What is reconciliation: the burden of proof

A narrative I hear again and again, spoken in anger:

Nowadays, everybody thinks they should get special treatment. Immigrants want to keep their religion and speak all these different languages—I mean, isn’t French bad enough? And young people! They don’t even know if they’re male or female. And they expect to get everything without working for it. To have their cake and eat it too. Who doesn’t want that? It’s the same with the Natives. They want to bulldoze peoples’ homes so they can make their reserves bigger. What with their houses falling apart and not one of them willing lift a hammer to fix anything. Why don’t they pay taxes like everyone else? Did you know, they have healing circles for criminals? Why should Natives get sentenced to a healing circle? Wouldn’t we all like to get off easy? Those drunk kids who overran that hard-working farmer’s land and threatened his family probably think they’ll get a healing circle. So one of them gets shot. What do they expect? You can’t go breaking into private property. They act like the land belongs to them. Like we should take down all the fences. Change the laws and have different ones for Natives. Give them a free ride. There is only one set of laws, one set of rules. They apply to everyone.

On the trial of Colten Boushie, the boy from Red Pheasant First Nation:

At the trial for the boy who was shot by the farmer, everyone obeyed one set of laws. They all laboured under the burden of proof – some hoping for evidence strong enough to withstand it and others hoping for collapse. The prosecution presented hard evidence, but some of it never got to court: blood spatter and gun powder residue were left to wash away in a summer downpour: the police omitted to throw even a tarp over the truck where the victim died. 1 But the farmer’s Tokarev pistol, a cold war collector’s item, and photos of blood spilling out of the SUV were presented, as well as images of the boy shot in the head. And then testimony: a defendant admitting to shooting the young man, Colten Boushie, but by accident, a freak accident. The hard evidence that survived—difficult pictures of blood, a cold steel pistol—did not withstand the burden of proof beyond reasonable doubt. Certain facts of the case were presented to a jury of 12 Canadians, none of them (apparently) Indigenous, each bearing their own histories and responsibilities. Like all of us, they could see only so far in a world obscured by assumptions and blind spots, gaps in knowledge. These citizens were asked to pass one of three possible judgments: second-degree murder, manslaughter or not guilty. Gerald Stanley, the farmer, the shooter, was acquitted and walks free and Colten Boushie, the boy who trespassed, is dead and buried: one set of laws and one set of rules, applied to everyone.

 

 

 

What is reconciliation: 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?

An RCMP officer banged on the door of a trailer to tell Colten Boushie’s mom that her son 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 collapsed on the floor. “Ma’am, get yourself together,” the officer said. “Ma’am, have you been drinking?” He smelled her breath. Asked Colten’s brothers, “Have you been drinking?”

Gerald Stanley, the farmer who shot Colten, didn’t know him. He used a Russian semi-automatic handgun, a relic from the Cold War, in the conflict between settlers and first peoples. Stanely 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?

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Details taken from the following Globe and Mail article: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/colten-boushie/article32451940/

What is reconciliation? Purple and white

Sometimes in this life, I’ve felt a touch, soft and faint against my skin; the quiet whisper of cloth. I look up, and there it is: an endless blanket of twinkling lights rippling above; big sky flowing over; the round white moon floating there, caught in a tangle of branches and clouds. At the height of summer, in a tiny Mohawk place, I have walked at night in a stand of pines that I love; the forest is small, but its trees become tall and endless in darkness, and I wander there. During a pow wow, I once found a clearing where Seminole women danced, their dresses swaying and jingling; the bells on their skirts gleaming silver in pearly light. I’ve always wanted to dance like them, to circle round and round under the branches of the jack pines, ground covered with their soft, scented needles; round and round, to the distant sound of drums.

Specks of light flow in my blood, like tiny clouds of silvery fish, flickering, sending me back and back, far into the past, until the constellations change and my head swims in the humid night, and my fingers drip with sweat from holding hands in endless rounds of dances, circles within circles. Sweat mingling and steps crossing over onto each other’s paths, until our way is one. My way and your way, at unexpected times, one foot on asphalt, one foot on pine needles; soft, bronze needles, smooth under me.

I’d be willing to give up this Canadian life, the small world of cities clinging to the southern border, full of houses huddled for safety; the friendly faces, the order and good government, the satisfaction. I’d give it up and cross over, just to follow the silver current in my blood. I’d extend my hands, feel the weight of wampum beads pressing onto them, white and purple, row upon row, a sea of peace and friendship. I’m wandering each day further away from my old home and into the forest; out of Canada and into the world, a wide open land, shimmering with stories, overgrown with relations.

What is reconciliation? What the man says

Once a man said, “Indigenous people should not have to endure the labour of educating you.” He said, “I’m here to help you understand that you were culturally insensitive.” He mentioned my creativity to shove in the knife and twist it. But he’s a politically correct man; used to saying the right things to the right people. Helping to lift the world up through his righteousness. He’s not quiet and doesn’t seem soft.

Each year, delicate creatures migrate across the hemisphere to arrive here. They know how to find safe places to rest. They avoid his hands and shoulders; never land on the top of his head. Too much risk to their paper-thin wings.

I meet men who say the wrong things and don’t know it, but still, try to make offerings. Open themselves to being on the wrong side of the argument, though they are baffled by this world. In their uncertainty, they stop and notice. Something light and hesitant has landed, just for a moment before flying away.

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 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.