TRC – My experiences

Sunday, March 26, 2017

This is a slightly edited version my journals regarding the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in Edmonton and it Ottawa. It’s primarily intended for my students, so they don’t have to listen to me talk ad nauseum!

Thursday, March 27, 2014

I’m in Edmonton, to take part in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s last set of hearings. The TRC has held hearings across Canada for about the last five years. Many people have come forward to tell their stories about residential schools, those who attended and those who suffered the consequences of them. There’s no question that reconciliation isn’t complete; it could never be. However, the topic is out in the open, and many others with it. The question tends always to be phrased as “Has the government done enough? Are its efforts sincere?” I’m not sure that matters a whole lot. The people are protecting each other, and a whole lot of Euro-Canadians have joined them.

We’ve talked a certain amount about residential schools in AN2550. I led them through the historical process that started with the Alternative Dispute Resolution process – the confessions and grading of abuse, assigning points to determine compensation owed. When that was an obvious failure, the Canadian government finally sought out the input of Indigenous people.

On CBC Radio’s The current this morning there was a youth panel. It was quite good, but the real drama came with the “final word”: a poem by Dan Saddleman of Merritt, B.C. He’d spoken it to the Commission in May, 2013: “The monster.” The repeated refrain is, “I hate you, residential school.” In graphic language he describes it chewing and grinding him up, squeezing the Indian out of him, dumping him into the toilet and flushing him out with no love, no parenting. I wanted to play it for the class (along with a CBC TV panel from last week), but realized it was too dramatic, too emotional, and I wasn’t sure I could help students through it. When I googled Saddleman before class, I found him reciting another poem, one about approaching the residential school again, and finding it to be sad and old – and used for good purposes. He forgives it, and it breaks into tears, saying how grateful it is to still be standing on Indian land, where it has been purified by medicines and put to good uses. As he turns to leave, the school calls out to say he’s forgotten something – a ghost little boy who runs up and jumps inside him. Saddleman provided the antidote to the horror he made real. (I was worried about how he could live with all that hate, even if it made perfect sense.)

Wallace, Jessica (2013 May 28). “You didn’t care how you ate up my native culture” Dennis Saddleman, poem. Vernon Retrieved from

‘Monster’ by poet Dennis Saddleman: ‘I hate you residential school, I hate you’ (2014, April 3). The current with Anna Maria Tremonti. Retrieved from

On The National last night, Commissioner Chief Wilton (Willy) Littlechild (Ermineskin) talked about what kept him sane through residential school: hockey. The priests loved to have the boys win championships, rewarded them with food. . .  (One day at the Hearings, he wore an Edmonton Golden Bears hockey jersey.)

Also on CBC’s Aboriginal topic area today was a photo exhibit at city hall: homeless people in Edmonton, another legacy of the residential schools. A number of the Aboriginal people portrayed could not be convinced to apply for the Common Experience Payment.

Friday, March 28, 2014

I had a great time at the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission today. The Shaw Conference Centre is on Jasper Avenue at about 97th St., built into the hillside going down the river bank, with a glass roof. Long staircases, escalators and glass elevators slope down for four long floors. Quite beautiful, waterfalls and plants. In a corner, I initially smelled dope – then realized it was sweetgrass smudge.

Hall A is a huge room that holds thousands of people on rows of movable chairs. The first time I was in there, I sat at the end of a row next to a woman from Sechelt. I later learned to go for the back wall, where there were few chairs, more room for legs and more room around the chair. Being far away from the stage didn’t matter, as they have a huge screen on each side of that – great visibility and acoustics.

I arrived at the time Honorary Witnesses were highlighted: Shelagh Rogers, Wab Kinew, Joe Clark, and Joseph Boyden. Commissioner Wilson had this job of inducting Kinew. Smart, eloquent, funny; actually, this description works for most everyone I saw emceeing today. Commissioner Dr. Marie Wilson was a CBC journalist and broadcaster. Her husband is Stephen Kakfwi, who was Premier of the NWT, as well as being a musician. He’s a survivor. She has an honorary doctorate.

A panel discussion began, moderated by Shelagh Rogers. She is an editor of Speaking my truth, a collection of the oral experiences of residential school survivors, published by the Aboriginal Healing Foundation. I just ordered a copy of it from, though it’s also available as an ebook. Pearl Calahasen (long-time MLA for Lesser Slave Lake) spoke of the perpetuation of sexual abuse, partly as a result of guilty pleasures and the inability to distinguish healthy from unhealthy sex. I would have stayed, but then I saw Miranda Recollet and her work buddy Rebecca, from the G.P. Friendship Centre. I joined up with them and went outside, where they had a smoke. (Melody, another of their co-workers, asked if I were there alone. “Laurie is never really alone,” said Miranda.) This was right beside the Sacred Fire, which is kept burning during the entire hearings session. I took the opportunity to smudge in sweetgrass burning in a cast iron frying pan. Ashes from each hearing’s sacred fire are added to the fire of the next; other than the bags of tears, I don’t know what else is burned in the fire.

There are two rooms in which Sharing Circles take place. I spent over an hour in one. A couple of men spoke, then a woman. There was only a little weeping; I think they’d told the stories many times before, and this was mostly for the benefit of a new audience. The audience must have been about 100 people in rows of chairs around a circle. This still left plenty of room around the wall, where people sat on the floor with their backs propped up. I liked this area; again, plenty of room. There were people of all ages, plenty of them seemingly university students, and of all physical appearances: White, Black, Chinese, etc. Mostly Indigenous, though. Health workers (I think that’s the term) patrol these rooms and the large hall, delivering tissues and water wherever needed, watching to catch anyone who may be emotionally distraught. They carry paper bags with which to take away used tissues; these are burned in the sacred fire.

Justice Murray Sinclair was emceeing the stories of survivors in Hall A when I returned. Speaking was Donald Morin – one of those striking artistic types. He’s a film-maker and actor, and the experiences he related had to do with too much alcohol and drugs, a bit of jail time, the inability to be reliable or to settle, a number of apologies to partners and children. Artistic, erratic, exotic, unique – there’s another word I’m seeking and can’t find. Idiosyncratic. Eccentric. I daydreamed for a minute, and came back as he said that in his personal research he’d learned he’d been in sixteen foster homes in the first four years of his life.

This is, of course, one of the consequences of the residential schools: inability to parent, poverty, substance abuse, children taken, foster homes, insecurity and no attachment, more substance abuse. One needs a tree-like diagram to follow the threads and consequences.

Hall B is the learning space, where churches have set up the archives of residential schools in big displays, listing and mapping their schools and posting their apology. Lots of people were in there, looking at photo albums and such. They’d sit at a table with a photo album, each photo in a plastic sleeve, and stick on post-it notes to label children or make comments. The Catholic Church had the biggest area of all. It was really cool to watch people at all this.

In the afternoon, I attended the session of the National Research Centre of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It is in the formative stage, only, and is to continue the work of the TRC, in the sense of compiling and continuing to collect residential school materials. (  Led by Ry Moran, recently-named director, the panel included two members of the Elders’ Advisory Council of the TRC, Wab Kinew (Director of Indigenous Inclusion, University of Winnipeg – a program focusing on aboriginal entrepreneurship and business training), a woman very active in indigenous education – terrific – and a Social Work student from Manitoba (U of M, I think). (One of the advisory elders is Doris Young, who teaches at University College of the North.) The director and the Centre itself are housed at – moving into – the University of Manitoba. (Universities in most provinces have partnered with the NRC, all but Alberta – which had the most residential schools!) Before this, Moran was Director of Statement Gathering for the NRC.

The purpose was to elicit the audience’s concerns about and aspirations for the NRC. The panelists spoke of several variations on it being accessible, interactive, and attractive. Wab Kinew reminded us that not everyone thinks of scavenging in an archive as their favorite Saturday afternoon activity. The NRC is to continue gathering statements after the TRC finishes its mandate, in June 2015. (Chief Wilton Littlechild points out that the Commission hasn’t gone to enough prisons or hospitals, for example.)

Kinew is such an appealing personality. He’s handsome and well-spoken – a rapper. Speaks Anishnabe, passable Dakota and excellent English. Best of all, he’s so political. The social tragedy resulting from residential schools is really important – but we mustn’t forget the whole complex of which the residential schools are just one facet, the overtly stated goal of eliminating indigenous people. While reconciliation is economic and political and social, most importantly, it is spiritual. He came out tonight carrying his pipe in a brilliant red, beaded bag.

He says the education funding for Indian children is half that for non-Indian (because of federal vs. provincial + federal) funding. Look into this. $3500 is the approximate number he quotes for Indian kids. Kinew also feels that the deal the AFN negotiated w/ the federal gov’t, i.e. the proposed First Nations Education Act, is a really good start to redressing this imbalance.

This was the whitest audience I saw anywhere – obviously including a whole bunch of academics. The audience had a number of really strongly felt and sometimes emotional responses to make. A disproportionate number of those who got to speak to microphones were Aboriginal – which is fine, as the academics can express themselves via email. The Aboriginal speakers tended to start off with a fairly innocuous goal, and then move into a very personal and emotional statement. I’m remembering the Gwich’in cultural anthropologist who has visited thirty countries. (Could be with the Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute, She wants the NRC to sponsor cultural programs on the land, so people can learn to feather ducks. The audience speakers (Aboriginal and white) wanted the NRC to advocate for education, healing programs for survivors, etc. I took notes on this, which I don’t remember right now, but I do remember thinking that this was distant from the NRC’s purpose, which is to be an archive and storage centre for all the materials and statements gathered by the TRC in its five-year mandate – and, I think, for all documentation regarding residential schools, period. All hearing sessions are videotaped, as are even private stories, if the teller so requests.

One of those who spoke up at this session was from the Shingwauk Project, associated w/ Algoma University. Indigenous scholars must form part of the NRC.

Justice Sinclair came in partway through and sat off to the side. At the end, he came to the table to rein it all in. In the most dramatic way, he spoke of all the atrocities committed on indigenous peoples and of all the work there is to be done in so many areas – and that the NRC’s purpose is to collect and archive all the basic information, the primary documents, the stories. They did research on TRCs around the world, and found that most lost the documents after the commissions wrapped up, as governments sought to bury the truth once it had been exposed. (Most of South Africa’s, for example, is buried underground and is literally disintegrating. I wonder about the Holocaust or Australia.) Historically, academic institutions (protected by the principle of academic freedom) are the ones most likely to be able to protect archives. Prior to getting access to archives, researchers will have to undergo a cultural training ceremony. He brought me to tears with his recital. In the midst of it, he silenced a woman who was insisting on interrupting him. There may well have been a prior history between them, but I couldn’t help thinking, “Here come da judge.” One reason the TRC had a year of life added on was because the federal government has millions of documents to hand over (e.g. new ones that might provide more evidence on nutritional and medical experiments w/ residential school students). Churches are also obligated to hand over all their documents. Provinces, however, are not.

There is some concern from relatives of survivors that they won’t have access to the records. Will they, too, have to go through the cultural training? How will they be authorized to get records? Anyone?

One of the audience was Rebecca Cardinal Sockbeson, an aboriginal woman who teaches at University of Alberta (Assistant Professor and Indigenous Peoples Education coordinator). She spoke of the need for “institutionalized” or “systemic” reconciliation, a new term Sinclair liked. It refers to regulations and laws to force the teaching of materials on residential schools in education curricula. (The education woman on the panel says they have it in their curriculum. I can’t remember her institution right now.) U of A has just made an Aboriginal studies course required for BEd students.

Funny. There was a white woman in the second row who put up her hand immediately, but kept getting overlooked when audience members were asking questions. (It may have been intentional.) Finally, she had her chance. She wanted to, rather slowly and painfully, summarize what others had said. As if that were necessary!

The afternoon’s activities between 4 and 6 wrapped up in Hall A. (To be remembered: this whole thing is free and open to the public. I’m proud of Canada, and very impressed with organizers.) Many different sets of people made promises of reconciliation in the form of offerings to the Bentwood Box. These are fairly high-profile individuals and groups, ecumenical councils, artists, people who have had something to do with the residential school experience.

According to Duncan McCue, “These ‘Expressions of Reconciliation’ — usually represented by a physical object and an oral statement in front of an audience — were made by everyone from residential school survivors to church representatives and government officials.” (McCue, Duncan (2015, May 30). Residential schools: Promises of reconciliation saved in a bentwood box.” CBC News/Aboriginal. Retrieved from

I have no idea how they’re chosen; some spoke of the honor of being invited, but I would guess they make application and are then invited. Not sure. After the oral statement, the offering is placed in the Box with all three commissioners, all donors and two members of the Advisory Council touching it. This is all going to the NRC, in the old Chancellor’s Hall at U of M – but the building doesn’t look too huge! And I’m guessing they’ve accumulated a whole lot of stuff over five years and seven hearings.

The Minister of Education for Alberta says that learning of the residential schools will become part of the Alberta schools’ curriculum.

Honorary Witnesses then gave their talks.

First was Cyndy Blackstock. I’d heard her referred to earlier in the day for doing serious research on Aboriginal children in care, i.e. taken from their parents. She had some incredible statistics. She was loud, strident, angry, radical. She attributes the number of children in care to several causes, residential schools, poverty and substance misuse among them, but particularly underfunding of social assistance on reserves. I have much to learn from her. Nice, liberal people can probably see First Nations people as having suffered a great deal, leading to all sorts of distortions and deviance, but have no concept of the systemic racism and discrimination, e.g. in deliberate underfunding of First Nations education and social programs. It’s OK; Blackstock got a standing ovation, and when Kinew later spoke of education underfunding, he got even more.

Joseph Boyden’s reflections were on video; he’s in Europe somewhere.

Kinew spoke of his father – how amazed he would be to see the thousands of people in attendance at these hearings. He did speak at the first one, before he died. It is incredible to see an event like this. It would not have been conceivable twenty years ago.

In some ways, this is like any other conference. By attending this, I miss that; am I seeing the best there is? What if I get bored and leave just before the good stuff comes? Differences are that it is free, does include all sorts of people, and has events for the hoi-poloi and ordinary folk. In the morning, I was resentful at the induction of prominent figures as honorary witnesses; as the day wore on, I began to realize that they are not being recognized for who they are, but for what and whom they represent. I realize also that this is true for the many Aboriginal recognition ceremonies, with which I have never felt quite comfortable. That’s because I come from a hierarchical culture, where recognition means superiority. In this one, recognition means enhancing certain actions or traits in everyone. That’s what an egalitarian society does.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Another good day at the TRC hearings.

This morning I attended a session on reconciliation between settler society and First Nations. A U of A prof from New Zealand was pretty eloquent – seemed to speak Maori, though she sure didn’t look like one! Residential schools there don’t seem to have been as destructive as they were here. 75% of the Maori population was lost in colonization. In the court process to establish rights to land, Maori had to be able to prove, recite genealogy, use of land. Not all could or would. Not all people are represented. Many are lost. Maori speak of biculturalism and binationalism.

There was also a young Aboriginal woman who’d been raised in a white adoptive family. She’d been given up at birth, and was adopted at three months. Her adoptive father died young. Mother remarried to a guy who would have preferred she forget she was Aboriginal. She tracked down her mother (who had been an Aboriginal university student when she got pregnant) and learned that her father was one of the first two Indian lawyers in Saskatchewan. And I’ve forgotten more.

Of the audience I remember a little more. Dennis Whitford wondered how to get mainstreamers mobilized, how to get change in the community; in his area, at least, town council won’t even build an arbour for events or powwows. They just don’t think the Aboriginal population is important enough. Academic, theoretical, mobilization is all fine and dandy…

Most interesting was a middle-aged white woman, just getting to know about the residential school experience. Given that the designers and implementers of residential schools had good intentions, she wanted to know where they had gone wrong. After all, there were British boarding schools; they were just bringing over what worked for them. Justice Sinclair reminded her that colonizers didn’t have good intentions at all; they intended to forcibly eliminate Indians (either physically or culturally) in order to get their resources. Nothing about it was well-intentioned; that’s a settler myth. Genocidal assimilation was intentional. It’s one thing when the boarding school is to uplift the best (the most British upper-class) of its students; quite another when it is to eliminate the Indian. First People’s treaty negotiators sought education (with the pen) to add to what they already were as complete peoples.

Another young woman has done residential school research for the federal gov’t for 14 years. She wants to know how to deal with the guilt and shame. She’s reminded that although both Euro-Canadians and residential school survivors may feel shame, neither should; they bear no responsibility. Do not throw out your white ancestors! On the other hand, “From this day forward…”

Shelagh Rogers attended that session, and I got to talk with her for a few minutes. I said, “I bet you’re having a great time!” which she was, and told her what a great fan I am, and that I was really glad to see her at that event. It added to my admiration for her, to see her at something so “real,” and where her celebrity was scarcely noticeable. Others were far more important.

Over lunch, I spent time in Hall B. The churches’ residential school displays were well attended, as they were yesterday. Volunteers said that survivors were going through and labelling people in albums, but mostly they were looking for pictures they wanted photocopied. Families took few photos of their children – “Right. Didn’t have cameras!” I said. Or no, because they photographs extracted some portion of soul. (I keep asking permission to take photos, forgetting that in a public place, photos are permitted. Also that this artwork is meant to be shared, not copyright protected.)

From 1300-1400 I was at what I think of as the “blanket project.” I should have asked more about it – why the use of large pieces of Hudson’s Bay Blankets, stitched together, for example. On this huge piece of fabric were hand-stitched responses to Steven Harper’s “Canada has no experience with colonialism” comment. (Simard, Colleen (2009, October 3). Harper drops the ‘C-bomb” on G20. Winnipeg Free Press. Retrieved from Some people were writing on or stitching on new comments. We were invited to write our own in a book. I sat down to think up what I wanted to say.

When talking with students this term about language, for example, I pointed out that Martha Mzvondiwa, from Tanzania, writes English as well as they do, though she sounds very different. Why do we speak the same language – even if different dialects? I asked. It took a good while for them to remember that we share a colonial past, both having been colonies of Britain. They don’t even realize Canada was a colony.

“Colonizers don’t see colonization.” (I wish I’d said, “Colonizers don’t see colonialism.”) “It merely set the stage for the Euro-Canadian state.” In their mind’s it’s a continuous, natural and harmonious process, inevitable, manifest destiny. The colony was part and parcel of state formation.

Then I went to one of the Sharing Circles. I only intended to stay an hour, but ended up staying for the whole thing, two hours. I was seated next to a woman my age who has recently returned from thirty years in Burkina Fasso. Although Canada has changed a great deal, and this process would never have been possible 30 years ago, it is strangely similar to BF. I would have liked to spend more time with her, but there are no breaks in the circle process, and by the end of it, we were both too tired to make the effort to get to know a new person.

This was a long and strenuous Sharing Circle. The moderator (Québécois) began by reminding participants that, in this setting, they would be recorded and both image and sound might be used and viewed by others, online, for example. Everything is audio- and video-taped, and lots of photographs, too. Private sessions are not.

First speaker – long, somewhat messy white hair. Going to residential school meant working. There was no time for learning because they were too busy taking care of animals and the garden. He did not learn to read or write. He wept telling of his youngest grandson asking him to read a book, and having to say, “I can’t.”

Then another man, an ironworker. Good looking, in good physical shape, well groomed. Prides himself on working hard all his life. As a good father, he trained his son to do the same thing – but he was a lousy daddy. He had this son and two daughters, and later found he’d fathered another daughter, whom he only met when she was 16. He didn’t expect to live beyond thirty, because he was determined to kill a white man. “All male survivors are abusers,” he said. “They taught us to cheat, lie, steal, hurt, bully” and a string of other things.

He brings up the issue of the mass of Indian fathers of kids who have been taken away, been given up for adoption. Another legacy of residential schools – another way the dominant expropriate from the oppressed their children, their right to perpetuate their society.

A young woman started with “Bonjour!” and identified herself as an intergenerational survivor. Her aunt hated residential school so much that she wouldn’t speak a word of English for the rest of her life. The speaker was taken to foster homes and eventually to detention; her parents’ inability to parent. She married when she was 19 and quickly had three children. The marriage didn’t work out; she went home and, although she didn’t drink or do drugs, her children were taken away. Perhaps not all of them. Her son was returned to her after he had been physically abused and medevac’ed at the age of 3; he is brain damaged. “My parents had no voice when they were taken, I had no voice, and my children had no voice.”

The third was a 65 year-old woman who she thinks she’d like to go to school and upgrade her SW diploma into a degree. At 65, tuition is free. She had suffered enough sexual abuse I can’t remember it; she told the support worker, “Don’t touch me on the back, please.”

Another woman, a little younger, says she became the slut, whore, drunken drug user white guys expected her to be. She hated them, and still can’t figure out why they didn’t slap her silly when she insulted them in the bar. She began to figure out the residential school stuff only when she began to go through the IAP (Independent Adjudication Process). She is now in college, and loving it. She still owes her instructor the assignment she wasn’t able to address – What does it mean to you to be a Canadian? – but really appreciates instructors’ understanding of the life experience.

Then another middle-aged woman, quite possibly in poor health. Not sure. Hair covered in a hat. Her mother developed TB and went away for ten years, dying without coming home. Her dad sexually abused mother She too went through years of schooling without learning to read. It’s so embarrassing in a government office trying to find someone to help you fill out a form! She would steal fruit from the kitchen to share with other kids.

I think it was Mayor Iveson who pointed out that, when undergoing trauma, the brain is incapable of learning. No wonder these kids were illiterate, despite going to school. Wetaskiwin Mayor Bill Elliot talked about his 84 year-old father, a traumatized WWII veteran, going bonkers when fireworks went off unexpectedly. He had to be medicated for weeks after, to get back to normal. The traumatized mind so quickly relives and returns to the fear. Elliot says the survivors suffer from PTSD.

An old man, born in 1928 or so. He was taken to school in 1934. He was the only one I’ve heard this weekend who spoke of a happy memory: a nun who hugged him and his brother when they wept after their parents left them at the school. (Schools used to tell children their parents didn’t want them, and that was why they had abandoned them.) He switched from English to Cree and back, code-switching unselfconsciously.

A Metis dandy, head of his settlement, who arrived with his sister – both in their 70s, I’d say. He wore a beautiful ribbon shirt and Métis sash. He was sent to Grouard, and spoke of the abuse by older boys.

A man in his 40s, who came with his mother. His first memory is being in a swing in the kitchen, his father coming in and raping his mother right then and there. He had god and the devil in him; he could be loving but his mood switched with no anger, from happiness to fury. He was cruel, brutal. “But it wasn’t your fault, Mum,” he says to his mother, seated behind him. He knew his father had been to residential school, but didn’t understand what that meant until he went to Alkali Lake for rehabilitation work. A panel of 4 men and 1 woman spoke of the residential schools; he cried all the way home from Alkali Lake to Edmonton, understanding that his father had exercised on his kids what had been done to him in residential school. Sadly, his father had died months earlier. They were seven siblings. Each of his parents came from families of over ten children; he has over 100 first cousins.

Although he had signed up to speak at this session, he’d stayed in the audience until the end. He thought he was talking in a circle with a dozen others, not a dozen plus an audience of two hundred! (Joking was not uncommon.)

A younger woman who is Vice-Chief of the Saskatchewan Indian Federation. She’s an inter-generational survivor. Both parents went to residential school. They tried really hard to break the cycle, and did so by prohibiting alcohol and drugs. They went to Christian church on Sunday mornings, and went home to make soup for the sweat – in other words, kept up both spiritual traditions. I get the impression that there was physical brutality, perhaps assault, though – or maybe an absence of affection. When she finished speaking, her daughter (about 8) came to cuddle with her.

All have stories of humiliation, degradation, deprivation. All spoke of sexual abuse. That’s almost taken for granted.

All have been sober for years.

I begin to understand that this is just below the surface with everyone, all caused by the residential schools.

The Call to Gathering of the end of the day was a somewhat mixed bag. There were the usual Bentwood Box contributions – which I should take more seriously, as they are all pretty meaningful, deserved, and well thought-out. It just becomes a little formulaic after a while, though I’d love to see them on display, with their story next to them. Some seem self-servingly political, e.g. the Interim Police Commissioner, the Armed Forces, the U of A and other educational institutions. (The provost of U of A is proud they’ve made a residential school history course compulsory for BEd students. Shame it’s not for all programs! They’re the only university [in Alberta? Or the country?] with a Faculty of Native Studies.) Fact is, however, they’re all pretty deeply felt, as few get through their 3-minute presentation without choking up.

Interestingly, a couple that left people most impressed were from mayors. Bill Elliot, mayor of Wetaskiwin, has become close friends with people of Maskwacis (though he still tends to pronounce it “masskwachees”). Wetaskiwin now has welcome signs in English and in Cree syllabics at the entry to the city, and he’s got city council agreed on Residential School training. Plus, he got the council to approve making this the Year of Reconciliation. Calgary has since done the same thing, and so has Edmonton.

The mayor of Edmonton, Don Iveson, is the one to get the most attention. He’s really young, handsome and charismatic. He can rapid-fire actions against all forms of racism, including institutional. Both mayors wept when relating to the removal of children and grandchildren – rather like Harper did. Among other plans, Iveson speaks of recreating sacred spaces along the rivers flowing through Edmonton. Great idea!

Both days, it’s really easy to find people to applaud, even to stand up for.

A Metis elder did the closing prayer. She incorporated Metis history, Batoche, and Louis Riel in her prayer. After the drum played the staffs and Commission out of the room, an elderly Métis fiddler played, and all were asked to stand through that.

Whenever someone is telling their story, there is someone at their side – just sitting there, rubbing their back or arm, accompanying, supplying tissue and water. Sometimes it’s someone they’ve brought along. Usually it’s a IRS Resolution  Health Support Worker.

All speakers acknowledge being on Treaty 6 Traditional Territory. I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the land being recognized for its colonial status. It was said to be Prairie Cree territory, and I’d prefer that designation.

For reconciliation, story is necessary – and listeners are essential. This is something to point out regarding the importance of interviews. People love – need – to be listened to. This is what the Truth and Reconciliation Hearings are all about.

Every public (not private) setting, from the Commissioners’ Hearings to the Sharing Circles, set up someone telling their own story to a whole lot of listeners, most of them strangers. They really lay themselves on the line, open up, make themselves vulnerable. Listeners often cry along, especially when it gets really graphic, sexual or scatological. People try to listen without reacting too much. Listeners are grateful for the chance to learn. Story-tellers are grateful for the chance to be heard. I guess the big point is that, even if it doesn’t fix anything, it’s not secret any more. Most people kept this stuff under wraps for their whole lives; often their children knew nothing until after their deaths.

Each speaker in a Sharing Circle had 15 minutes with a large set of lights on the floor: green, yellow, red. Yellow came on after 12 minutes. None spoke with notes. All knew roughly where they wanted to go. There was some humor, but not a whole lot.

Many mentions of bullying, being picked on. “Gangs start in residential school.” Many mentions of being terrified, alone, with no comfort, punished for weeping and for not weeping. They speak of hunger. They spoke of being called or feeling stupid and dumb.

Someone in a sharing circle spoke of listening to the stories of others, perhaps as a counsellor. “I listen to their stories. Sometimes I want to cry with them, but I know I can’t, because I have to be there for them.” I took that to heart.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

It’s amazing how safe people feel in the Sharing Circle, how trusting they are. They feel that way even in an audience full of strangers. They are grateful to be heard.

There is project recovering residential school cemeteries, seeking the burials of kids who died. This is the Missing Children Program.

Gene Arcand spoke for the TRC Indian Residential School Survivor Committee. They provide the Commissioners with some pretty serious advice, and have a lot to say about government as well. They’re pretty prominent people, several academics. Among their complaints, the use of the $3000 education fund for each individual, and feeling that applicants for IAP and CEP were being short-changed.

He had a message about shame: The shame of survivors is carried by settlers, too. “You did nothing wrong, just as we did nothing wrong.” TRC Commissioners have paid a high personal price, particularly being away from their families. “Their families have suffered.” “The Commissioners are our Warriors.”

I heard a white person complain there was no daycare; heaven knows there should be, at an event like this. But I’d bet it’s deliberate. If there was ever a group that did not want children separated from their adults, this would be it!

AN2550 needs to be rearranged into ethnography, colonialism, Treaty 8, Indian Act, and residential schools. (The second and last both need more work.)

In his morning talk, Sinclair asked how the Residential Schools should be commemorated. September 11, November 11 are both noted with “Lest we forget” – never the idea that it should be in the past, bygones, etc. So, when and how?

Friendship Centres are to partner with the National Research Centre. I wonder if the College can contribute somehow.

Someone spoke of the need to teach The True History of Canada. That helps me see why school kids need to learn of the horrors of residential schools. Enough of the peacekeeping, settler Canada bullshit. I’m also led to wonder: if it weren’t for the residential schools, what would Canada be like? What would our relationship with First Nations be like? What would their communities be like? (Keep in mind that Grassy Narrows and the Sayisi Dene didn’t have them, at least not much.)

There was certainly no problem taking notes in Hall A. I didn’t take notes in the Sharing Circles, however, and it has been difficult remembering!

Honorary witnesses: it would be interesting to look them all up. Joe Clark was there Friday. Only Shelagh Rogers stayed the whole time.

Noticing the CBC ties: Shelagh, Wab, Wilson.

I learned a big lesson of my cultural biases. I was uncomfortable with some of the honors bestowed on prominent figures in Hall A, especially the “Honorary Witness” stuff. Gradually, I realize a couple of things. One is that this is kind of like Australian Aborigines (and Canadian First Nations) adopting outsiders to act as allies, advocates, spokespersons. The other is that it is not the individual who is being honored, but qualities or connections he or she represents. Similarly w/ Aboriginal Role Models or Indian Princess: the ideal is not that the person should be exalted, but that their actions or qualities should be celebrated or emulated.

Where was it that I was learning recently that ceremony is about cementing relationships? Not about celebrating occasions. If only I would learn!

Consequences of residential schools

  • illiteracy
  • incarceration
  • fear of touch
  • sex abuse – victims and perpetrators
  • children in the child welfare system
  • prostitution
  • violence
    • lateral violence – directed at one’s peers, rather than true adversaries
  • cruelty
  • gangs
  • eating disorders: deprivation and hunger, I’m sure resulting in binging and stuffing
  • institutionalization
    • TB hospitals (Charles Camsoe), foster families, orphanages, group homes, penitentiaries
    • the elders that go to work to help inmates have usually been there themselves
      • it’s where they’re comfortable
    • racism
      • practiced by Aboriginal against each other – lateral racism?
      • hatred of whites – guilt
      • teach Indigenous kids they’re worthless, while non-Indigenous are taught the same
    • repressed memory and pain – explosion

Monday, March 31, 2014

Commission Chair Justice Murray Sinclair says that it was education that got us into this mess, and education will get us out of it.

Reconciliation can’t be the burden of the victims.

Never forget.

Never again.

I’m wondering what’s become of all the residential school buildings: how many were torn down, burned down, repurposed for what. . .

Residential school was a form of incarceration, behind locks, behind bars.


Some online resources:

Residential school settlement offers $3K education credits: Common Experience Payment recipients can use them or give them to family members. (2014, January 24). CBCNews. Retrieved from

The Survivors’ Committee is rather angry with the federal government over this and other things. This money is left over from the CEP payments; they had expected it to go to communities to invest in culture and language training, not to be individually allocated.

Statistics on the implementation of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement: Information update on the Common Experience Payment
(From September 19, 2007 to December 31, 2013) (2014, January 20). Aboriginal affairs and northern development Canada. Retrieved from

Indian Residential Schools (2015, November 5). Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada. Retrieved from

Rogers, Shelagh (2014, March 29). Reflections on being an honorary witness for the TRC. CBC News: Aboriginal. Retrieved from

Ontario Provincial Advocate for Youth and Children (n.d.) Feathers of hope: A First Nations youth action plan. Retrieved from

New Tribe (2012, Spring). Retrieved from

Archivists of Alberta Roman Catholic Entities (2014, January). Roman Catholic Indian Residential Schools in Alberta. Catholic Archdiocese Edmonton. Retrieved from

The children remembered: Residential school archive project (n.d.) The United Church of Canada Archives. Retrieved from

Legacy of hope foundation (n.d.) Healing the legacy of the residential schools. Retrieved from

Historical sketch for Anglican residential schools (2014). Anglican Church of Canada: Mission and Justice Relationships. Retrieved from

Ottawa, Saturday, May 30, 2015

Congress of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences: The first Big Thinker talk yesterday was by Justice Murray Sinclair. Cindy Blackstock introduced him. Her public talk is loud, militant, uncompromising. She spoke of our being on unceded Algonquin territory. This is a preface that needs to go in all public addresses, e.g. GPRC talks. What is the right term for being on Beaver land?

Some points from Sinclair:

In Inuvik there were two residential schools sharing a playground, one Anglican, one Catholic. The Inuit kids went to the former, the Dene to the latter. The schoolyard was a warzone (and Christianity served as another divisor between Indigenous peoples).

Sinclair played the videotape of Paul Voudrach, an Inuit man who accompanied the Commission. He spoke of horrific sexual abuse, of the destruction of his relationship with his parents, his siblings and, later, his children. The audience was in tears.

Those who signed the Treaties had certain expectations for the future of their children. Residential schools were demeaning from Day One, in the separation of children from their siblings, their clothing, their language. The system, which lasted for 125 years, affected six to seven generations of people, enough to result in the destruction of economic, political, social and ideological systems, the loss of faith in parents. Many spoke of their fear of cuddling children, because of the association of cuddling with sexual assault. Having stolen those generations resulted in stealing more, by child welfare, provincial care systems, the youth justice system, apprehension, adoption.

Schools had basically no academic curriculum until after WWII, and did not require teacher be qualified. Nevertheless, education is crucial to reconciliation. “Education got us into this mess, and we’ll use education to get us out of it.” The Idle No More movement represents youth taking up that challenge. It is the responsibility of us educators to support them in this. Colonization continues in education, with the underfunding of First Nations education. There is insistence on compulsory, accredited reconciliation through education at all levels, regarding residential schools but also all aspects of the Indigenous experience as well as language vitalization.

One weakness of the mandate of the TRC was that reconciliation was not defined. Initially, the churches and the government thought Aboriginals had to do all the reconciling. Their reconciliation does require forgiveness – of themselves and of others – and healing for their children.

The apologies of the federal gov’t and the churches are fine, but apologies must be memorialized, revived, recalled. Atonement and altered behavior are necessary. The churches must be explicit about their respect for Aboriginal spirituality, so people will not continue to suppress it in the belief it is not approved. It is the responsibility of the non-Aboriginal to inform themselves. As Blackstock says, Aboriginals must not be responsible for teaching us. The non-Aboriginal mythology of their ownsuperiority does not help them.


 Sunday, May 31, 2015

The TRC closing events set off with a Walk for Reconciliation from Victoria Island, down Wellington St., to the Ottawa City Hall. There were five to seven thousand people from across the country, including several groups of drummers. Plenty of people from Alberta, too!

A stage was set up in front of City Hall with lots of grassy area for people to stand in front. There were tents for craft sales and some food trucks, there for the duration. At every step, initiating every conversation, speakers made a big effort to express gratitude for being on unceded Algonquin territory.

Trick or Treaty was shown in a theatre in the National Art Gallery, followed by a conversation including film director Alanis Obomsawin (who was 82!), moderated by Commissioner Marie Wilson, joined by Chief Wilton Littlechild.

Most of the audience was Aboriginal. The exhilaration of these events is being in a roomful of people of the same mindset. To watch a documentary like this with people cheering, booing, “getting it” is so affirming! Part of the reason I sometimes feel so harsh and aggressive is because I’m so alone.

Inside City Hall was the installation of the Witness Blanket. I haven’t been able to locate the whole film on this, but there is a trailer here:

The actual Closing Event ceremonies and events were taking place at the Delta Hotel. Big and fancy, it was so delightful to see it jam-packed with Indigenous people and smelling of sweetgrass and cedar smudge! They filled up the lobby on the main floor, talking and hugging; occasionally a drum group would burst into round-dance songs.

In one huge room there were speeches, panel discussions, story-telling and presentations of people all day long. At the beginning and end of the day, flags and staffs are drummed and escorted in, then out. When the summary report was released, this was the room for big speeches, while many of us watched on TV from other places.

On the second floor were sofas for visiting, and on the third, a culture room for spiritual purposes, and another for survivors. A large room held historical materials, photos, documents and maps. And in still another space was the Walking with Our Sisters installation of moccasin vamps, representing the Missing and Murdered Indigenous women. I think the public story gathering rooms were on the second floor, and the private rooms on the third.

There was an amazing atmosphere of welcome and emotional safety. People assumed alliance and friendship. I introduced myself to Premier Stephen Kakfwi (husband of Commissioner Wilson) just because I could, and he invited me to sit with him – to give him an excuse to sit. He was very happy to have found tea and honey! (He said he knew Joan Ryan, as did Chief Bill Erasmus, whom I met later.) Everywhere, when someone had a story to tell, when someone needed to talk, they were listened to with love.

As I wrote to a friend: The media seem to only show one aspect of the TRC closing event process (and this also applies to the hearings that came earlier). There is much more going on than sad story telling. As a matter of fact, during the Closing, I didn’t even attend sharing circles. I still heard stories on the news and saw videos, and heard comments spoken into microphones on the floor, and various other places. But the context in which they are told and shown is not communicated by the media. They’re not wrong, but…In the TRC setting, there is a very strong feeling of supportive listening. Supporters are often touching the person speaking (though I’ve seen this touch refused, as being too intrusive). There is an inner circle of story tellers, and outer circles of listeners who behave and feel much like witnesses. Health support workers circulate continuously with fresh tissues, paper bags for collecting used ones, glasses of water, etc.

This is the spirit that permeates the TRC events. Residential school survivors are explicitly honored, followed by those who suffered the consequences indirectly. They too can tell their stories. Everyone present is assumed to be either one of these, or to be witnesses and supporters. There is little to no posturing. As a result, the atmosphere is remarkably generous and accepting.

The presentation of the summary report consisted of speeches by the Commissioners, interspersed with videos of survivors talking. Very emotional, cathartic. Marie Wilson talked about children, especially the fact that stealing children – their removals – continue. Chief Wilton Littlechild Introduced himself by his Cree name, and it choked him. To him, it is essential that the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights be used to guide aspirations. Chief Phil Fontaine was important for getting this running, by coming out as a victim of residential school sexual abuse. Prime Minister Paul Martin was recognized for having pushed it. Prime Minister Joe Clark was there – he’s an honorary witness. So were lots of others, in the lobbies. Sheilagh Rogers too, and Thomas Mulcair. Not Justin Trudeau.

Justice Murray Sinclair is very insistent that cultural genocide was practiced against Aboriginal peoples. I prefer “ethnocide,” but that’s a term few are familiar with. Supreme Court Justice Bev McLaughlin recently used the C.G. term, so it’s the winner.

It was capped off by a Buffy Sainte-Marie concert in front of Ottawa City Hall, in the bright sunshine. A wonderful and joyous ending for the TRC!

Only later did I begin to note the absence of a political or economic analysis, a power analysis. There’s lots of racist analysis – that Euro-Canadians think themselves so superior to Indians that their culture must be wiped out, and their children’s deaths can be ignored. The reason it is important for people today to understand the residential schools legacy is that it is doing no favor to Whites to allow them to think they’re superior, any more than it is helpful to allow others to think they’re inferior. But the benefits accruing to whites are not mentioned: that the residential schools, along with so many other strategies, allowed whites to be enriched at the expense of Indigenous people. There are many jokes along these lines, having to do w/ religion: They told us to close our eyes, fold our hands and bow our heads, and when we looked up, they’d taken all the land! They left us the bible or the cross, and they took the land. Etc.

WATCH: Highlights from opening speeches of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission [Video file]. (2015, June 2). Retrieved from (3:27 min.)

Truth and Reconciliation Commission Canada.

TRC videos


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s