What is reconciliation? The ricochet

His words have a ricochet. They go out, hit their literal meaning and halfway back to you, they start to make sense. By the time they arrive, you have a picture in your mind’s eye and feeling in your heart, that’s all about living here, in this landscape, this city, with your feet on the asphalt of your street, under a tree, under a streetlamp, beneath a satellite that circles around the world and back to you.

His words have a ricochet. He throws them as hard as he can into the air and he fears they will make no sense. But then you catch them in mid-sentence and save the words as you save goose feathers drifting in the field behind your house, or strands of milkweed that flutter in the sun.

This is a job for the artist. To open his hands and blow softly, releasing a butterfly of many wings and meanings. And this is a job for you: to hold out your hand and let wings brush softly on your palm as the butterfly alights.

This is the job of the reconcilers. To make themselves soft and quiet, so that like a dragonfly, an idea might emerge or alight. So that words and songs, when they take flight through the atmosphere, making no sense, encounter the listeners, who hear and speak them back.

What is reconciliation? 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.

What is reconciliation? The chasm

For such a long time, settlers and our government have been doing the same thing over and over. We repeat and repeat the same patterns until they become the fabric of our life and seem like reality itself. In this reality, some people love peace, order and good government and some do not: the angry ones, the people from whom we stole the land. The ones whose languages and cultures we tried to kill off. The people we betrayed. Our betrayal is our sorrow and tragedy, buried deep within us—the wound of our country. But this fabric, this injured country, seems like our only choice. As if our way of life is the best one possible and theft and violence were the only means of creating it. Canada. Peace, order and good government. Peacekeepers, diplomats and nice polite travellers are our faces to the world.

Yet consider how we arrived in this present: by refusing to share the land. By signing treaties with our predecessors and breaking them, or misunderstanding (on purpose) the agreements we signed. By taking the land without offering even the promise of compensation. What is now called “Crown land”.  The unceded traditional territories of all the people who lived here first and still live here now.

We parcel this land into lots for houses, roads and industry. We clear-cut, mine and drill for oil in the vast regions. What little is left over we turn into national parks, where we manage the wildlife – counting species of fish, birds and other animals. In parks, we dictate where visitors may walk or swim or pitch a tent. Whatever is left over after that is for Indigenous peoples—we allot 0.2% of the land to 5% of the population 1.

More often now, we hear voices demanding the Canadian government acknowledge that most Canadian land is unceded territory. These voices are getting louder. Our country is filled with histories and life-ways that have existed for as long as anyone can remember. Lands and waters that defy management, that science and technology cannot account for. We try to dismiss these voices or discredit them – these other nations within our borders. We continue to build houses in disputed territories, in places such as the Mohawk community of Kanehsatà:ke in Quebec and on the Haldimand land tract at the Iroquois community of Six Nations in Ontario. We surround communities with heavy industry, such as the Chippewa people of Aamjiwnaang First Nation who are hemmed in on all sides by the oil and gas refineries and chemical plants of Sarnia, Ontario’s “chemical alley”:  home to 40% of Canada’s petrochemical industry 2.

To ensure the success of our Canadian project, we place a higher value on our settler lives than we do on Indigenous lives. We don’t always know we are doing this, because we know so little about the Mohawks and the Chippewas and other nations, like the Nlaka’pamux people of Coldwater First Nation in Merrit, BC. A bitumen pipeline runs through the middle of their reserve. Now Kinder Morgan wants to build a new pipeline directly over the community’s main water source. The people have said no. The chief of Coldwater First Nation says: “For us it’s not about the politics, but the future of our community and ensuring we have access to clean, safe water.” 3  The Prime Minister of Canada says, “We are one country. The federal government is there to ensure that the national interest is upheld.” 4 He has promised that Alberta bitumen will reach the west coast by the Trans Mountain pipeline, no matter what.

In the past, we hid the evidence of how we tried to wipe out the old cultures – we ensured that our children did not learn about residential schools or the banning of Indigenous languages and ceremonies. Now, as parts of the truth come out, we blame our actions on the ignorance of the past – back then, we did not know better than to separate children from their parents; we thought teaching them Christian ways would make them more like us. That some children starved or died of TB, or that certain nuns and priests abused the children is unfortunate. We have said we are sorry for trying to “kill the Indian in the child.” 5 But our ancestors lived in a harsher, crueller world. We can’t be held responsible for it. We had not yet achieved our current state of peacefulness and kindness – we were not fully Canadian.

Nowadays, we sometimes allow the old songs and stories of this place to be told, though we often try to orchestrate them. We want everyone to know how open and accepting we are. We are sure it would be much better for Indigenous people to settle their differences our way, under the power of the Crown and through our justice system, though it tips most often in our favour.

And so we repeat broken stories of how we triumphed, how it was all for the best, while we stand on the ground of other nations. We think, how ridiculous: Indians having countries. The Indians who could have ruled countries are long dead and gone. There are no real Indians anymore.

And we make yet more promises we do not keep – of clean drinking water or equal funding for education. We show respect by calling the first peoples “Indigenous” instead of “Indians.” Before that, it was “Aboriginal,” “First Nations” or “Native.” But the empty words we speak don’t change the fact that we are creating a dystopia, a chasm opening up between us. In this chasm, we are strangers on the land – we become lost and drown. Our maps blow away on the wind, swept out of our hands. Animals turn from us, and predators attack. It is a place full of thorns and dead ground.

As time passes, the chasm grows wider until it seems the only way to cross –  to reacquaint ourselves with this place –  is to lose ourselves: to walk off the map and leave behind the marked trails; to search the land’s deepest places for the overgrown winding route – the path our ancestors walked before we settlers made enemies of the Onkwehón:we 6 (the original people). Before we forgot how to be Onkwehón:we.  

We’ve been thinking and acting like settlers for so long we no longer think this place (this land we call Canada) could seep in and grow through us, green and alive. We are sure that it could never be so vast. That starlight cannot sing in valleys and light up the highest leaves, turning the deep green pine needles to shades of blue.

We might still dream in our beds of open rooms where a starry sky appears each night, but it is only dreaming. We may, in our dreams, sit by a window to smell wet earth and the perfume of summer flowers. We might hear someone else who is outside in the night, singing in a soft voice from their yard. See the golden square of their window, lit up. Hear the sound of coyote breathing as he searches through our garbage. We may suspect that we are not the only ones. If only we could remember these things, if only we could still know them when we wake from dreaming.

 

What is reconciliation? Visiting Waswanipi

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 behind 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. Elsewhere it was February, but there it was another country.

– in memory of Robert Ottereyes

What is reconciliation: The open door

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 practicing their language. Hear them 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 you belonged to a people that painted over the door. A whole other life. You never saw it until now.

What is reconciliation? Memory of stones

Dusk was coming to the balcony of our Montreal apartment. We could see lights flickering in the windows of the city below the cliff. We lit cigarettes using the gas ring on the stove and I singed my hair. Standing way up high, I saw smoke and lights; streetlamps, flickering neon signs and high-beams of cars; my friend and her brother. He was visiting from his cabin in the woods near Peterborough. A small cabin with a wood stove that never gave enough heat; where one night, an owl swooped down and startled him, just after he had put the campfire out. A cabin near a place called Silent Lake; a little place not far from Curve Lake and the petroglyphs. The air is fresh up there and feels gentle and warm because summer is coming.

Back then, just after the Good Friday agreement, Ireland was on our minds; the beginning of the end of the Troubles. Mohawks from Kanehsatake invited the Nothern Irish to speak of troubles and struggles, so much like home: disputed borders and broken promises, guns threatening to fire; soldiers and police guarding all rights of way; armed checkpoints on the roads. Gerry Adams spoke in Montreal and people gave him a standing ovation, but I stayed in my seat. I knew he lived in a house surrounded by a fortress. How could he be a man of peace? I suspected him. Afterwards, we had a beer at the nearby pub, in a private room, with Gerry Adams a few tables away. The whole time I waited for an explosion.

Years later, I visited Saskatchewan and a different friend, who took me walking on a flat, silent expanse of land covered in sage and short grasses. He showed me a tipi ring he had found near his home, and I stood in the circle. After dark, we sat by the campfire in the backyard, such a long way from the Ontario woods. No trees blocked the night sky; it went on and on forever. Near his home, so many medicine wheels and stones mark a year’s passing. They reminded us that we were sitting under a slowly spinning night as we listened to the crackling fire. Under a wheeling sky, our thoughts turned around and around the memory of stones.

What is reconciliation? Skelep 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. In your mind’s eye, the Indian agent swoops down, snatches the child and spirits him away over a thousand miles to residential school. The train conductor drives the straight rail all night through bush and swamp, his cars full of children crying for their mothers and grandmothers. Their lonely voices rise and pass through the windows into the moonless sky. He remembers them always.

If such a thing happened to even one of our children we would call the police. It would be a red alert. Search parties sent out. Lights shining in dark places. Every sighting reported. Communications lines glowing red with worry and danger. Rescuers with their lights held high scouring the neighbourhoods, searching for a sign.

In the image above, you can see skelep howling. I can’t tell if he is howling in 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 sensitive ears still prick up when he hears the voices. He sings with them.

Skelep is still with us, as people in their regalia still dance at pow wows. 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 skelep has always howled 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.

What is reconciliation? The circle

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

-I Pity the Country, Willie Dunn

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

When we came here, we encountered peoples whose sense of things is circular and revolving, slowing turning and returning to the same places and seasons. Although time has passed, even now to our disciplined, 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: electrical grids, roads and bridges, telecommunications lines strung out over the earth. Our straight lines are hard and flat as a sheet of glass pressed down onto mystery and disturbance: onto land we have never understood, but instead try to measure, parcel out and square away. Straight lines that freeze 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 pin it all down.

This is the place we call Canada, but this place sees Canada and laughs. The very idea. As if. This place stretches out endlessly, and I am small in it and can’t see the beginning or the end. We have drawn our lines, but we’re lost inside the circle. It’s 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 firmament of waves. 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 her kisses with you. If you remember the feeling of arms around you when she last hugged you. Gord didn’t need to write those memories down. He carried them inside him and on his skin and clothes. He’s passed away, 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?

What is reconciliation? 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 the people die off, leaving behind a faded imprint. As they fade away, their voices become faint; their cultures dim; a light going out. A light that shone brightly in the distant past. We 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 around 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 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 Charlie 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 you to find your roots in this land, to let yourself be changed. To let the spirit into your blood.

 

*****

Image from CBC News. Accessed November 19, 2016.