Between Not Forgetting and a Breathtaking Future: Notes from The Pathways to Reconciliation Conference

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This June I had the good fortune (and great privilege) of attending and participating in the Pathways to Reconciliation conference, an international gathering of more than 400 Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples at the University of Winnipeg, June 15-18 2016. A partnership between the University of Manitoba, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation and the U of W, Pathways was an opportunity to explore the contexts for, as well as the meanings, dimensions and implications of the idea of reconciliation. Speakers included Dr. Chief Robert Joseph, hereditary chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation in British Columbia, and Ambassador for Reconciliation Canada as well as being a member of the National Assembly of First Nations Elders Council; Manitoba MLA Wab Kinew; Justin Mohamed, the Chief Executive Officer of Reconciliation Australia; Cindy Blackstock of Gitksan First Nation in BC and Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada; and former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci who was instrumental in negotiating the Residential School Settlement Agreement in 2005.

My primary role was to present my paper A Library Matter of Genocide as part of a panel on “Institutional Approaches,” but I also chaired a session on “Museums, Memorials and Reconciliation.” As well — and for the first time — I “live-tweeted” my participation; far from being the distraction I’d assumed it to be, I found it to be an exceptionally useful and economical way to summarize, synthesize and communicate a speaker’s content, rather than just taking copious notes. What follows are some of my conference highlights adapted from my Twitter account.

In the first panel I attended, “Telling the Stories,” U of W professor of Modern Languages and Literatures Dr. Mary LeMaître spoke to the need for Dismantling Colonial Discourse,” and her research into online racist comments as a form of social discourse. As a librarian I was naturally interested in her observation that the origin of colonial discourse lies in 18th century scientific classifications and racial hierarchies. Colonial discourse, she observed, places all of us within subject-object relationships: subjects speak while objects are spoken about. Our colonial social discourse, she observed, helps make our colonial structure invisible to non-Indigenous Canadians, most of whom have never read the Indian Act. We all have role to play in shaping social discourse, she concluded, and in educating ourselves to challenge the colonial narrative.

I was also acutely aware during her talk of how my own profession of librarianship is implicated in these colonial narratives, in subject-object relationships and in the invisibility of the discursive functions of both to most non-Indigenous library users. Indeed these issues lie at the heart of my presentation 

TRC Researcher and Senior Advisor on Reconciliation at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation Paulette Regan payed tribute to and honoured the residential school survivors who have gifted us with their stories, adding that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission only captured a moment in time; it is not the last word. All of us are charged with carrying its work forward. While reconciliation must also include support for cultural and linguistic revitalization, reconciliation will never occur unless we are also reconciled with the Earth – meaning Canada and Canadians must decolonize its resource extraction economy.

This I realized also resonates with the ideas around deconstructing the term “decolonizing” — that it isn’t a metaphor, that it actually requires Canada to return sovereignty over the land to Indigenous peoples.

In a sometimes emotional presentation, Aboriginal Program Coordinator at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights Maeengan Linklater spoke on Residential Schools, Genocide, Recognition and the CMHR, as well as his lobbying efforts to institute a provincial “Indian Residential School Genocide Reconciliation Memorial Day.” He began by expressing his gratitude to the Pathfinders who told their stories of their experiences in the schools. Linklater spoke to the controversy over the Museum’s decision to avoid the word “genocide” when describing the residential school system, but argued that critics needed to direct their concerns at the government that funds and mandates the museum, not the museum itself. Linklater had submitted a bill for an IRS Reconciliation and Memorial Act to the Manitoba government in 2015; there has been no response as yet. However, MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette is apparently going to try to present a federal version of the Bill in the near future. Linklater closed by expressing his gratitude to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights for starting this dialogue.

Instituting such a holiday would be a powerful statement, one on par with the move in some American cities of doing away with Columbus Day and replacing it with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, or Native American Day.

In their presentation “We were Brave Children,” Dr. Rosemary Nagy of Nipissing University and residential school survivor Fredda Paul explored “childhood agential narratives” seeing the survivors’ narratives as ones of agency and resistance, rather than just of victimization. Nagy worked with Paul on his narrative; however, rather than tell his story for him, she indicated that he will be telling his own story in a forthcoming book. (Because Paul had been dismayed to learn that his TRC testimony was archived online without his knowledge, when it came time for him to tell his story I put my pen down).

The Thursday Luncheon Keynote speaker was Dr. Chief Robert Joseph, Hereditary Chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation, with his incredibly stirring speech “My Vision for a Reconciled Canada.” He began with an acknowledgment of — and we gave a standing ovation for — a group of residential school Survivors seated near the front of the room. Dr. Joseph then set out his vision: one in which reconciliation was understood not as a project or a goal but a core value to be embraced by all Canadians, all our lives. All Canadians need to come to terms with our collective past. Reconciliation is an intergenerational commitment; we need each other, and we are part of something great. A reconciled Canada must create modern Treaties where none exist. All Aboriginal people ever wanted, he said, was to be allowed to raise their own children; in a reconciled Canada, they will be able to once again. A reconciled Canada will have the power to change the world in what he described as “a future that is breathtaking, a shift of national consciousness – filled with a desire to be the people we say we are.”

In the Q&A after his speech, a Cree mother in the audience powerfully “called out” Canada for its child welfare genocide and Millenium Scoop that had taken her son away from her.

(One of the drawbacks of attending a conference hosted by your own university is that it all too easy to get called back the office; I was in a meeting the rest of the afternoon so missed that afternoon’s concurrent sessions).

On Friday morning the keynote speaker was former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci addressing the way forward to a new nation-to-nation relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples, which he says needs to be a joint federal and provincial project – not “either-or.” Recognition of this relationship must be on part of people and institutions, not just governments. The way forward must include change of attitudes involving education — but not just in schools – while children educated on history of IR Schools can help teach their parents. The way forward must also be principle-based, not merely transactional and include not forgetting the history of treatment of Indigenous peoples.

This essential task of “not forgetting” was the focus of the session I chaired on Museums, Memorials and Reconciliation. It featured four speakers either employed by or in partnership with the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

Julia Peristerakis, a Researcher-Curator at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, began by critiquing the modern project of museology for its long history of theft from and misrepresentation of Indigenous peoples. From the beginning, the Canadian Museum of Human Right sought to correct this through a “critical decolonizing” approach that integrates Indigenous voices and worldviews. The CMHR’s Indian residential school exhibit connects the schools with the Sixties scoop and current child welfare practices, as well as with other mass atrocities and moves to recognize it as genocide. Currently the CMHR is featuring temporary exhibit, “The Witness Blanket” a cedar panel monument to reconciliation. Reconciliation she said, requires reshaping historical narratives and museums have crucial role in challenging myth of peaceful settlement in Canada within framework of reconciliation.

Next, Julio Solórzano Foppa, Chair of the Memorial Para la Concordia in Guatemala spoke of interpreting and confronting memory of that country’s 36-year civil war through memorials. Guatemala’s Concord Memorial is a partnership of 10 civil society organizations commemorates the country’s Internal Armed Conflict and massacres; its process is deliberately not one of “reconciliation,” as the term implies “re-conciling”, a return to a past in which people were at peace, which in Guatemala did not exist. Rather they seek to build a “concord” between peoples, to create a new society. In addition to the construction of the Memorial Para la Concordia, the initiative includes a Memory Mapping project which documents over 500 plaques or monuments throughout Guatemala to acknowledge the conflict’s 200,000 victims, and these sites are now the location of Intergenerational Memory Dialogues. In Guatemala, reconciliation is non-ideological, bringing together people from the Left and Right, focusing on what is agreed upon, rather than on disagreement. Foppa added however that concord processes in Guatemala still need to do more to bridge racial and cultural divisions. One positive step in this direction is the phenomenal popularity of Guatemala’s all-female Alaide Foppa Orchestra (named after the speaker’s famous poet mother) which highlights female victims and role of women in reconciliation.

Foppa’s presentation was quite revelatory: I’d never parsed the term “reconciliation,” and from this perspective it would seem that perhaps Canada should have given more thought to adopting this as official terminology. There may not be an ideal previous state to which we can return, but we can work together on a concord for a better society in the future.

Another way in which women are dealing with the aftermath of Guatemala’s civil war was the subject of CMHR curator Armando Perla’s talk. In the 1980’s, widows and orphaned girls formed weaving cooperatives which have been producing Indigenous textiles for stores across the country and which have garnered interaction attention. When the CMHR approached the cooperatives with the idea of creating a documentary and virtual gallery of their workshops, the women come up with a brilliant counter-proposal: that the CMHR Boutique carry their textiles. When the documentary is released visitors will be able to purchase the textiles in the Museum.

The final session I attended as an audience member was on the UNDRIP (UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples) as a Framework for Reconciliation; and it was standing room only! It featured four speakers: Judge David Arnot, President of CASHRA; Isha Khan with Manitoba Human Rights Commission; Will David, a policy analyst for the Assembly of First Nations; and Amnesty International’s Craig Benjamin.

David got things off with a laugh and applause by stating that the Assembly of First Nations wants full adoption of UNDRIP. (Pause). “That’s it!” International and domestic laws he notes, have been illegitimately built on fiction of Colonial “Doctrine of Discovery“; correcting this legacy through Indigenous sovereignty will mean Nation(s) to Nation relationships – stressing the multiplicity of Indigenous cultures.

Arnot addressed the Intersections of Indigenous rights with Treaty and Human rights, which he introduced as a Venn Diagram. He began with the wry observation that a 99% rate of ignorance about Treaties on the part of non-Indigenous people doesn’t prevent 100% of them from having an opinion about them. The UN Convention of the Rights of the Child stipulates right to know about rights, and on this, he said, human rights commissions have failed particularly in terms of recognizing the interconnections between Indigenous, human and treaty rights. What is needed is need K-12 education on the foundation of knowledge and understanding, hence of empathy, respect, harmony and reconciliation, which he called a Pedagogy of Respect.

Isha Khan urged the audience to  reach out to Indigenous people but not to worry so much about doing or saying the wrong thing — invite an Elder to your organization and “ask really dumb questions!”

Amnesty International’s Craig Benjamin added that each principle of UNDRIP a matter of life and death for Indigenous peoples. It took 20 years to pass UNDRIP because of colonial nation state intransigence. We all need to transcend and transform the limitations of Canadian law: he finds troubling that Canada’s official wording of adoption of UNDRIP says it is contingent on “domestic law.”

In addition to my own presentation in the “Institutional Approaches” panel, Mary-Ann Clarke delivered an often devastating paper on her professional and personal experiences with Child and Family Services, arguing that CFS needs to withdraw from all Aboriginal family services within two generations, replacing its policing function with general services and supports, i.e., housing, counselling, health, mental health etc.

I was disappointed that my session coincided with that of my colleagues Monique Woroniak and Ashlyn Haglund, who reported on their experiences creating the amazing Groundwork for Change website, which offers non-Indigenous Canadians a primer on colonization, racism, white privilege and Indigenous sovereignty.

The conference as a whole was so rich and so necessary there seemed to be a general consensus among the participants I spoke with that it shouldn’t be a one-time occurrence, but rather a regular event. Joining with so many hundreds of other people – Indigenous and non-Indigenous, Canadians and people from around the world – was a truly transformative experience, and I’m grateful to the organizers and all the speakers for sharing so much with us. Gathered as we were for the purposes of “not forgetting” and working towards reconciliation (and a concord) — what Dr. Chief Robert Joseph described as a “brilliant future” that can “change the world” — one couldn’t help but feel a part of that future.

[Image credit: University of Winnipeg, Flickr]