Category Archives: Truth and Reconciliation Commission
My time at the Truth & Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was one filled with strong Aboriginal women. I loved every minute I got to spend with them, especially one woman in particular – Leading Elder of the All Native Circle Conference of The United Church of Canada, Lorna Standingready.
Lorna is a residential school survivor. She spent 10 years in three separate residential schools – Anglican, United, and Presbyterian. On the first day of the TRC, Thursday, Executive Minister of the Aboriginal Ministries Circle, Maggie McLeod, interviewed her after the opening ceremony:
Lorna spent a lot of time at the archives section of the Shaw Centre. The four main churches who ran residential schools – Catholic, Anglican, United, and Presbyterian – had archival photos of their schools on display and in binders for survivors, and others, to look through.
Here’s the photo that Lorna is referring to. She’s the one second from the right, in the front row. This is at Birtle Residential School, run by the Presbyterian Church of Canada.
On the Friday, March 28, a United Church delegation consisting of former Moderator Bill Phipps, current Moderator Gary Paterson, and Maggie McLeod, supported by elder Ray Jones (Chair, Aboriginal Ministries Council) and Lorna herself, made a statement to the TRC. After the statement, Lorna shared her views on it:
Later that day, she and General Secretary Nora Sanders had a conversation about it:
Lorna was asked to share her story during the Churches Listening Circle. This circle happened each day of the TRC, and was a space for survivors and church officials to sit together, with survivors telling their stories directly to church officials, and the officials responding at the end. There was also an opportunity for survivors to privately speak with a church official of their choice, and to receive a personal apology.
Here is her story, in her own words
It was difficult to hear. But I can only imagine how difficult it was to share, and for that I am so grateful to the incredibly brave and strong woman that is Lorna Standingready. Not only did she relive the emotional trauma she endured, but she also had the strength to stand behind the next survivor who was having a difficult time getting the words out, holding her and telling her that “Kokum’s (grandmother) here.”
Lorna speaks about her experience sharing her story here:
Lorna also wanted to do a short recap of her experience at the TRC in Edmonton:
This is the photo she refers to in the video – that’s Lorna playing the piano.
The interesting thing is, earlier I was supposed to interview Lorna. I’d asked her previously if she wanted to tell her story and have me record it. She said she did, so long as she wasn’t rushed.
This was a common sentiment during the TRC, survivors feeling rushed and comparing the TRC process with the residential school system, where they were constricted in rigid timelines (I’m still thinking about this, and hope to devote an entire blog post to it). I told Lorna we could take as long as she wanted, and so we planned to meet in the Survivors Lounge to film an interview, giving ourselves at least an hour.
But then she was asked to share in the Churches Learning Circle, so we didn’t get to do our in-depth interview. In the end, it worked out better. Lorna was able to give witness in public, to a large group of people. I was able to record it and, with her permission, share it on Youtube, where even more people could hear it.
There were other things that struck me as I was working throughout the event, that I set aside or jotted down as a note to myself to come back to and reflect on later.
One was the statement given on behalf of the United Church. It was a good, strong statement, but not one that I wholly agreed with. For starters, the two white men on the 3-person delegation spoke longer than they perhaps should have, leading Commissioner Marie Wilson to interrupt Maggie, the only woman and only Aboriginal person on the delegation, at the beginning of her statement, telling her to hurry up as time was running out.
The optics were not good.
Also, part of the statement said that the United Church would include Aboriginal peoples “in all decisions that affect them.” When I heard that, my ears perked up and I wrote the statement down on my iPhone. It just seemed really patriarchal and colonial, not to mention that it wreaked of the whole “women should only be concerned with women’s issues” idea.
I mean, if Aboriginal peoples are truly completely part of the United Church of Canada, why should they only be involved in decisions that affect them? Shouldn’t they be involved in all decisions? If they are truly integral parts of the church just like any other group of people? And don’t all decisions affect them, like they affect the rest of us?
Yes, I’m critical of my church. Perhaps overly critical. The United Church was the first church to apologize to Aboriginal peoples, in 1986 (see this timeline regarding residential schools). It is trying to make amends. It apologized for its role in the residential schools in 1998, and pushed the Canadian government to apologize as well, which it finally did in 2008. I heard from other people at the TRC who said they wished their churches could deliver a statement as strong and powerful as the one the United Church gave. But while the United Church is trying to live out those apologies, it isn’t there yet.
1986 was the year I was born; the United Church has been working towards right relations for as long as I’ve been alive, yet those apologies have still not been accepted by the Aboriginal population of the United Church, though they have been acknowledged. (This too continues to stay with me, and I’m thinking about a separate blog post to expand on it.)
Lorna is a very grandmothery, maternal figure. She reminds me of my grandmother, though Lorna’s about 30 years younger. My grandmother died nearly 10 years ago, in 2004, the week before I turned 18. She would’ve been 100 years old this past November. I was with her when she died, along with most of my immediate family. I remember it vividly. Holding her clammy hand, thinking I felt her squeeze my own even though she had gone into a coma a few hours earlier. The death rattle.
My grandmother, Nanny as I called her, was like Lorna in stature and strength. She was a small woman, much smaller than the 5 foot 10.5 inches I would grow to be, but I always felt like a child when I was with her, safe and secure. And she was feisty! She’d tell it like it is, just like Lorna does. She’d talk about the Black & Tans in Ireland and the things that they did. I knew that she and her family, and others in rural Co. Cork and elsewhere, were often not allowed to speak their language, Irish Gaelic, in school or outside the house. But she tried to teach me a bit of the language, and I savoured those teaching moments, even as a young child. Today, I can still say things like “Thank you,” “How are you?” etc, but I’m nowhere near reclaiming the language the way many of my relatives who still live in the Gaeltacht regions of Ireland are.
I’m not trying to equate the experience of Aboriginal people with that of the Celtic population, but stories close to my heart help me to better understand the truth-telling of other peoples. I know that some have called the Celts the indigenous peoples of Europe. Even though my ancestors were not forcibly taken from their families and sent to schools where they were abused and beaten for speaking their language, language was still lost in Ireland; names were anglicized. This isn’t just the case with the Irish, but with many different groups both here in immigrant communities in Canada and around the world. It’s something in common that could build a bridge towards solidarity, especially among those people who don’t know much about the residential schools or see this whole thing as an “Indian problem.” Finding personal connections is the first step in recognizing the more systematic and severe experience of Aboriginal peoples here in North America. We shouldn’t only care because something similar happened to our own peoples; we should care because this horrible, horrible Canadian legacy happened to other human beings.
UPDATE: 10 days after the TRC ended in Edmonton, Lorna was in Toronto and we were able to film her speaking with Rev. Maggie McLeod about the importance of Aboriginal Women’s leadership:
I didn’t cry at the Truth & Reconciliation Commission in Edmonton this week.
Don’t get me wrong – I was moved. I welled up, from the tips of my toes to the top of my head. I wanted to cry. But I didn’t; the tears wouldn’t come.
I wish I’d shed them while I was part of this historic event. That I could’ve added my tears, and the tissues they were dried on, to the Sacred Fire like so many other participants did. That I could be part of such a beautiful and sacred ritual.
But the tears wouldn’t come.
I think it was partly from working throughout the event – from constantly taking photos and videos, sending tweets, writing Facebook posts, and recording notes so that I could write further, thoughtful reflections after the fact. Reflections like this.
When I’m in “work mode,” I put up a wall around me. I don’t let the emotions get to me, because I feel I need to be objective and rational and record the stories, and to get emotional would be to do a disservice to the people who’s stories I’m recording. I know this is likely flawed thinking, but it’s what I did when I was researching both my undergraduate and graduate dissertations – on the use of rape as a tool of war, and the rights of children conceived through rape during the Rwandan genocide, respectively.
I think, overall, it’s for self-protection. I numb myself to the stories. I take them in, I preserve them and protect them inside of me, and then I set them aside for another time. For when I feel that I can truly feel them.
And I know this is probably a very “White” way of dealing with emotion.
But the stories never leave – even while I continued working, they remained with me. Just below the surface.
And I don’t want them to ever leave.
I want to constantly be reminded of what my country, my church (both the one I was born into and the one I now consider home), and my people did to an entire civilization of numerous, diverse, and amazingly rich cultures.
I want to always remember the Métis woman who told the story about a relative who could only whisper “It wasn’t very good” when asked about the residential schools.
I want to remember the woman whose grandmother left school with a Grade 4 education, had a mental breakdown, and spent the rest of her life in psychiatric hospitals.
I want to remember the countless survivors, men and women alike, who told of returning to their communities, where 95% of the population had become alcoholics to deal with the trauma of having their children literally ripped out of their arms.
I want to remember the countless stories I heard of abuse – physical, mental, sexual and spiritual. Of the many rapes. The forced sterilizations. The neglect. The humiliation. The loss of language. The forced feeding. The shame.
It’s that shame that really hit me hardest. The shame that survivors said they felt, about everything that happened to them. The survivors who said they were dirty, unworthy, after being raped. It’s that shame – that second dose of victimization that perpetrators impart – that adds to my anger.
I know the tears will come. Maybe not today, but soon. Most likely when I find time to sit alone, to really look at the photos I took and truly watch – and listen to – the videos I shot. To listen to the testimonies I didn’t get to hear.
As I heard numerous times throughout the TRC, tears are nothing to be ashamed of. They are meant for healing, a way towards healing.
I don’t know if I’m ready for healing yet. I think I need to feel some of the pain first, to hold some of the shame and guilt and atrocities that my people perpetrated, if only so that I feel a need to constantly tell other people about it.
To convey what we did, so that it will never happen again.
Maybe then the tears will flow more freely.
Well, I’m back and I’m blogging about Indigenous Justice and Residential Schools. As you saw last year, I’ve been called “offensive as a Canadian” for speaking about the situation of Aboriginal peoples in this country today. And in the past.
This weekend, I’m attending Canada’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission. It’s the last national gathering, taking place in Edmonton, Alberta. I’m learning more and more about Canada’s shameful history of residential schools, when we tried “to kill the Indian in the child.”
But Aboriginal peoples are resilient. They are survivors. They are still here. The designers of the residential school system have failed.
I feel so privileged to be spending time with this amazing woman – Leading Elder Lorna Standingready – this weekend. Tomorrow I’m sitting down with her for an hour interview as she tells me her story of spending 10 years in residential schools.
Will write more tomorrow – there’s so much to say and so much still to learn. I am a non-Aboriginal witness, and that is a role I take very seriously. It’s the least I can do as I grapple with my own responsibility, and that of my ancestors, in the treatment of the First Nations people of Canada.
I warn you: this is the blog post in which I vent. The blog post that is controversial, is quite critical, and I admit is biased. It’s how I feel about all that has happened, and what my emotions are.
First, yesterday, we had a conversation about the blogs we wrote before coming here and the Facebook discussions we had about them. The facilitator asked me if he could use a conversation I had with another young leader, since it garnered the greatest number of comments. It started out as a blog post about the voices of homosexuals in Uganda being silenced. It elicited a very positive response re this human rights issue, with both me and another young leader “coming out” to the group. In fact, I said I was a bit worried about attending this conference because I’d been to a similar “young leaders” conference where I experience some homophobia, and now I felt silly about that because the response was so positive.
Then someone else jumped in. Someone who said LGBTQ people are spreading disease throughout society. And quoted those infamous Bible passages. Ignorant, yes. And I was surprised and saddened that I had to deal with this at a human rights conference based in Canada! Once I arrived here, I learned that said individual is not in fact Christian, but is Muslim. Which angers me to no end, that someone is using my holy book, when he is not of the same religion, to say that I am a sinner of one of the gravest of all sins!! And the Qur’an doesn’t even say anything about homosexuality!!
Then, today I did a presentation on Idle No More. In a very short amount of time, about 10 minutes (this was part of a larger workshop), I tried to give some context as to why Idle No More was founded and grew. I stated the fact of colonization, of genocidal policies that saw the deaths of the majority of the Aboriginal population in Canada. I began by asking if anyone knew who’s land we were currently on. Of course, no one did. I didn’t know until I looked it up myself, that this land is Kahnawake Mohawk Territory. I spoke of the residential schools, of cultural genocide, and tried to give a balanced approach by speaking about how my church, which happens to be the organization I work for, was complicit in these schools. How both the UCC and the Canadian government apologized for these schools, but that an apology is not enough in either case. What happens after the apology, to restore right relations, is what counts.
I tried as best I could to not speak on behalf of Aboriginal people. I showed videos of young people speaking about the movement, including an awesome rap video. I spoke about how I, as a white settler, enjoyed more funding for my education and my health care. I spoke about the amazing Cindy Blackstock and the government’s efforts to spy on her and derail her case against them, rather than actually look at the issues she raised. And I talked about Bill C-45, the women who started Idle No More, and stated INM’s vision as stated on their website.
I’m the only Canadian young leader at this conference. I carry this as a badge of honour and as a serious responsibility. It is not my job to put on a good show for the visiting young leaders, to pretend that Canada is this perfect example of democracy and respect for human rights when that is not the case. So I chose to do a case study on Idle No More, and to explain the situation as best I could, from what Aboriginal people have told me. Not to come up with solutions, not even to critique the movement at all. My part of the presentation was simply context-setting.
So I began my part of the presentation with a caveat. I said that Canada is a great country, that it does, by and large, a good job when it comes to human rights. But it is not perfect. And I hold it to a higher standard because (1) I am Canadian, so who else should do it? and (2) Canada is a democracy. It is not Syria or the DRC. It is a First World democracy and if it purports to be that, it should be that for all citizens.
Afterwards, one of the funders of this conference, a Canadian, who had been sitting in on this workshop told me that my presentation was “offensive as a Canadian.”
I was obviously upset when I heard this, as I was expecting some disagreement but not that my presentation was “offensive” to my country or as a Canadian. It smacked of the nationalistic sentiment that one should not criticize one’s country, out of loyalty or patriotism or whatever. I wish I’d said, “Y’know what I find offensive as a Canadian? The average standard of living for Aboriginal people.”
This person did apologize to me afterwards, twice. I understand that this person may get their back up when they hear criticism of Canada, but it still makes me wonder – this is a human rights conference, correct? It’s not a conference about how the rest of the world is violating human rights and Canada is so awesome. It’s a conference about the human rights of all citizens of all countries and, I thought, to acknowledge how minority groups in those countries are the most vulnerable to human rights abuses.
The other young leaders generally supported me. One of them even sent me this article after. I’m glad they were listening; I’m glad they got to hear a snippet of the truth and not only the “official party line.”
Finally, I recently discovered that the Centre for Israel & Jewish Affairs is one of the sponsors of this conference. Basically, they do not like the United Church of Canada, and have told Canadian Jews to have nothing to do with “The” United Church or United churches because of the recent decision to take economic action against Israeli settlement products. And I work for the UCC. So this could be interesting.
It hasn’t come up yet, but I sense there is a fear to bring it up. I’ve spoken to others who work/study at McGill and those attending the conference, and there’s a general feeling that speaking about the conflict in Palestine and Israel would be uncomfortably controversial, based on the opinions of some of the conference’s funders and sponsors. I hope Palestine comes up soon. I won’t be bringing it up, as I feel I need to fly under the radar a bit for my own sanity and emotional health. But if it is raised, I will not back down from what I feel is right – that Israel has a legitimate fear for its safety but that that does not justify collective punishment against the Palestinian people. Maybe throw in the fact that it is Canadian foreign policy that the settlements are illegal. And I hope that when it is raised, there will be calm discussion, rather than personal attacks or accusations of anti-Semitism.
So, this brings me to my final questions: Is this a human rights conference? Or is it a human rights conference for everyone except maybe LGBTQ people, Aboriginal people, and the Palestinians?