sound the alarm. Send out search parties and shine lights in dark places. Every sighting reported. Communication lines growing taut with worry and danger. Rescuers with their lights held high running through darkness of the neighbourhoods, searching for a sign.

In the image above, you can see sk’elep howling. I can’t tell if he feels rage or joy. I think his fierceness includes both. At night, he still visits the place where they kept the children. It’s been closed 40 years, but his ears still prick up when he hears the voices. He sings with them.

Sk’elep is still with us, as people in their regalia still dance at powwows, as fires that went underground rise to the surface, crackling with tobacco and cedar. The shadows of eagles’ wings brush the darkness, bringing clean, cold air to these abandoned rooms of mould and fear.

The train whistle is gone but sk’elep always sings at night. He passes through backyards and across suburban streets, sending his voice over the neighbourhoods, waking people from sleep. He walks the broken railroad tracks that come down from the north, and he remembers.

Artwork above by Chris Bose of the Nlaka’pamux nation. The image includes a photograph of the Kamloops residential school building. The Kamloops Indian Residential School was in operation from 1894 to 1977. Sk’elep or coyote is the traditional trickster figure in the pantheon of Secwepemc mythology.

The circle

They pull and they paw me
They’re seeking to draw me
Away from the roundness
of the life

-from “I Pity the Country” by Willie Dunn

I picture a fine, woven silver web that begins and ends inside a spider. The spider begins and ends in a web of life that has no beginning or end because it is a circle. Our social and blood relationships are intertwined as webs, beginning and ending in each of us, who in turn begin and end in the circle.

The Indigenous Peoples of this place seem to have a sense of the world as circular and revolving, always turning and returning to the same places and seasons. Some of my ancestors must have seen the world the same way—they were shepherds, fishers and farmers who lived from season to season, year to year, on the land. But today, to our science-based, settler minds, the circle is an inconvenient mystery—we can’t find its beginning or end. Circles don’t stretch out across the land as straight lines do, pinning down life with sharp edges.

The circle curls up into itself and spreads out, getting in the way of our complicated systems: our electrical grids, roads and bridges, telecommunications lines strung out over the earth. Our straight lines are hard and flat, pressed down over mystery and disturbance, onto a land we don’t understand, despite how we try to measure and parcel it out, square it away.

We have a straight, flat gaze that freezes in place tracks of wild animals weaving through forests, running through backyards in the middle of the night, stopping in mid-air all the wings that ride the wind above our houses at dusk. We would hold it all there, tight in our grasp.

This is the place we call Canada, a place of science and industry, connected from Victoria to St John’s by the world’s longest highway, settled in cities and towns. But the older place, the one to which this modern nation clings, tenuously, sees Canada and laughs. The very idea. As if. That place stretches out endlessly. Within it, our highways are only fading lines on the landscape, our cities small outposts of flickering light. I am small in this place and can’t see the beginning or the end.

We settlers draw our lines, measure our property, make up rules. But we’re lost inside the circle. The circle is outside of our outer world, beyond our imagination. It makes up the sky that holds our sky. All our rivers and oceans flow within its ancient roots and stones. And it keeps spreading out every time we think we’ve touched it, taking us further into the wild.

What is reconciliation? The stranger

Don’t worry, he’ll still be here, walking Toronto’s sidewalks in ten years’ time. Stopping to hug a stranger who puts a hand on his shoulder and opens her arms. Like her, we need someone to hold hands with, the way he held Pearl Wenjack’s hand. Someone to hug and kiss the way he kissed his bandmates and hugged them close.

It’s quietness, that’s his trick. Silence where you hear soft voices and gentle breathing, the first opening of trust. You might not know it’s arrived. As you may not realize that Gord’s walked by. Just another guy in a jean jacket and toque. Scraps of paper in his hand and spilling out of his pockets. His brother walking beside him, arm around Gord’s shoulders. Sound of boots on the sidewalk, air moving aside as they pass.

It won’t matter that time passes if you carry the memory of his kisses with you. How he kissed his bandmates on the lips. If you can still imagine how it would’ve felt if he hugged you – he gave so many hugs. Gord didn’t need to write those memories down. He carried them inside of him and on his skin and clothes. He’s passed on, but he’s still here. You’ll have to watch and listen for that friend you used to know ten years ago. He might be downtown. A guy walking by. You don’t want to mistake him for a stranger.

In his time, he tried to reconcile with the ones he loves; tried to make this place the country of his dreams. In his heart, he held a little girl’s hand, a child needing help finding her way back home, from being lost; home to sounds of the TV, her favourite couch and her mother’s arms around her. In Toronto, he walked with his own daughter, their arms intertwined, holding her close. You could hear their footsteps and soft laughter; see long shadows of skyscrapers at sunset as they wandered home.

You’ll run into him one day outside a café perhaps, and he’ll wrap you in his arms. You’ll feel rough denim on your cheeks and his jacket’s buttons pressing in. Your tears will fall on his sleeve and his hat’s feather will brush your hair. It will be as if you’ve just returned here from a long time away, to this sidewalk, this bright window, the cool softness of his cheek.

What is reconciliation? Beginning again

The country we call Canada began as illusion: with the story that Canada was an empty space. A space to be opened up and taken over by settlers looking for new homes; by traders looking for riches. Canada rests upon a surface of illusion and disinformation. Beneath that surface is another place. It has survived the force our lies. A place we’ve damaged and disregarded.

I say this next part tentatively: Canadians need to learn the Indigenous stories and ceremonies and make them our own. Or better said: We must allow ourselves to be overtaken by the deepest part of this place, its ways and stories. If not, we shuffle and slip along a hard and brittle surface that prevents us from sinking down. Under the hardest ice are seeds waiting for spring; roots lying dormant; old leaves turning into new soil.

When we came, we brought stories with us, our plants and medicines too. But they are fading and dying off. They belonged to another place and time. My ancestors were poor Irish Catholics 200 years ago, but that doesn’t help me now. Some drops of the old time still cling to me, evaporating, long passed.

To know what this place is, its deepest roots, its oldest stories, what must we strip away? How do we arrive at the beginning?

What is reconciliation? Don’t just do something, stand there

At the first rehearsal of Irwin Shaw’s play, “The Assassin,” Producer Martin Gabel noticed a young actress gesticulating wildly instead of remaining motionless. Gabel shouted: “Don’t just do something; stand there.”

When I was a student, I was an Indigenous rights activist. I made friends with people from nations across Canada, and got to hear their stories. That’s how I learned about residential schools more than 25 years ago, and about the sixties scoop. I met people who experienced these things and told me about it.

Our student group organized demonstrations, panel discussions, film presentations, fund-raisers; even poetry readings. I wrote for the student newspaper on local and national Indigenous issues.

The goal was to DO something. To make a difference and get the broader society to recognize and respect Indigenous people and their rights. Our activist group had lots of success when it came to doing things. We put up posters and organized events. Raised funds, screened films, attended demonstrations, signed petitions.

After a few years however, I began to see that “doing” things wasn’t having the effect I expected. Strangely, the sum total of everything I did to “help” or make a “difference” seemed to have been handed back to me one-hundredfold as gifts, both tangible and spiritual.

These gifts were in the form of kindness and trust. People who had been hurt, sometimes deeply, by Canadians, offered me their trust and friendship and told me their stories; people with little money and humble means offered me meals and made me welcome in their homes. I was given thank you gifts: a Haudenosaunee flag; a hand-made Abenaki basket. To be honoured and trusted outshone everything I had ever “done”.

Mainstream Canadian society believes, deeply and unconsciously, that we are most important in this country. We tot up our accomplishments as if they will change the world. We want to solve problems, even if we have to invent them. We invented the Aboriginal problem so we could be helping and fixing. It is so much easier to be doing than it is just to be here, in this place we call Canada.

And anyway, how do we solve the problem of ourselves?

The myth of the vanishing Indian

“To the extent that the Indian was on his way out, [colonial society] created reserves, they created little wardship statuses, they created situations to manage the problem while it went away. In the meantime, the colonial society arrogantly assumed everything that the Indian had. Her land, his power, all of these things. In Canada in the 1950’s, the people and their rights were assumed to be…fading away, the vanishing Indian. But then, you had this boomerang effect where the Indian comes back, and it was ‘Indian’ at that time. The Indian comes back, physically, culturally, intellectually: that culture, that society, that power begins to re-emerge.”

–Taiaiake Alfred on Canada and its indigenous peoples, Dec 29, 2003

The myth of the vanishing Indian is the story about what’s left over as peoples die off, leaving behind a faded imprint. As they fade away, their voices become faint; their cultures dim; a light goes out. A light that shone brightly in the distant past. People in the thrall of this myth look down through a narrow space of the present and see only worn-down reserve houses; broken bottles of booze; grey, cold streets with old men hunched on city sidewalks.

In this story, you don’t hear the piercing sound of singing and the pounding of the pow wow drums coming towards you under the earth, through the soles of your feet and up into your guts. Drums you hear all summer long on the pow wow trail, or in night clubs, where the electric pow wow beats of A Tribe Called Red bounce off the walls, and voices like a high wailing wind swirl across the dance floor. In that story, you can’t feel the intense heat of sacred fires, burning all over this land. Where you can sit with tobacco and cedar in your hand before tossing the medicine into the fire, sending your prayers to your creator.

Mark how the face and voice of Chanie Wenjack’s sister Pearl rise in stark relief against that faded and tattered story of the Indian. Hear her voice travel to us across CBC’s airwaves as she retells how her little brother died escaping residential school. Ever since she started speaking to us, Pearl’s voice has been whispering in our hearts, whether we hear it or not. She has the voice of my grandmother and your grandmother. She had a brother who could have been my brother or yours. Feel it, a connection growing, deep within your sense of country.

It is time for those blinded by the myth of the vanishing Indian to find our roots in this land, to let ourselves be changed. To let the spirit into our blood.

Image from CBC News. Accessed November 19, 2016.