I know. I’m just a dumb white kid and a settler here, so I can’t possibly know what I’m talking about, right? I bet there’s even at least one person among you who would happily declare how much more indigenouser they are than I am. I get that almost daily, so I’m used to it. I freely disclose my settler status and my ancestry. I really don’t need reminding that I’m not an indigenous person—not that this fact has any bearing on whether or not I can understand or empathize with indigenous peoples.
I’ll hand it to you that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada is a suspect entity. I actually fully agree, having just about vomited in my mouth when Justice Sinclair said (on national television, no doubt!) that just because what’s happened in Canadian residential schools fits the definition of genocide given by the United Nations doesn’t mean that genocide has actually happened. In fact, I had a hard time typing that out without vomiting in my mouth. I don’t trust that man because he’s serving the colonial state power. I don’t trust the colonial state power because Obvious Reasons™. I trust the words of people like Pam Palmater, who listed several distinctive methods that European colonists prior to confederation and the federal government of Canada have used to enact genocide against indigenous peoples persistently over the past 500 years—and those are several reasons for each criterion of genocide under the plural definition set out by the United Nations in 1948.
Her voice echoes my own independently-formed thoughts on the subject. My reluctance to trust Sinclair, and my visceral disgust at what he said on national television, are rooted in my identity as someone with Jewish and Slavic ancestry, whose other-side-of-the-family is very likely host to at least one Nazi sympathizer during the occupation of Denmark — the chances are astronomically improbable that what little he has disclosed, and the nature of his severed ties to his (my) surviving family in Denmark, do not add up to this fact. I am separated by two generations from my ancestral homelands, traditions, languages, and cultures, which were persistently targeted for expropriation and extinction throughout history, but I nevertheless feel that I can actually wrap my head around the full scale of injustice that was the Canadian residential schools. The trans-generational effects of the trauma my family has endured have manifested in incest, alcoholism, lost languages, cultural assimilation, broken families, domestic violence, internalized colonialism, and severe mental health problems including but not limited to post-traumatic stress disorder throughout the past three generations. That’s actually what we’ve done to ourselves and each other with all the privilege afforded to us by not being targeted for extinction since the generation that immigrated here. Believe me when I say that I sincerely understand just how important the healing is.
And that’s what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (i.e., TRC) is for—taking steps towards healing the post-traumatic and trans-generational effects of residential schools in Canada. I don’t fully trust that TRC is going to give a sincere effort, but I do trust that the Indian Residential School Survivors Society (i.e., IRSSS) and Reconciliation Canada (i.e., RC) are going to. And why do I trust this? Because IRSSS and RC are actively working to represent the interests of residential school survivors who are on a journey to heal themselves in a way which engages the public to take part in educating themselves while there are still survivors alive to speak directly about their own experiences. The importance of this effort cannot be understated. These are the people whose narratives are central to the BC national event about to take place at the PNE.
I also understand and deeply respect the several elders in my extended family, and in my life in other capacities, who are themselves residential school survivors, who are simply refusing to take part in these important public education events. I don’t know if I could bring myself to assume that role if I were in their shoes, and even if I knew I was strong enough, I don’t know if I would want to endure all that trauma a second time. I’m having a hard enough time as it is, alone in a room with just one other person once a week.
ADDENDUM: There is also the matter of how conspicuously narrow this event’s focus really is, as several indigenous people in my life have a legitimate grievance from their own histories, which are being excluded from the focus of this event. This includes people who are reaching out, teaching traditional skills, and building meaningful bonds within their own community many decades after being separated by the foster care system, which placed them in non-indigenous homes where they received analogous cultural brain-washing not unlike that which residential schools were designed for. This even applies to some residential school survivors who are participating in the reconciliation events anyway.
I also know that there have actually been non-indigenous people who blatantly co-opted the histories and struggles of residential school survivors in a Great White Saviour campaign bordering on minstrelry, and that for this reason, there is a legitimate and palpable lack of trust towards any non-indigenous individual or entity. (EDIT: And let’s not forget the lawyers who fleeced residential school survivors.) I respect those survivors too, and honour their decision to remain at a distance. I do not take it personally, even if it hurts, when I am treated as either suspect or even predatory. It happens often enough that I have long ago had to learn how to deal with that on my own.
But yesterday I heard that one or more people are planning and organizing a counter-picket of the TRC events at the PNE. And today, I’ve observed that one of the possible reasons for this is that Reconciliation Canada is sponsored in part by a corporation whose pet project is oil pipelines. On the face of it, I fully appreciate the jarring sensation of disgust that this information evokes. A little deeper, I share the concern that this pipeline company might exploit its involvement with Reconciliation Canada at some future date, to serve itself. And a little deeper than that, I understand a feeling of contempt and betrayal I can only describe as fraternization. I would feel the same way, for instance, if IBM was a major corporate sponsor of an event that brought conditions of concentration camps to the public eye, as it was IBM that designed and supplied manual data-recording equipment to the Nazi regime, which used that equipment to kept meticulous records of its methodical ethnic cleansing efforts.
But who better to foot part of the bill for educating the public on the conditions and long-term impacts of residential schools, than an oil corporation? Especially one to which tax payer dollars have already been funnelled? Frankly, I think Big Oil should have to pay for the public to hear these histories. The federal government is already paying for the very existence of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, after all. I don’t know about you, but I’m having a hard time distinguishing in any meaningful way between the colonial state power and Big Oil corporations lately. In any event, of all the entities that should be carrying that burden, I’d put Big Oil and the chief of Ottawapiskat right at the top of that very short list. Maybe the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches could chip in some too, if only we could convince them to stop trying to proselytize while they’re at it.
I mean, really, I guess what I’m driving at is that there is a very long list of grievances to bear against the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Reconciliation Canada, and the PNE events that are coming up. But these events are about giving a platform to people who have been systematically silenced for far too long: residential school survivors themselves.
Please don’t seriously picket the TRC events at the PNE. Stand by the survivors who are standing up and speaking out against systematically orchestrated genocide in this country, for which no entity has been held responsible in any meaningful way while it has been swept under the rug. If you picket the events, you will be picketing the residential school survivors whose presence and voices are the entire purpose of the events themselves. Just don’t do it.
Update: Read a significantly more detailed analysis of the relationship of Big Oil to the oppression of indigenous peoples (and to a lesser extent, everyone else too) in this article. In all fairness, while I certainly appreciate the sentiments contained therein, the cash from Big Oil has already long ago been accepted and spent by Reconciliation Canada, and for that reason alone (i.e., the damage has already been done, rendering the reflexive anger futile even though a deeper anger is totally justified), I would have waited until after the reconciliation events to publish. I nevertheless hope that this is enough to satiate those who would otherwise be inclined to picket the events.