Culture at the crossroads of truth and reconciliation

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In its findings, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was upfront and clear that for over a century, the goal of Canada’s government was one of cultural genocide – “the destruction of those structures and practices that allow a group to continue as a group.”

In its introduction, the commission’s report acknowledges cultural genocide as the destruction of political and social institutions, seizure of land, the forced transfer of populations and restriction of movement, banning of languages and spiritual practices, the persecution of spiritual leaders and confiscation or destruction of objects of spiritual value.

“In its dealing with Aboriginal people, Canada did all these things,” wrote the commission, and the Indian Residential School system was a key policy of those bent on destroying a people by erasing its culture.

The commission was tasked with hearing and witnessing the truth about a system developed to remove children from their mothers and fathers, from their homes and way of life, and relocate them to institutions designed to inoculate them from their own cultural identity.

But in recording the stories of those who were subject to this government policy and affected by it, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was also tasked with finding a way toward reconciliation of the legacy the Indian Residential School system left behind.

Stories are a part of that reconciliation process, with culture forming a critical area of the 94 calls to action issued by the commission. The calls to action cover every aspect of Canadian life and for the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, it was important to gather leaders in the Bow Valley community together and explore what can be done.

A Truth and Reconciliation Summit was held on Saturday (Oct. 31), and Brian Caillou, Indigenous leadership and management program director at the Banff Centre, said it focused on establishing a regional approach that works with as many sectors, service areas and government agencies as possible.

He said those attending the summit clearly signalled that reconciliation is important to them and they are keen to find out what role they can play.

“Our hope and dream is that every one of you that is here today is going to engage in a conversation, listen deeply, engage and own that call to action when you leave and try to implement it,” Caillou said.

The cultural aspects of reconciliation are of particular interest to the Banff Centre, which has a 23-year history of Indigenous cultural programming in a location that is also a sacred place for Treaty 7 people – Siksika (Blackfoot), Kainai (Blood), Piikani (Peigan), Stoney-Nakoda and Tsuut’ina (Sarcee).

Banff Centre CEO Janice Price said in addition to those who attended, the summit was broadcast widely to audiences also keen to begin the work of reconciliation in their communities.

“Thanks to many in this room and across the country, we are on the path to repairing Canada’s relationship with its Indigenous peoples,” Price said. “After today, I hope we will be further ahead. From our conversations today, the Banff Centre hopes to continue to take an active role in raising awareness of our shared history and inspiring individuals and organizations to take action.”

She said the Banff Centre plans to use the results that come out of the summit to develop a framework as a cultural and learning institution to incorporate the findings of the commission into its work.

Broadcaster and master of ceremonies for the summit Jesse Wente noted that Canada as a nation of people is just at the beginning of the truth and reconciliation process – where the truth is being heard after decades of having Indigenous voices and stories silenced.

“This process does not stop here,” Wente said. “Because as great as this day will be, this isn’t the end, it is only the very beginning.”

He said it is with open hearts that the truth can be heard and he called upon Canadians to seek out Indigenous artists and stories because that is where the truth can be found.

“I would encourage you to seek out that art, because our truth and stories have been continued in our art for decades; even when we couldn’t speak out, it was in our art,” he said. “We will not solve these issues here today. Truth and reconciliation is not about short term gain, it is about long term change and today is a step toward that.”

Wente called on all Canadians to begin making what he called micro-changes, to begin shifting their behaviour and thinking in small ways because it is only with individual change that greater systemic change can begin to happen.

“These are difficult conversations to have,” he said. “These are difficult and disturbing truths to hear and challenging the idea of what Canada was – don’t turn away, but embrace the discomfort.

“If we are to share this land, we need to share this too. This isn’t a burden Indigenous people should carry alone, but should be national.”

Former Assembly of First Nations Chief Phil Fontaine, who is a multi-generational survivor of the Indian Residential School System, said it is never easy to talk about the experience.

In a family with 12 children, Fontaine said he was one of 10 that were taken to a residential school, but that was after his parents were taken to the schools before them and his grandmother on his father’s side attended on of the industrial schools, which preceded the residential system.

“So I know a bit about residential schools,” he said. “I know a bit about what harms they inflicted on our people.

“I have lived this experience for many years. I listened when I was a little guy to the older people talk about their experience in the school. In some cases, I heard the most horrific stories bout how kids were treated at the school … the one thing they didn’t talk about … was sexual abuse.

“They talked about psychological fear, physical harm and deprivation, but they never talked about sexual abuse. Then we came along, the children of these beautiful people, and our experience became much like theirs, our experience mirrored theirs.”

Fontaine was the first chief to call on his people to begin to address the fact that sexual abuse, in addition to physical abuse, was a common experience in the residential schools. It was a call to action that came after Fontaine realized that he was not alone in his experience and something needed to be done.

It was the same time as the Mount Cashel Orphanage sexual abuse scandal in Newfoundland was making headlines, and Fontaine called it “more of the same from the same kind of people.

“I argued our story was going to overwhelm our community and the country and it would overshadow the Mount Cashel scandal like you wouldn’t believe, so that was my pitch that day,” he said about the 1989 National Chiefs Assembly remarks he made.

Fontaine said his comments resulted in some chastising him, it troubled his family and it divided people in their communities. But there were also those survivors of the residential schools who welcomed the opportunity to finally openly talk about the abuse and expose how it overwhelmed, shamed, tormented and traumatized generations Indigenous peoples.

As a victim of the residential school system himself, he said he felt incredibly alone at that time. But he was witnessing the effects – people were hurting and lashing out in unhealthy ways as a result – and that meant the story needed to be told.

Kathleen Mahoney, human rights lawyer and chief negotiator for the Indian Residential School settlement agreement, said when Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the commission, used the label cultural genocide, it was quite a radical use of words from a legal perspective.

The schools forbid children from speaking their native language, forbid cultural practices and forced the separation of children from their families for 10 months at a time, and as a permanent home for children who were taken long distances. Mahoney said it was the forced separation that she has heard from survivors is the most profoundly harmful legacy, because they would go home to be strangers within their own families.

Residential schools were located across Canada, with 150 in total, and over 150,000 children were sent to them. The last one closed in 1996 – residential schools having lasted more than 100 years and an estimated 3,000 children died – up to 60 per cent in some schools.

Mahoney said there are approximately 38,000 claims filed for sexual and physical abuse inflicted at the schools. Stories of the survivors have exposed that they used children for vaccination and nutritional experiments, children were deprived of food and clothing, the education being provided by unqualified teachers was inferior, recently released convicted criminals were hired and the use of extreme forms of discipline was common.

Mahoney said it is through survivors speaking out and the thousands of lawsuits that were beginning to be filed that a breakthrough occurred in 2005 when the Canadian government admitted liability for the harms inflicted in the residential schools and announced a $2 billion compensation package for survivors. It wasn’t just the government, however, that admitted culpability. The churches that ran the residential schools – Anglican, Catholic, United and Presbyterian – agreed to compensation as well.

It was on June 10, 2008 that Prime Minister Stephen Harper formally apologized for the Government of Canada to the First Nations people for how they were treated and Mahoney noted it was the first time in Canadian history that Aboriginal people were seated in the centre of the House of Commons.

She said the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was an important legacy of the settlement agreement that was reached with the government. The settlement acknowledged that every student taken and put in a residential school was denied their culture, language and family life.

Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner Marie Wilson said it is the survivors of the residential schools, their children and grandchildren who are the heroes of the story and it is one that is still unfolding.

“It is the survivors that called us to attention as a country, who have challenged the sacredness of our conscious and provoked us to action,” she said.

Wilson said it is important for Canadians to fully understand the story as not a dark chapter, as some may call it, but a ribbon that runs through every chapter of the history of this nation.

“Residential schools absolutely were not a good intention gone wrong,” she said. “Residential schools were an attitude, they were a presumptuous and self serving policy based on attitudes of racial, intellectual, cultural and spiritual superiority.”

Now, said Wilson, Canadians are at a moment of truth where as a nation, it has been called upon to reconcile and, most importantly, to listen in order to move forward. She said Canadians know the legacy of residential schools and know there is a reason “things are the way they are in Canada.”

Indigenous people have the highest rates of poverty, addiction, suicide, infant mortality and incarceration. They have the lowest education levels, employment levels, childcare and health in the country, Wilson said. The statistics are another legacy of the residential school system and one that all Canadians and Indigenous peoples have been called upon to change through the 94 calls to action.

“Today, we need to confront ourselves with rigorous honesty about the ways we have organized our lives, our communities, our governments, our resources and our institutions in this country,” Wilson said.

The way to start digging out, she said, are the 94 calls to action, which set out a challenge to change the socioeconomic landscape of the country and “we can begin to fill the glaring gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous in wellbeing and everyday realities.

“Reconciliation is not simply about doing new things, it is about doing all things in new ways, with new attitudes on all sides.”

Participants in the summit spent the afternoon in breakout sessions focusing on reconciliation and specific areas of justice and civil engagement, arts, culture and heritage, child and family services, health and sport, youth and education, business and tourism.

The goal, according to Caillou, was to equip participants with new knowledge and tools to incorporate reconciliation into their own lives, families, organizations and communities.

He said the Banff Centre also hopes to use the findings of the summit to inform its approach to reconciliation and will share the results of the event with the community in the future.

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