Survivors Lead the Way

Confronting the legacy of residential schools can be just as inspiring as it is sobering. Starting out on this path, I’m not sure I realized just how much of the national discussion of reconciliation has been driven by survivors themselves. It was, after all, a class-action lawsuit by thousands of survivors that forced Prime Minister Harper to apologize for schools in 2008.  And that led directly to the Truth and Reconciliation process, from 2008 to 2015. The 94 Calls to Action, the acknowledgment by Parliament that Canada had committed genocide, the new statutory holiday added to the calendars of Canadians, all of that occurred because former students of residential schools got the ball rolling in the first place. Continue reading

Celebrating continuity

As a proud Canadian, it has been painful to learn how leaders of my country made deliberate decisions to eliminate First Nations through policies of family separation. But as we begin to learn more about the story of Canada, it creates space to learn the story of other nations that have lived on this same land throughout. Take the history of the Haudenosaunee, the people the French referred to as Iroquois. They have had a remarkably durable form of government that has met consistently for somewhere between 600 and 900 years. Right here, on either side of Lake Ontario. The government is called the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, a coalition of six component nations. The name derives from the traditional homes the people of the Six Nations share, as you can see in the picture here with the purple and white Hiawatha belt that serves as a national flag. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy relocated to Southwest Ontario after the defeat of their British allies in the American war of independence.  That government has operated there ever since.  Continue reading

The place where the fire beneath the melting pot was lit

  How did Canada set up a system of schools that caused the deaths of so many thousands of children? It’s a question that has haunted me since the National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation demonstrated conclusively that the intent behind our system of residential schools met the internationally accepted definition of genocide.   This winter, the question led me to Carlisle, Pennsylvania. That is the town where the infamous quote came from, uttered by the founding principal of the Carlisle Industrial Indian School, Richard Henry Pratt: “Kill the Indian and save the man.”   It’s a quote often misattributed to Sir John A MacDonald.  MacDonald’s sin wasn’t to pronounce the words, though.  It was to embrace the method Pratt extolled in that infamous speech.   Continue reading

Forgetting and Remembering

Our research has uncovered two remarkable documents, both from 1906. One is an Annual Report by Principal of the Shingwauk Institute which sheds light on the thinking that went into the attempt to eliminate First Nations.  The other is a transcription of the oral traditions by which Anishnaabe culture did, in fact, survive.  Deprived of the children to whom to recount the rich and intricate Creation myths in which parables and other lessons for new generations are related, elders related their stories to an American ethnographer. These records are now the basis for cultural revitalization efforts across Northern Ontario. Children played the central role - both the process of transmitting the culture and the attempt to eradicate it.  It's appropriate that they are the focus of the Remembering Project as well. Continue reading

Our Responsibility to History

Chief Deskaheh laid the wampum belt across the lectern. "We are a nation in the world" he told the audience gathered at the grand hall on Sussex Drive.  This past July, on behalf of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy he represents, "we presented a belt similar to this in Geneva to seek ... relationship with other countries." The work we are doing confronting the legacy of residential schools raises some awkward questions about Canada’s history. How did we not know such systematic abuses were being committed right up to the 1990s? What else from Canada’s history has been forgotten, intentionally or otherwise?  The nations that were here before are still here. The process by which we came to forget them is bound up with the process by which we became a nation. As we set out to remember, it raises awkward questions for the country we hold dear. What responsibility do we have to history, when it challenges us? The event our organization hosted with the Haudenosaunee Confederacy to bring Chief Deskaheh to Ottawa offers some answers. Continue reading

Notre responsabilité envers l'histoire

 ‘N’oublie pas que nous avons quatre cents ans d’histoire partagée’ me rappelle John Ralston Saul.    L'auteur célèbre  voulait souligner que la période de ces terribles écoles résidentielle est limitée, ce n’est pas toute l’histoire du Canada.  Dans les 400 ans depuis la première colonie permanente établie par les Européens, il y a aussi eu de la coopération et de la tolérance.  Nous sommes dans un processus continu de compromis et d’adaptation des uns envers les autres.    Quelle est donc notre responsabilité envers l’histoire du Canada?  Est-ce que nous devons la célébrer afin de renforcer la fierté collective, ou la dénoncer pour ne pas répéter les erreurs du passé?    Continue reading

Learning How to Approach the Work of Remembering

"If you are going to do this Remembering Project, you have to start right" Charlotte Tookenay told me, when we first met in the pow wow circle. How do we even begin to discuss the harm done, as members of the community that caused the harm? "You start with spirit."   Continue reading

In the Shadow of Nanabozhoo

In the Anishnaabe creation story, the figure of Nanabozhoo plays a major role. As I understand it he is the first being in human form to walk the Earth. Since w are last species to be created, he walks the land and learns from other species. They teach him -and us - the way humans should live. The mountain the towers over Thunder Bay is a likeness of him. He is the Sleeping Giant as you can see across the water from this town did find itself at the centre of the relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians today. A place where the task of learning remains active today. Continue reading

The Antidote To Erasure

The memorial of the 27 children who died while attending residential school in Chapleau moved me deeply. The country that I love tried to erase these children. We tried to erase the languages they spoke and the cultures they belonged to. How do we even start trying to make things right? As I learned this summer, step one is to just show up. The community showed me what to do from there. Continue reading

Communities from coast to coast are searching for their missing children

What can a non-indigenous Canadians do to address the depths of damages our society inflicted on generations of children in residential schools?  To find out I attended the National Gathering on Missing Children and Unmarked Graves and Burial Sites.  The fifth such National Gathering since the discovery of the 215 unmarked graves of children in Kamloops in 2021, these are hosted by the Special Interlocutor appointed to help communities now running searches at dozens of residential school sites across the country. You can read the report I prepared for the community at Chapleau whose children are buried in that beautiful copse of trees I found this summer here.  Continue reading