Facing our demons

For the past six years, Canada has been undergoing some serious self-examination in the form of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Its final recommendations are finally released – leaving the nation to digest them and think about how to move forward.

The backstory is a deep history of abuse, neglect, and antagonism between the European colonial culture of Canada and the indigenous cultures that were pushed aside, stomped on, all but annihilated.

I grew up in rural Alberta knowing very little about our First Nations, and the relationship between them and my own culture. I remember hearing sentiments such as “I was born here – I’m as native a Canadian as any of them.” I remember people saying that the alcoholism and other problems rampant on native reserves were their problems, not ours. I remember knowing one native person – she was at our school for a year or so. She did wonderful native art, but I never asked about her culture, her background.

I remember a persistent sense that, whatever the history, the relationship between our First Nations – the Indians – and the rest of Canada was unresolved. Unsatisfactory. Broken, somehow.

I didn’t know about residential schools (the last of which closed in 1996) until very recently, as the TRC began disseminating its findings.

There are many things that need to be said, and I do not feel qualified. I do not know enough about the experiences of First Nations people to truly address their sense of injustice. I do not work in a caring profession, where I could offer direct assistance.

But I do know that I grew up in a culture that worked to deny responsibility, to push it back onto the victims. I understand that urge. I never sent anyone to a residential school. I never stole anyone’s land, attempted to destroy their culture. When someone points to me, to my culture, and says that we are responsible, it feels like a personal insult.

And yet …

I grew up on a farm, with great open spaces, clean air, and a rich cycle of seasons. I would not have had that childhood if not for the forcible removal of the earlier inhabitants from that land.

True, it wasn’t me that did the deed. But I benefited and other suffered for it. Doesn’t that leave me with some responsibility? It’s not my job to single-handedly solve the problems. (What an ass-backwards solution that would be, eh? “My ancestors wrecked your culture by imposing their solutions on you. Let me fix things by imposing my solutions on you.”) But, until I recognize that the problem is at least partly mine, I can only remain a barrier to a solution. I have to own the demons of our shared past. An analogy might be finding a bit of garbage by a path. It wasn’t me that did the littering. But if the litterer is nowhere to be found, my choice is to leave the garbage there, or to pick it up. I choose to pick it up.

What can I do? I can express my sorrow for what happened. I can assert that it was unjust, unfair. I can look through the recommendations of the TRC report, and talk to my First Nations neighbours, colleagues, students, to see what I can do, either in my own work or with my voice as a voter and citizen, to help in the reconciliation and healing process.

It feels unfair – it is unfair – that I have to deal with the mess the early colonizers created (and continued to create well into my own lifetime). And it’s unfair that my Cree, Stoney, Dene, and other First Nations neighbours have to deal with the mess too. But the mess exists, and the perpetrators are mostly dead – beyond our power to make them fix things. So we who remain will deal with it.

It won’t be a comfortable path. But, now that I have met some First Nations friends, worked with them, I know that it will be worth the effort. I want to live in a whole, united country, not one torn along its very foundation.

Since I drafted this post, the Alberta government has committed to expanding previous “residential school” content in the K-12 curriculum to “to ensure students learn about the legacy of abuse.” Concrete progress from our new government, days after they were sworn in.

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