Truth Before Reconciliation
Dear sister and brother white settlers,
(FN friends, I sense you have way better things to do than deal with the endless task of educating white people so I hope you don’t waste your time and energy here; having said that, anything at all that you wish to correct, criticize or share — without reading this even — is 100% welcome. What I say below may cause anger or be triggering in other ways which is definitely not my intention. None of it would be surprising to you, I suspect, but I bet almost all of it will be surprising to many of my settler peers. Hence I’m addressing it to the white folk, with respect and peace, though anyone can listen in and contribute.)
We are about to hear a lot about Truth & Reconciliation again as Canada holds its first national day of observation honouring the topic.*
The thing is, in order to reconcile, first we need to recognize. This means seeing the truth, letting it be part of our cognition, if you will.
My aim here is not to add guilt or shame — these feelings do not improve matters and might even offer an excuse to avert our eyes because it’s too uncomfortable, slip on an orange t-shirt and call it job done.
Rather my aim is to understand the truth in order to foster meaningful change.
Truth is complex — it means different things to every one of us, so I won’t pretend to tell you what yours is. But I thought I’d share some of mine because it highlights why I have been part of the problem. If I’d like things to change I need to see this for what it is, i.e. my responsibility (aka my ability to respond). Only then can I start to see the wider system.
To illustrate my point, I offer excerpts from a history assignment I did in 1983 when I was 12 (in grade eight).
The textbook we drew from — They Call Us Canadians — was considered progressive at the time. Looking at it now I would say it was at best white-washing, at worst dehumanizing. Any way I slice it, it’s horrifying.
Yet I can’t ascribe all of my ignorance to the text book as I had already formed some of my own opinions from the world around me. No one corrected me then either — it would take a long, long time before I even heard an alternative view, much less considered the alternative view a real option.
Here are some bits of the assignment:
I thought “Indians and Inuit were hard-working people but […] had too many privileges from the government”. Where did I get this impression? From time spent on Manitoulin Island where there are Indian reserves and where my family has a cottage. How do I spell I-R-O-N-Y?
Trudeau (the older one) said that if the land that was theirs was returned to the Indians then the government would have to return all the land, which was impossible. Wait… how do I spell I-R-O-N-Y again?
This assignment was completed in 1983 and there is no mention that the residential school system was still active which is a direct result of the fact that there is no mention of the residential school system… AT ALL. The closest it came was noting that the Indian Act empowered the government to regulate a whole host of things over the Indians, including “schools”. This would at least partially explain — but not excuse by any stretch of the imagination — why so many of us had no idea that it continued until 1996.
By comparison, in 1996 as the residential school system was finally being shuttered, I had graduated from primary school, and then high school and university — mostly on the taxpayer’s dime. Even though I only got 24% and 26% in grade 11 math and physics respectively and therefore did not technically qualify to graduate from high school, on a nod and a wink my teachers — who confirmed I didn’t plan to go on in math or science — made sure my academic record could work within the university application system of the day. Instead of repeating a year, I received several academic awards at the end of high school and then graduated with an Honours BA from one of the top rated universities in the country in 1995. How do I spell P-R-I-V-I-L-E-G-E?
By 1996 I had gotten up to many shenanigans with friends, some outright illegal, some just downright stupid. The only time police were involved, they were jovial and sometimes even joked along with us (“Oh the youth of today!” we mused with them, wasted out of our trees). One time the cops gave me a ride home because I was walking home alone late from a friend’s, and even though I had clearly been drinking underage, instead of mentioning any such thing, when they saw my dad’s government plates (because he was a senior civil servant which granted him a car) they became even more helpful and gracious. “Have a good night! Tell your dad that the squad at 56 division is the best!” How do I spell P-R-I-V-I-L-E-G-E again?
By 1996 I had gone on four foreign exchanges — mostly funded by the education ministry (aka the taxpayer again) because I was a restless teenager who asked a lot of annoying questions and couldn’t sit still or fall in line with norms all that easily; sending me abroad seemed like a good option. As a result I learned several widely spoken languages which allowed me to access jobs and places that reenforced my hirability and the amount I could expect to be paid. Um… P-R-I-V-I-L-E-G-E ?!?
I am not ashamed of my path, but I am keenly aware that it has been almost entirely shaped by how and where I was born — not because of anything special I have done. This is not modesty — it is truth. Most First Nations people of my age had nothing close to the advantages of my white middle class upbringing. If I had been treated the way they were treated for similar behaviour in the same time frame — much less in history — I would quite likely have ended up in trouble with the law, not graduated high school and / or had nothing close to the professional journey I have enjoyed. And had I been a First Nations girl or young woman, things were statistically likely to go even worse (see the second link in the comments). I carry this awareness with me — it is not light.
I am also not sure how I would have handled things emotionally if I didn’t have all the invisible safeguards and protections that I enjoyed. When I have had issues with mental health, anger, depression or dealing with past trauma, because my white culture encourages alcohol consumption, recreational drugs, and numbing out or disconnecting in all kinds of other unhealthy ways, I could just blend in and not worry about being judged. In fact, some of my unhealthy disconnecting tactics probably made me more acceptable and welcomed in some circles.
Meanwhile I missed both the truth about the intergenerational trauma upon which Canada was founded, and — incredibly! — the fact that in spite of the absence of such privilege (and much, much worse) there continue to be numerous First Nations communities and individuals doing amazing things, right under our noses, missed by the mess of prejudice and ignorance.
This amazingness was happening back then and it continues today. In fact when I feel the weight, I realize there is this very bright and exciting and encouraging part of the truth: that of what’s possible in spite of the past. Some of it is very visible and even celebrated, like the music of Elisapie or the art of Philip Cote III or the podcast of Medicine For the Resistance. But often it’s people just getting on with their lives — as teachers or farmers or scholars or any other livelihood you can think of, as mothers and fathers, grandparents and aunties, friends, coworkers.
I don’t have answers about what reconciliation looks like. But when I put my attention on the truth, I can see glimmers of what is possible and I can learn and be inspired by this life-preserving strength, maybe even change parts of myself so that I am at least no longer part of the problem and can one day contribute to solutions.
So this is where I am putting my attention — on the truth in as much of its wholeness as I am able to hold.
Thanks for reading. I offer some links below in case you are interested in a little more reading on the topic.
Yours in connectedness,
Truth & Reconciliation reports: https://nctr.ca/records/reports/
Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls report: https://www.mmiwg-ffada.ca/final-report/
* This blog post originally appeared on Medium on September 30, 2021